El Centro de la Raza

El Centro de la Raza
El Centro de la Raza, 2007

El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, Washington, United States, is an educational, cultural, and social service agency, centered in the Latino/Chicano community and headquartered in the former Beacon Hill Elementary School on Seattle's Beacon Hill. It serves a broad range of clients in Seattle, King County and beyond.

El Centro has received diverse honors and recognition. Their web site points out that they are "probably the only organization in the world to hold the Nicaraguan '10th Anniversary Medal of the Sandinista Revolution' (1989), and the 'Thousand Points of Light' award (1991) from the Bush administration. El Centro founder Roberto Maestas (July 9, 1938 - September 22, 2010)[1][2] was the 2004 "Seafair king", the first Latino ever to receive this civic honor. On April 25, 2011, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to rename the segment of South Lander Street between 16th Avenue South and 17th Avenue South (immediately south of El Centro) as South Roberto Maestas Festival Street.[3]



Roberto Maestas, 2008

El Centro was founded October 11, 1972 by Chicano/Latinos and people of several other ethnic groups, who occupied Beacon Hill School in Seattle, which had been closed due to declining enrollment. They were inspired, in part, by the 1970 occupation by Native Americans of the decommissioned Fort Lawton in Seattle's Magnolia district, which had resulted in the founding of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. The initial spark for the occupation was the fact that about seventy Latino students and ten staff of the Chicano: English and Adult Basic Education Program at the Duwamish branch of the incipient South Seattle Community College had found themselves without an educational home.

The occupation also took place in the context of the activist spirit of the time, including opposition to the Vietnam war and growth of the United Farm Workers of America (a labor union). By the 1960s thousands of Latinos, nearly all of whom were seeking employment, found themselves in the largely Anglo-American metropolis of Seattle, lacking a traditional community center: a barrio, with a Latin American-style plaza. They redressed this lack by renovating the old school with their own hands, having obtained a lease from the city for $1 a year.

The founders of El Centro crossed racial and ethnic boundaries. Founder Roberto Maestas, executive director until 2009, was close to Black activist and community leader Larry Gossett, Asian leader Bob Santos, and Native American urban activist Bernie Whitebear, as well as fishing-rights advocates in the Frank family. Maestas, Gossett, Santos, and Whitebear were called the "Gamng of Four" around Seattle as they set about building an unusual ethnic alliance. Thus El Centro de la Raza became very multiethnic from the beginning, interpreting its name as "The Center for the People of All Races." From the early days, people who worked at El Centro engaged in an on-going conversation regarding how to address questions of race and racism in a society that includes a diverse array of peoples.

From the beginning, El Centro de la Raza was a community project that stressed commitment to struggle for Civil Rights for all persons. The people who occupied the building joked that they were simply implementing advice from Washington governor [Dan Evans]], “advocating use of empty schools for community needs, such as child care”.[4] Leaders of the building takeover quickly won a pledge from Seattle Public Schools superintendent Forbes Bottomly that no effort would be made to evict them by force. The school district even arranged to open a back door for fire safety. The school had a sprinkler system, but its water long had been cut off.[4]

After three months of occupying the building and numerous rallies, petitions and letters, the Seattle City Council agreed to hear their case. At one point, pressing for an audience, supporters of the occupation had laid siege to the City Council’s chambers. The Council finally approved the lease, but mayor Wes Uhlman vetoed the action. Supporters then occupied the mayor's office and were arrested. An accord was finally reached. A five-year lease was signed January 20, 1973 at $1 rent annually.[5]

Many of the occupiers were blue-collar tradespeople who set to work cleaning the building, repairing light fixtures and windows, painting peeling walls. Artists created murals "depicting life on the old family farms as well as the agonies of migrant work. On one wall, a young boy stood beside a burro; on another, an older man lay across the field of a factory farm, nailed to a cross, surrounded by tractors whose grills took the ghastly gray shape of skulls" (Johansen and Maestas, 1983, 128). What had been a vacant, decaying shell was successfully recuperated, and came to be a "home" for some unlikely allies: blue-collar trades people and white-collar intellectuals, Native American, Asian, Latino, Black, and European-American, men and women.[5]

