Macarthur Grant Winner Maria Varela Shepherds a Rural New Mexico Community Toward Economic Rebirth

updated 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 01:00AM

Sunset in Los Ojos, N. Mex., finds Maria Varela, 50, preparing for a celebration. Dressed in boots, jeans and a torn flannel shirt, she is mopping the battered wooden floor of a century-old adobe building on Los Ojos's only paved street. In a few hours a couple of hundred townspeople and folks from surrounding areas will file into the building to be at its reopening as Pastores Feed and General Store. There will be guitarists and singers, coffee, home-baked goods and a blessing from the local priest.

To big-city dwellers or mall-hopping suburbanites, the opening of a little grocery store may not seem a monumental event. But in the Chama Valley of northern New Mexico, where the population density averages six persons per square mile and some residents must drive 100 miles for provisions, the ability to buy a tin of evaporated milk or a stick of butter after just a short walk is a small miracle.

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."

Varela's national recognition stems from her efforts as planner for Ganados del Valle ("Livestock Growers of the Valley"), a community ranching cooperative of which she was one of three founders seven years ago. Begun as a joint venture in which sheep ranchers pooled their flocks and hired a sheepherder to save on overhead, Ganados now involves more than 50 local families in a network of small enterprises, including a wool-washing business, a weaving cooperative and Pastores Lamb, which sells organically grown meats to groceries and gourmet restaurants in Santa Fe and Taos.

Typical of how a Ganados business works is Tierra Wools, which resurrected a 300-year-old Rio Grande weaving tradition to produce hand-dyed and hand-woven blankets, rugs and apparel. Starting with two spinning wheels, four looms and an $18,000 Ganados loan in 1983, Tierra Wools now grosses $250,000 a year, selling one-of-a-kind pieces for up to $3,000 each. It employs 23 women, eight of them now part owners.

In the Chama Valley, one of the poorest rural regions in the nation (unemployment runs up to 20 percent), a success such as Tierra Wools spells economic relief. "This community is very family-oriented," Varela says. "People don't want their kids to leave, but they don't want them to feel like failures if they stay. The fact that their kids can stay here and learn skills they can use here, that's been real important to this community."

And that importance goes beyond paychecks, according to Father Charlie Martinez, the priest at Los Ojos's San Jose Church. "I think Ganados has restored a sense of pride," says Martinez, who was born and reared in the valley. "There's a new spirit, and it's tied to the economic options. I can feel it in the people. There's a renewal, a sense of confidence."

Varela is not a native of the valley, but by the time she arrived in these parts 23 year ago, she was already a seasoned social activist. "I'm a product of the '60s," she says. "I saw the question asked in the civil rights movement of whether people can determine their own lives. Then the focus shifted away from the people to Washington, and the question never got answered. It seems to me this is a place where we can see the drama played out—the drama of what happens when a community decides it's going to do something and watching it happen."

One of five daughters born to a chemical engineer (her father emigrated from Mexico; her mother is Irish-American), Maria grew up in Chicago and took an early interest in the Catholic social service movement. After graduating from Milwaukee's Alverno College with a degree in secondary education in 1961, she went to Alabama and Mississippi to join the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the struggle for voting rights for blacks. In 1967 she relocated to New Mexico. Her first project was helping local activists establish a health clinic, which opened in 1969, and then adding the state's first rural birthing center four years later.

Ganados grew from Varela's studies at the University of Massachusetts, where in 1981 she earned a degree in rural development and regional planning. "Maria is very innovative, very sharp," says Gumercindo Salazar, a co-founder of the co-op. "She's good at getting people involved and making them feel some ownership in what they're doing." Varela is adept at securing funds from such organizations as the Ford Foundation and from individuals like Robert Redford. After Redford finished directing The Milagro Beanfield War in northern New Mexico, he let Ganados co-sponsor the film's 1988 premiere in Santa Fe, an event that raised $60,000.

Varela never contemplated getting rich herself. Today she is still seen bouncing down dusty roads in a battered Subaru that has logged more than 100,000 miles. She and her husband, Lorenzo Zuniga Jr., 45, a plumber, and daughter, Sabina, 11, live in a mobile home in nearby La Puente. They have been building a house there since 1979, but the project moves along pokily because they're doing the work themselves, as limited free time allows.

Varela intends to use her MacArthur grant to fund her daughter's education and to secure a comfortable retirement for herself and her husband—someday. There remains much to do at Ganados, including settling an unresolved dispute with federal and state officials over a grazing range on public lands for the co-op's 2,400 sheep. Whatever the challenge, Varela's philosophy remains steadfast: "I believe that if you provide information, training and a sense of hope, the people themselves will take their communities where they need to go. I say we don't do economic development. We develop people to develop the economy."

—Dan Chu, Leslie Linthicum in Los Ojos

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