I’d like to introduce you to Mary Belle de Vargas, a woman whose remarkable story of overcoming adversity highlights the importance of celebrating the abilities of all people.
I’ve worked for the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau for almost four years. Our office is situated in historic downtown Natchitoches, in a small stucco and brick building built in the early 20th century. For the first 40 years of that century, it was occupied by an artist with incredible talent.
Mary Belle de Vargas was born without arms. Growing up, she taught herself to use her toes and feet to accomplish nearly any task. She could brush her hair, unlock doors with a key, thread a needle, and was even certified in First Aid.
She earned a B.A. degree from Louisiana State Normal (now Northwestern State University) in 1932 and opened her own art studio along Front Street in the building my office currently occupies. It was here, she sketched on canvas while enjoying the cool afternoon breeze from Cane River. Drawings, paintings, cartoons, and portraits hung from every open space on the interior walls.
People from across the country in disbelief of her story, came to Natchitoches to see Mary Belle’s artwork.
She passed away in late 1946 from complications of a lengthy cold, not before inspiring and educating people about the abilities of people with disabilities.
Robert DeBlieux, a former mayor of Natchitoches, took art lessons from Mary Belle as a child. He often tells us stories about “the armless marvel” who refused to be treated as anything less than an equal. “Mr. Bobby” recently loaned the CVB two of Mary Belle’s paintings to display in the lobby. We eagerly share de Vargas’ story with visitors who ask about her. Standing in the same room that was once a sanctuary for this amazing woman is awe-inspiring. History really does come alive.
Not long after her death, a series of letters between de Vargas and friend Gualterio Quinonas were arranged into a book, ‘The Armless Marvel, Mary Belle.’ This 1949 publication portrays one of the most unique of Natchitoches’ abundance of storied residents.
Her inspirational story can teaches an important lesson. I have been told one of the most difficult experiences in living with a disability can be overcoming the limitations of others’ perceptions. Mary Belle proved to those around her that she was no different — in many cases, more was more capable.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Northwestern State University. They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2008 Lane Luckie