Maria Varela Captures The Chicano Movement

Maria Varela began her community organizing career over 50 years ago when she joined the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee in 1963. Initially assigned to Selma, Alabama, Varela’s job was to develop a voter literacy program. Dissatisfied with the white middle class portrayals in literacy materials, Varela began creating training materials that reflected black people’s lifestyles. After the notorious Lowndes County Sheriff Jim Clark shut the program down by arresting Varela’s project staff, she moved to Mississippi and spent the next 5 years there responding to SNCC organizers’ requests for training materials.

Varela had a long and storied career as a Chicana who went south in the early 60s to photograph the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as volunteers worked to register black voters in Mississippi and Alabama. In 1968, she came to D.C. with a contingent of Chicanos who’d come to participate in several Poor People’s Campaign marches. She doesn’t remember the little paper girl’s name, but she says, “This might have been the time that everyone emptied out to go up to Arlington Cemetery to honor Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated two weeks before.”

50 years ago, a Chicano publication named La Raza was launched as a newspaper, and chronicled a turbulent decade between 1967-1977, as young Mexican Americans in Southern California sought to empower their communities. The Autry Museum of the American West will unveil an exhibit on La Raza and the societal change it sought with a huge trove of previously unreleased photos that give a very nuanced portrait of a movement and its people. Opens 16 September, runs through 10 February 2019.

One of the most memorable was taken by one of a handful of women photographers, including Maria Varela’s portrait of a little girl hawking La Raza at the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. is a standout for its energy and its size—it’s one of the photos that have been blown up into a stele-sized image. Published in Los Angeles from 1967-1977, the influential bilingual newspaper La Raza provided a voice to the Chicano Rights Movement. La Raza engaged photographers not only as journalists but also as artists and activists to capture the definitive moments, key players, and signs and symbols of Chicano activism. The archive of nearly 25,000 images created by these photographers, now housed at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, provides the foundation for an exhibition exploring photography’s role in articulating the social and  political concerns of the Chicano Movement during a pivotal time in the art and history of the United States. LA RAZA is the most sustained examination to date of both the photography and the alternative press of the Chicano Movement, positioning photography not only as an artistic medium but also as a powerful tool of social activism.