Panoramic View of Maria Varela’s photography exhibit at The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. On Display until July 30th, 2017. (Maria is pictured looking into the glass display on the left.)
Feliz Dia De Los Madres!
May 10th is when Mother’s Day is celebrated in Mexico and I thought there is no better day to write about the magical weekend I had in Chicago celebrating my Mother’s photography exhibit!
(For more history on Mother’s Day in Mexico check out my cousin Teresa Zuniga Odom’s latest post on Southern Señora HERE!)
On April 22nd I boarded a plane to Chicago to meet my parents to celebrate my moms first solo photography exhibit at the National Museum Of Mexican Art! It was a whirlwind of a weekend, not enough time of course, but we packed in lot’s of adventures and celebrations!
I took a Lyft straight to the museum from the airport to see the exhibit, and was awestruck at the elegance of the curation. The beginning of the photographs are accompanied by a quote from my mother that sets the tone for the collection of prints…
I had never seen most of the images on display, and the ones I had seen before were just negatives, slides or printed small and included in books. The prints were beautiful, the captions were perfect, and a painful, deep and raw story unfolded about resistance, organizing, struggle, hands, earth, the power of movements and legacy.
It was very moving to stand in that gallery and watch so many different people enter and walk from photo to photo. I wanted to shout “This is my Mom! She’s the one who took all of these photographs!” But I knew there was something special about the three of us, my parents and me just watching others look and read and ponder….
It was a bit surreal, looking at my mom’s images, her camera, the literature materials she helped create, the photo of her in her 20s next to her car… It’s hard to imagine what she was experiencing, at such a young age, day to day in an area of our country rife with hate and inequality. What is inspiring about this collection of images is the breadth of her views through the lens. The many faces, hands, eyes, voices… over so many years and terrains.
We had a late lunch at 5 Rabanitos in the Pilsen area just a few blocks from the museum before heading downtown to our home for the weekend at the Historic Whitehall Hotel. The view from our room was incredible, we could see Lake Michigan from our window!
That evening we had dinner with my Aunt Frances and Harvey who were in town from Albuquerque and my Aunt Angie who flew in from Denver to surprise my mom! Both of my aunts were born in Chicago, a fact I never knew, and my mother lived here from 4th-12th grade. They shared a few memories of living in Chicago and my Aunt Angie recalled being a young girl when my mom was away working in the South for SNCC. What a great gathering to celebrate her work, there was something very momentous about having family in town to witness this event, this first solo exhibit of my Mother’s images…
Sunday afternoon I talked my parents into attending the final performance of my dear friend and colleague Nathan Singh‘s production of Wig Out by Tarell Alvin McCrany. It is his final semester of his MFA in Directing at DuPaul University and soon he is going to be tearing up regional theatre stages all over the country! It was a fantastic production, and I glanced over a few times at my folks who were totally enjoying themselves… Afterwards we took him out for a drink a bit of food before heading off to the museum.
That night was an evening discussion that was a part of Open Engagement 2017 that happened to be taking place in Chicago. This event is “an annual, three-day, artist-led conference dedicated to expanding the dialogue around and creating a site of care for the field of socially engaged art. The conference highlights the work of transdisciplinary artists, activists, students, scholars, community members, and organizations working within the complex social issues and struggles of our time.”
I called it Las Dos Marias, a discussion between interdisciplinary artist Maria Gaspar and my mother Maria Varela. The Two Marias had met a handful of times before this evening and there wasn’t really a planned structure for the conversation. Maria G. had a few questions and they just let themselves talk and flow while sharing photos and videos of each of their work. Afterwards there was a Q&A session and then we headed back downtown for a celebratory late night dinner at my Mom’s new favorite spot: Lux Bar! (We had been there for breakfast that very morning!)
What I came away with from this discussion is the struggle between art and activism. The discussion that is alive and well about what tools are used for the most effective change in movements. My mother does not call herself an “artist” and when asked about her beginnings as a photographer she describes a very utilitarian process. Now looking back, almost 50 years later it is hard not to see her images as art and her as an artist. But it raises a wonderful question about the role/use/effectiveness of art for an activist and furthermore for a movement. Why do we use mediums such as photography, video, dance, spoken word, painting, graffiti, multi-media, etc? What draws us to these tools and how does our relationship change/grow/evolve over time when we are a part of a movement, or trying to become active towards a passionate goal for change?
