Maria Varela – USA

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Maria Varela has been a community organizer for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1962 when she joined the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. Assigned to Selma Alabama, Varela’s job was to teach literacy. Instead she found herself a student of the rich African American culture of the black belt south. Dissatisfied with existing literacy materials, Varela began to create filmstrips and photo books that proved useful both in training community leaders and teaching literacy … (full text).

She says: “Breakthroughs are possible only if we can gather the courage to risk stepping outside our colonized worldviews” … and: … She argues:”Collaboration can provide the opportunity for the kind of cross-cultural communication that is necessary to address social, economic, and environmental problems … But unless the issues of race, class, and culture are faced head-on, I question whether collaboration can make a dent in deeply held ethnocentrism, rooted in still deeper historical legacies. Breakthroughs are possible, but only if we can gather the courage to risk stepping outside our colonized worldviews” … (both on 1000peacewomen).

Her profile on LinkedIn.


Maria Varela – USA

She works for Rural Resources Group.

… TOPPENISH – The Yakima Valley’s economic future does not rest on the shoulders of farmers, ranchers or tourism developers. National rural resources expert Maria Varela says it rests, instead, in each Valley community’s ability to teach a diverse population the ABCs of economic literacy. The lessons are worthy of people of all ages and cultures, and could start being taught as early as middle school or junior high, she adds. Varela’s message was directed to the graduating class of Heritage College last weekend. In an interview, Varela says she gained as much from the graduates as they might have gained from her … (full text).

The book: Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities, by Frederic Sargent, Paul Lusk, Jose Rivera, Maria Varela.

Find her and her publications on amazon; on Google Book-search; on Google Group-search.

The Google download-books:

Women of Color, By Lillian Comas-Díaz, Beverly Greene, 1994, 518 pages;

Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, By Matt S. Meier, Margo Gutiérrez, 2000, 293 pages.

… As a community organizer, Maria Varela specializes in small miracles. “What I do is to unlock people’s hopes and abilities,” she says of her part in the work of establishing a series of successful self-help ventures that have improved the lives of the people of her community without compromising their cherished rural traditions. While Varela prefers to go about her business without fanfare, her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last summer she was honored with a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a so-called genius award with a $305,000 no-strings-attached stipend that left her flustered and—no use denying it—thrilled. “I was stunned that they chose a community organizer, because community work is not often recognized” … (full text).

She writes: Definitions by Maria Varela:

  • 5. nikojunkie – One smitten with, obsessed by, in love with Nikolai Fraiture, bass player and god-like beauty, of the Strokes. NOT me…  Jun 23, 2006
  • 4. Paul Banks – Lead singer of dirge band Interpol. Blonde, blue-eyed and beauty marked this man is a Slavic-looking stunner. His v…  Nov 15, 2003
  • 3. Julian Casablancas – Incredibly gifted Puerto-Rican looking singer and songwriter for NY band the Strokes. His dad was a creep; he’s not….  Nov 15, 2003
  • 2. the libertines – Ostensibly an English band comprised of four members but only two are ever seen: look up Carlos Barat and Pete Dohert…  Nov 15, 2003
  • 1. nikolai fraiture – Franco-Russian soft-haired and soft-spoken bassist for the Strokes. Often found in the background of photos and obsc

… (on Urban Dictionary).

… One morning a few weeks ago Maria Varela received a telephone call informing her that after a lifetime of working with the poor, she suddenly had become rich. It was a surprise notification from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago that she had received a $305,000 grant. She was told that the money was for her personal use so she could continue her efforts with the corporation she had started to create profitable businesses for the sheep herders, weavers and housewives of the impoverished Chama Valley in northern New Mexico. “At first I thought it was a hoax”, Ms. Varela said, “and so I didn’t tell anybody about it. Then I started feeling like a tremendous burden had been taken off my shoulders. My line of work does not exactly pay very well, and it doesn’t provide any retirement benefits”. She is to receive the money over five years in quarterly checks. Ms. Varela, along with her husband, who is a construction worker, and their 11-year-old daughter lives in a trailer without running water. She said the first check went to pay bills and the second may as well … (full text).

