Roots of Organizing: A Conversation Between SNCC Field Secretaries Worth Long and Maria Varela
After their time in SNCC, Maria Varela and Worth Long continued to live by the tenants of embedding themselves in the local community, listening to the needs of the community, and helping foster local leadership that empowered people to take control of their lives. Both of them found that to be rooted in the local culture. Worth Long recalled, “I look at culture from the standpoint of power, how it will and can empower people. Song can give you the strength to go out and fight for your liberation. Culture is that for me.”
After living in northern New Mexico for a number of years and organizing a successful health clinic, Maria Varela was invited for an informal conversation with local sheep farmer Antonio Manzanares and school teacher Guercindo Salazar. It was 1981, and the two were interested in creating an alternative to the state’s economic development plan. Due to the tourist and recreational economies, land prices were being artificially inflated and low-wage, seasonal jobs were making it difficult for many long-time residents to afford to stay. Varela, Manzanares, and Salazar formed Ganados del Valle, a non-profit that acted as the nucleus for multiple interrelated economic development projects. These involved the raising the near-extinct Navajo-Churro sheep; washing, dyeing, spinning, and weaving the wool; selling natural lamb; and a reuse center for old tires that would have otherwise become waste.
That’s what SNCC brought to the scene a lot; was the alternative, parallel way of doing things. We’re not going to work within the system because it’s corrupt. It’s racist. And it’s exploitative. So let’s do our own.
Ganados del Valle and Tierra Wools developed strategies to preserve the local culture and traditional economy, similar to the work Varela had done in SNCC.
We Made the Market Come to Us
Creating this parallel way of doing things was no easy task. Environmentalists were making a push to ban all grazing on public lands, and the State Game Commission was saying the sheep’s presence would scare off elk and hurt the hunting and fishing economy. They were also up against the County Extension Service, who were telling them to raise a different breed, plant California-germinated seeds, and put out poison to ward off predators.
With each of these groups, there was a disconnect between the vision for the land and the actual needs of the land and its people. And so Ganados del Valle dug in their heels. “As a pastoral culture living on the land, [our grazing practices] have to be sustainable. We think of ourselves as practicing environmentalists.” They used their story as a way to break the stereotype of what farming looked like and brought it back to traditionally sustainable practices, demonstrating the benefits of small flocks of sheep that both stimulated and fertilized the land.
Culturally Sustainable Economic Development
What they wanted was what the folks in Holmes and Lowndes and other places, what they wanted…So it was just a matter of how do you make this work in this cultural ecology. And in this market, because if you aren’t paying attention to the market, you’re going to die.
Through Tierra Wools, a general store, and other projects, Ganados del Valle helped support hundreds of families in the Valley and preserve the local culture for the decades to come.
There is Always an Evolution
From his work as a gofer for a recording studio as a child, to his eventual multi-decade career with the Smithsonian, Worth Long has long had an interest in folk music and the preservation of local culture. While in SNCC, he had the opportunity to help organize the Freedom Festival in July 1963. They held it in Ms. McGhee’s cow pasture, bringing in local musicians and big names like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to perform on a truck bed in front of a crowd of civil rights workers. After Long’s time in SNCC, where he had gotten to know many blues musicians, he began working with renowned folklorist Alan Lomax. Throughout the ‘70s, Lomax and Long delved into blues research and recorded the stories of former levee workers. By the end of the decade, they began shooting The Land Where the Blues Began with filmmaker John Bishop.
Long continued to travel around Mississippi. With a Ford Foundation grant in 1977, he worked with photographer Roland Freeman to collect oral histories for the Mississippi Folklife Project. That year, Charles Bannerman, head of the Mississippi Action for Community Education, approached Long about helping to organize a blues festival. Long’s organizing experience and connections to blues musicians made him an ideal candidate, and he said yes. “My efforts were to legitimize and to make the blues song and blues person more respected and understood in his own community,” recalled Long, “We don’t have any ownership or control of our culture. Now that’s a kind of slavery.”
The first right is human rights. But then there are what I call creative rights, and that, within the realm of individual and collective responsibility, should belong to the community that nurtured it. And that’s what the Delta Blues was set up for, more than anything else. It was set up to honor, to showcase and to liberate–civil rights. To liberate the musician and his or her rights within the culture.
Land Where the Blues Began
Located in Freedom Village, the Delta Blues Festival had two stages its first year. In addition to providing a cross section of the blues, the organizers wanted to highlight the roots of blues music, and so they created one of the stages in the image of a juke joint. Juke joints were also important organizing grounds in the Deep South, since they were one of the spaces where people could gather in community. The organizing committee also wanted to make the festival accessible to as many people as possible. Children and seniors were free, and there was free parking for those who carpooled. “More important to us was having the old people there and having the young people of the future see what it was. And buy into it.” Long directed the festival for four years, creating a sustainable model that has been adopted by at least ten other festivals and puts local people and musicians in important decision-making positions.
And of course it’s the oldest blues festival in the country now. And it’s Black owned. Black operated.
Growth of the Delta Blues Festival
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994).
Maria Varela, “Time to Get Ready,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 552-572.
Kathleen Teltsch, “New Mexico Split Over Where Sheep May Graze,” The New York Times, May 31, 1990.
Ray Ring and Mary Frei, “In the Heart of the New West, the Sheep Win One,” High Country News, October 16, 1995.
Interview with Worth Long by Molly McGehee, “You Do Not Own What You Cannot Control,” Mississippi Folklife, Fall 1998, 12-20.
Kristina Gray Fisher, “Reclaiming Querencia: The Quest for Culturally Appropriate, Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development in Northern New Mexico,” Natural Resources Journal, Spring 2008, 479-531.