Las Dos Marias (Photo taken by my Uncle Harvey)
What I enjoyed most about the discussion was the energy in the room that can only happen when those present leave the space wondering “What can I do next to answer these questions…?”
I found myself drawn to theatre as an effective tool in teaching and directing. The power stories had to help regain confidence in a wounded student, or to see a community react to a story that reflected their dreams and struggles. Then when I began acting and speaking the words of Latin@ playwright, and even Shakespeare and classic writers, that covered political, relevant and sensitive issues I realized the power of my voice. Similar to my mom I have a hard time calling myself an Actor at times because I feel like it doesn’t encompass all that I do towards my mission in life. However, as I have grown in my profession I realize, in the words of William Shakespeare, “It’s All One.” My work as an actor is just another facet of my activism, my work towards change.
These photos of my Mom’s are not the only result of her work, they are a a valuable and poignant part of her life’s mission as an activist. She is a teacher, an organizer, a collaborator, a mentor, a mediator, a veteran, a mother, and so much more. Whether she chooses to call herself an artist is no matter, what is important is that she picked up that camera in the first place.
Monday my Dad treated us to one of my Mom’s Bucket List items: a boat tour of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. We chose the Signature Lake & River tour, chartered by Wendell Boats. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water and over the 90 minutes the tour guide taught us so many interesting and hilarious facts about The Windy City. Legend has it that the name does not come from the weather, rather it was because the politicians from that area were known to be long-winded and a bit too talkative! We began just under the DuSable bridge and headed east out to Lake Michigan past the famous Navy Pier. The view of Chicago from the lake was breathtaking, and then when we headed in along the river there was one huge building after another. It’s hard to imagine that most of this great city had burned to the ground in the Chicago Fire of 1871.
After the boat ride we walked a bit too far in search of oysters. We googled a place at The Navy Pier, but were led astray by a bit of false advertising. So we ended up at Bubba Gump Shrimp. The silver lining was that my other amazing friend and colleague Megan Breen was in town workshopping a play and she met us for lunch. Watching her and my folks completely ace the Forrest Gump trivia from our server was astounding!
It’s never easy to say goodbye to my parents, for this trip I got to do it one at a time. My dad left earlier and mom and I had one night left in Chicago. Before my dad took off I snapped a photo of us outside of the hotel. After his car drove away my mom and I looked at each other and agreed that he had a great time, no matter how much he dislikes the hassle of traveling. It was wonderful to have him with us as we celebrated my mom and explored the city of Chicago…
Mom and I were exhausted and decided to just snuggle up in our hotel room, watch a movie and rest up before heading out for dinner. We watched Sicario, one of my favorite films that is really hard to watch but beautifully shot. (And my best friend Kim Larrichio is in it!) We roused ourselves from bed after the last haunting scene and walked down the street to one of our favorite Chicago spots: Gibson’s. We ordered dry gin martini’s, a spicy lobster stuffed artichoke and listened to the piano player’s renditions of classic jazz. Then we ended the night at Lux Bar, of course, for dinner and a glass of bubbly to toast to the end of an incredible weekend!
The morning before she left we encountered a bed of tulips with one tulip that wasn’t like the rest. We were drawn to it and I snapped a few shots. It reminded me that in our work it is important to remember our voice, that part of ourself that makes us unique. The enigmatic fact that each cell of our being makes us different from one another but also connects us. We are part of a whole and we are an individual, an important balancing act towards making change. To stand up for ourselves, speak our voice, be ourselves, but to remember that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. We are all one…
I’ve grown up traveling the country with my mother and I never tire of spending time with her walking the streets, visiting museums, finding new favorite eateries and seeing the sites. This trip was extra special because the visit to the museum was to see her work, her incredibly relevant, historic, astounding and important work. I couldn’t be more proud to be her daughter!
Chicago holds a special place in her heart and in mine as well, it is where I first met Luis Alfaro after all…. and now here I am at OSF starring in his adaptation of Medea.
And guess who flies out to Ashland in less than 24 hours from now? MOM and DAD! We have another adventure planned for Mother’s Day weekend, and I couldn’t be more grateful to them for making the trip..
So here’s to my Mother and her incredible span of work that has brought such depth and adventure to our family’s life. Her life continues to inspire me every day and I cannot to wait to see what she does next!
Feliz Dia De Los Madres Mom, thank you for everything… I love you!