(On 1000peacewomen): Maria Varela (born 1940) is an economist, photographer, visionary, and organizer extraordinaire. Now based in Albuquerque, she first worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a cutting-edge civil rights organization.

In 1968 she moved to northern New Mexico, a poor rural region. She has cofounded, advised, and inspired transformative projects that link economic, cultural, and environmental justice and sustainability. Best known is Ganados Del Valle, a cooperative of sheepherders, weavers, and craftspeople that has revitalized the economy of the Chama valley. Maria Varela is the oldest of five daughters.

Her mother is Irish American, and her father – a chemical engineer – emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Born in 1940, she grew up in several Eastern and Midwest cities and attended Alverno College in Milwaukee, a Catholic women’s college, where she was president of the student body. In her teens she became active in Young Christian Students (YCS), a progressive Catholic social justice organization. She worked on the staff of YCS after graduation. A year later, in 1962, she joined the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the civil rights organization that sparked the Black Power movement. She has since worked in many land-based struggles and organizations with Hispano people of the rural southwest.

The heart of Maria’s work is promoting sustainable development in poor rural communities, including agriculture, human and environmental health, cultural survival, and environmental conservation and restoration. Her broader framework concerns social, economic, and environmental justice – providing for genuine security.

In 1961 when Maria first started her organizing work, racial segregation was legal and totally institutionalized in southern states. The south, with a greater dependence on a rural economy, was much poorer than the north. Most African-Americans earned a pittance and lived in great material poverty. The civil rights movement was gaining ground at this time, and drawing people from both northern and southern states to challenge racial segregation. Civil rights organizers conducted literacy classes for disenfranchised Black people in southern states so they could pass racist voter-registration tests. This world-renowned movement challenged white supremacy in the most conservative part of the country.

It was inspiring, empowering, and also dangerous. Conservative white communities threatened, intimidated, insulted, jailed, and beat up civil rights organizers and supporters. A significant number were killed as a result of this work. Sexist ideas regarding women’s “appropriate place” also made this work difficult for women. Maria was one of only two Latinas who joined SNCC, a key civil rights organization. She worked for five years in southern states, starting in Selma, Alabama, in 1962. As a Latina in the United States, Maria grew up in a highly racist society. She was arrested and jailed several times in Mississippi as a result of her work with SNCC.

By 1968 the focus of the civil rights movement was shifting. Maria Varela moved to northern New Mexico to work with families in rural communities who had lived there for generations under land grants from Spain and then Mexico, before this area became part of the United States. From the mid-1800s, incursions of U.S. ranchers, corporations, and government agencies appropriated land that had been deeded to Hispano communities. These land grants were supposedly guaranteed under the 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo between Mexico and the U.S., but this treaty, like those with Native American nations, was not respected or upheld.

By the 1960s, northern New Mexico was chronically poor, as families had subdivided the land left to them. Many farms were not economically viable. Out migration, especially of young people, was very high. Inspired by civil rights movements in the south, land-grant activists in northern New Mexico turned to civil disobedience in the late 1960s to protest the earlier appropriation of land by incomers, after New Mexico became part of the United States. Maria worked for Alianza Federal de Los Pueblos in 1968. She became Program Director of a new agricultural cooperative (1969-1975), then co-founded and directed a health clinic (1975-1979).

Around this time she began talking with community members about a bigger project that would combine their traditional pastoral skills and culture with modern marketing methods. This vision slowly took shape, building on the experience, track record, and trust developed through the agricultural cooperative and the clinic. The project was Ganados del Valle (Livestock of the Valley). Maria was a founder member and a major fundraiser (1981-1992), a program director (1992-96), the executive director (1996-97), and is now a board member and advisor.

