By Ramona Martinez
In “Time to Get Ready: fotografía social,” a National Museum of Mexican Art exhibit on view at The Fralin Museum of Art, you will find all the classic elements one expects in a “good” photography show. Maria Varela’s photographs are compositionally sophisticated and emotionally intimate. They are candids, yet they look like movie stills. They look like they were taken by someone who is very serious about all the aesthetic choices that make up the art of photography.
But Varela is quick to note that she is not an artist, nor is she a journalist. One of the few Latinx activists involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Varela was an organizer who started taking photographs for the educational materials she was producing for black workers in the South. Like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the movement, she was motivated by her religious beliefs to take an active role in dismantling white supremacy.
She began her career organizing for the Young Christian Students, a progressive Catholic advocacy group informed by liberation theology. “Which holds,” Varela said at a recent talk at The Fralin, “that as Christians, our vocation is to be actively engaged in dismantling racism, economic injustice, anti-democratic forces, and unjust wars.”
Through this work, she met members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was black-led, but it welcomed any activist who was “willing to face the dangers.” The largely Baptist committee wanted Varela to go to Selma, where a Catholic priest was leading voter registration efforts. She balked.
“Me to Selma, that has a nutso sheriff that would just as soon kill a movement worker as to go through the paperwork to put him in jail? I did not want to do this,” says Varela. But the leadership and mission of SNCC inspired her. “I didn’t want to make a fool of myself and reveal what a chicken I was to these veterans of several dangerous campaigns.” She agreed to go.
When Varela arrived in the fall of 1963, activists were focused on teaching black adults how to read. Literacy tests had been devised to keep them from voting in Alabama, and so Varela was tasked with developing an adult literacy program to be run out of the St. Elizabeth Parish. The reading materials that existed for adult learners were insulting on many levels. Primarily they were about middle-class white people going through their embarrassingly bourgeois day, and the plots (if you could call them that) were juvenile. The books were illustrated and made people feel like they were reading children’s books.
Varela wanted to create materials that were appropriate and motivating. While organizing in Alabama and Mississippi, she’d learned that people were hungry for information on how to better their lives. In addition to voting, they wanted to know about housing cooperatives and agriculture. The Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964 did away with literacy tests, so Varela proposed to SNCC leadership that she make educational and training materials about people who had organized successful community projects. She wanted to showcase everyday black leaders making social or economic change.
The story of how a group of okra farmers formed their own agricultural co-op in Batesville, Mississippi, formed the basis of Something Of Our Own, Varela’s first self-published book. It gave readers an idea of what went into starting a co-op, as well as the racism they might encounter while trying to create a black-run business. Illustrated with photographs from the field, it was such a big hit that leaders at mass meetings begged organizers not to pass them out too early, or else they’d lose the attention of their audience.
As she continued to publish, she recruited other SNCC photographers to take images for her pamphlets. But they got sick of doing her favors, and suggested she learn to take pictures herself. She trained with Matt Heron, who ran the Southern Documentary Project in New Orleans. There Varela discovered the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who photographed migrants and workers in the 1930s.
“I never thought of myself as capable of creating such compelling images,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to make practical photos, useful to movement organizers. But the Lange and Evans images were ever-present ghosts in the darkroom, challenging me to see differently.”
From that point on, Varela would organize and take pictures. She photographed several marches, including the 1966 Meredith March against Fear, where the term “Black Power” was first heard. She documented some truly significant moments, all while being targeted by sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan. Later, she worked with Reies López Tijerina and the Land Grant movement in New Mexico, and spent 45 years helping southwestern Latinx communities establish sustainable farms. Photos of this work can also be seen at The Fralin.
It’s hard to get the full story of Varela’s life from panels on museum walls. Her backstory is essential to understanding and appreciating her work, and her photography is a means to an end, a way of creating images of resistance for the resisters. With that in mind, the beauty of Varela’s images seems like an unexpected blessing. But maybe it’s not so unexpected: The goal of a life spent in service is to leave the world more beautiful than it was before. “Time to Get Ready: fotografía social” is evidence that Maria Varela did just that.
Social justice activist Maria Varela’s “Time to Get Ready: fotografía social” is at The Fralin Museum of Art through January 5.