Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (January 15) is not merely a day to remember a remarkable man and his historical achievements, but an opportunity for us to come together as a nation and examine the meaning of those achievements; to ask how far we’ve come since those turbulent times and consider the work we still have ahead of us. And while it’s a day of particular resonance for members of the African-American community for whom King spoke, fought and ultimately died, Latinos of all colors also owe a great debt to his example in our own struggle for equality and civil rights in this country.
Yet few may realize that in addition to fighting alongside our own leaders like César Chávez and Don Pedro Albizu Campos, there were a handful of brave Latinos actively fighting for the cause of African-American civil rights in the American South throughout the 1960s. So, for this week’s Throwback Thursday we pay homage to those trailblazers and take a look back at the work of María Varela: an early Chicana civil rights pioneer, writer, photographer, filmmaker, and community organizer who dedicated part of her life to the cause of oppressed African-American communities in rural Alabama and Mississippi.
Born in Chicago to a Mexican father and Irish-American mother, Varela began her activist career as national leader of the Chicago-based Young Christian Students (YCS), an international organization actively engaged in the struggle against racism, economic injustice, and war that collaborated closely with the now-infamous Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In fact, Varela is credited with co-authoring the momentous 1962 Port Huron Statement that laid the groundwork for student activism in the decade to come.
It was her activism that ultimately brought Varela to the South, and as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) she was eventually assigned to the ground-zero of Selma, Alabama where she lived from 1963-1965. It was this serendipitous placement in a community that was the heart of the struggle that allowed her document the tense environment of 1964’s Freedom Summer. There she dedicated herself to training community leaders throughout the region using film strips and photo books that incorporated local vernacular to transmit organizing techniques and promote literacy amongst the poor rural population. While the film strips have unfortunately been lost over time (Varela thinks they may be in her garage somewhere), her photos managed to transcend their immediate context and have since become timeless documents of the Civil Rights era.
In 1967 — a year before King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee — Varela was asked to help organize the Hispano land rights movement in northern New Mexico, where she spent 35 years leading community-based resistance to encroachments on the Hispano’s traditional shepherding way of life. Known as a groundbreaking community organizer, Varela was awarded a Macarthur Genius Grant in 1991 and was one of 1000 women nominated collectively for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 by a women’s advocacy group. Today, in addition to continuing her support for community struggles throughout northern New Mexico, Varela is a writer and teacher based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As Latinos and as human beings, it is through Varela’s example that we see clearly the essential commonalities in our diverse struggles. As King himself wrote in a telegram sent to César Chávez in 1966, “Our separate struggles are really one — a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”