Gandaos del Valle in Los Ojos, northern New Mexico, exemplifies Maria’s organizing, her analysis, and her principles. Ganados del Valle has turned around the economy of the Chama valley region by linking economic, cultural, and environmental sustainability and survival. Interconnected projects include the breeding of Churro sheep, a near extinct breed well-suited to the area, and one that produces a long, lustrous fleece; Tierra Wools, a women’s cooperative of hand-loom weavers; Rio Arriba Wool Washing that washes locally-produced fleeces for spinning and dyeing; Pastores Collections that makes comforters and pillows from local wool; Pastores Lamb that produces organic lamb; a General Store and meeting place; and Otra Vuelta, a small business that makes mats and other products from used tires, another rural “resource.” In support of these businesses and projects, Ganados established a loan fund, a scholarship fund, a land fund, a work-based college program, and many workshops and opportunities for training and teaching.

This part of New Mexico is extremely beautiful and “ripe” for commercial tourist development. Ganados del Valle and other local communities successfully organized opposition to a proposed ski resort in the area. This would have placed a tremendous burden on local water supplies. It would have generated heavy traffic, trash, and pollution, in exchange for seasonal minimum-wage jobs for local people. By organizing against the ski resort, the community took control of its own economic development against prevailing economic trends.

Traditionally, farmers in this region grazed their flocks on the upland areas each summer while they grew winter fodder crops on their farms in the valley bottom. As Ganados members have increased their flocks they have needed more summertime grazing land. Over the past 150 years, the upland areas have been taken over by ranchers, corporate interests, and institutional landowners like the U.S. Forest Service. Some of these upland areas have been designated National Forests to conserve wildlife habitat. Ganados families have been farming in this area for many generations but have come into conflict with environmentalists – often recent residents of New Mexico – over the issue of grazing vs. wildlife habitat. In desperation over their lack of access to upland grazing, Ganados sheepherders decided to take direct action and to move their flocks onto forest land, which provoked a confrontation with government officials and environmentalists. Maria has been a key figure in trying to change public policy and the thinking of mainstream environmental groups in support of local sheepherders …

… Maria is a dedicated and gifted organizer, a brilliant thinker and planner, and a visionary. She believes in grassroots change through the empowerment of ordinary people. She is a committed collaborator who takes the long view. Her work and talents have been recognized through many awards, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as a “genius award,” 1990-95), the Aspen Institute Rural Policy Studies Award (1986), the Governor’s Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women (1991), Preservation of Traditional Arts Award (1993), Hispanic Leadership Award (1995), and the Hulbert Center for Southwestern Studies Endowed Chair at Colorado College (1997-98). She has been the subject of a Smithsonian magazine article on conflicts between environmentalists and land-based people, was listed as “Hero for Hard Times” by Mother Jones magazine, and inducted into the “Bad Girl Hall of Fame” by Ms Magazine.

Her teaching, writing, and photography all communicate her vision of economic, cultural, and environmental justice and sustainability to wider audiences. Maria has been a part-time faculty member at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning (from 1984); a faculty member at Hulbert Center for Southwestern Studies, Colorado College; and a key contributor to a series of national-level workshops on women’s economic development sponsored by the Ms.

Foundation in the 1990s which drew participants from across the country.

Maria Varela has a legacy of vibrant practical projects especially Ganados del Valle, as described above. Many hundreds of people visit Los Ojos each year and patronize the businesses in person or through mail order. This project has become a model for other rural communities. It exemplifies principles of community organizing and community empowerment, and there is much to learn from the analysis and strategizing that went into it. Long-term changes in land-use policies in the National Forests of northern New Mexico that recognize local agro-pastoral communities as part of the area’s ecosystem, are still to come. When this happens, Maria Varela should get credit for helping environmentalists and policy makers to take a broader view of environmental conservation and restoration.

Many people, especially Hispano families in the rural southwest, have benefited directly from her knowledge, her organizing, and the projects she has initiated.

Those in Los Ojos have benefited from the community health clinic, the livestock and weaving businesses, and other projects and funds associated with Ganados del Valle.

Maria Varela works as a consultant and advisor to many small communities and organizations throughout the rural southwest, including First Nations/Ramah Navajo Weavers (AZ), Dine Be Iina (AZ), the Ranchers Choice Cooperative (Sanford, CO), and the Rural Development and Finance Corporation (San Antonio, TX).

Those who have worked alongside Maria Varela, as co-workers and collaborators, have shared closely in the challenges and joys of this creative work. Her knowledge and experience of political organizing, and her vision of community empowerment and community-based economics has benefited those she has trained and taught. The story of Ganados del Valle has inspired many students, organizers, farmers, and urban residents in the southwest and across the country.

In addition, Maria Varela has contributed to the training of a new generation of organizers. She has helped to influence and sustain several state and national-level institutions that support appropriate rural development through her membership and participation, including the National Rural Center (Washington, DC), the Consumer Cooperative Development Corporation (Washington, DC), the National Rural Development Finance Corporation (Washington, DC), the Center for Community Change (Washington, DC), New Mexico Community Foundation (NM), and the Ms Foundation (New York).

Her photographs of the civil rights movements in the south have been exhibited in many locations, most notably the New York Public Library (1968) and the prestigious Smithsonian Institution (March 1980). Photographs of the land struggles in northern New Mexico are part of a 1996 PBS documentary: Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Through her teaching, publishing, and photography Maria Varela has reached a wider audience with information and inspiration.

Maria Varela’s deep-rooted commitment to social and economic justice, and democratic community empowerment, exemplifies peace work in the most positive sense. Her integration of economic, cultural, and environmental justice and sustainability serves as a model of genuine security. She has made a magnificent contribution to this long-term, patient, collaborative work. (on 1000peacewomen).

… Tierra Wools is the name of a decade old Northern New Mexico based weaving cooperative of Hispanas [3] based in the Chama Valley in the village of Los Ojos. In 1981 the cooperative existed as an idea in the minds of three people. In 1992 it operated as a quarter million dollar local economic development venture consisting of thirty workers. Of these workers, there are twenty-nine women and one man; most of the women are Hispanas of mestiza ancestry; two are Indias; and two of the women are Anglo. Their ages range from eighteen to sixty. They are single women and married women, mothers and grandmothers, and many come from families that have lived in the area for more than two generations. Some of the weavers learned their art at their grandmothers’ knees and others are new to the art form. They each brought a commitment to making Tierra Wools a success whose accomplishments, in turn, meant a number of positive things for the villagers. Tierra Wools was begun as a means of economic survival; the weaving cooperative was created to provide an economic form of community. The growing membership of women and their effective creative collaborations have provided the Hispanas with a certain kind of economic agency. That this small group of committed villagers would, with no personal capital, limited or no weaving skills, and no marketing experience, successfully establish and maintain a small business in a world of increased globalization of capital is remarkably significant. However, the achievements of this venture have been long in coming. In spite of its seemingly large annual income, the Hispanas’ weaving cooperative members exist close to the economic edge. The most successful weaver’s annual salary is no more than $17,000. As a young business venture, Tierra Wools is most vulnerable to the current trajectory of an economic recession; and because they continue to operate almost exclusively out of their isolated store-front offices in Los Ojos, a rural village that is almost three hours north of Santa Fé, they are highly dependent on seasonal tourism. This reliance on tourist travel means that their peak periods of positive cash flow are the spring and summer months. They make very little money during the winter when the mountainous roads leading to the village are snow-bound … (full text).


Tierra Wools – Los Ojos Handweavers, LLC, a weavers, growers, washers, spinners owned company;


Southwest Marketing Network – Expanding Markets for Southwest, Small-Scale, Alternative, and Minority Producers: First Annual Conference;

ED400215 – Las Mujeres: Mexican American/Chicana Women. Photographs and Biographies of Seventeen Women from the Spanish Colonial Period to the Present. Revised Edition. (on ERIC Education nResources Information Center);

Associates of the RURAL RESOURCES GROUP, Australia.

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