More than 20 years later, Maestas would remark, "I found that the only way to get things done in this city is to do it -- and then work it out… It took five to six years for the building to become up to code. Everything had to be repaired, replaced or installed. With the help, love and dedication of the community, the organization's building was refurbished piece by piece. Money was donated. Grants were awarded. Materials were donated, as well. Laborers volunteered time. Plumbers gave services. Heating and plumbing were installed. The roof was fixed. Vinyl siding was put in place. The classrooms were spruced up.”[6]

By 1982, the main floor of the old building was a beehive of activity. By 1995, all three floors of the building were in use. The organization continued to practice direct action. When the Washington Natural Gas Company cut off El Centro's heat, for example, the teachers and children of the child-development center moved to a place they knew would remain warm: the reception area of the company chief executive officer’s office.[7]

In ensuing years, Latino culture became far more widespread in Seattle. Taco carts, trailers, trucks, and buses became common along Seattle's arterials, even in the traditionally Scandinavian Ballard neighborhood. In the decade ending in 2000, according to the Census Bureau, the Latino population in King County jumped 115 percent, to 95,242. Maestas estimated that this omitted another 10,000 undocumented Latinos, "and that's a conservative figure".[8]

Mission & Vision

El Centro de la Raza's mission statement has evolved over the years to include a commitment to serve and empower all whom we reach to learn from people seeking basic social change. El Centro de la Raza believes that the provision of a wide range of survival services alone is only a temporary relief for deep societal wounds; it does not address the roots of poverty, discrimination, alienation and despair. The organization seeks long-term solutions to problems that provoke racism, poverty, and war.

El Centro’s “Foreign Policy”

During the early 1980s, when the Reagan Administration was supporting the Nicaraguan “Contras,” El Centro played a major role in convincing the Seattle City Council to adopt Managua as a sister city, an extraordinary achievement considering opposition by local media and a White House occupied by Ronald Reagan. El Centro’s bond with Nicaragua was forged before the Sandinistas took power in 1979. The same fall that the Beacon Hill School was occupied, a devastating earthquake leveled much of Managua. El Centro coordinated relief efforts in the Seattle area. Over the years, dozens of writers, poets, and musical troupes exchanged visits as part of the Managua-Seattle Sister City Association.

The Nicaraguan initiative was one of many international ties that El Centro fostered. Some people there said, only half in jest, that it is one of very few community-based organizations with a foreign policy. El Centro has sponsored a continuing cultural exchange with Cuba, including, during June, 2003, "Una Rosa Blanca,” a celebration of the cultural and educational exchanges occurring between the Seattle community and Cuba, with live music, a short documentary presentation and panel discussion. Drinks and appetizers served. Proceeds benefit the "Learning Across Borders" project of El Centro de la Raza.

El Centro and Immigrants’ Rights

Having originated from immigrants’ roots, El Centro has long been a steadfast defender of the many people who have arrived in Seattle legally or not, seeking work. The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services estimated in 2000 that about 136,000 undocumented immigrants were living in Washington State — about 2.3 percent of the state's population. That number was up more than 249 percent from 10 years earlier. Current estimates as of early 2004 put that figure near 200,000 (Turnbull, January 30, 2004). "Regardless of how bad the economy here gets, people will continue to come," said Maestas. "For some, it's better to be jailed, to take a chance crossing the desert, than to die of hunger…where they live." "Living in the shadows is a euphemism for a minute-to-minute nightmare for many of these folks," Maestas said (Turnbull, January 30, 2004).

Source: Turnbull, Lornet. “Illegal Immigrants Prefer to Live in Shadows.” Seattle Times, January 30, 2004. [1]

Martin Luther King County

El Centro strongly supported the renaming of King County, Washington (which includes Seattle) for Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1986, the King County Council voted, by a narrow majority, to rename King County for Dr. King. Originally, the name “King County” was adopted in the nineteenth century after the 13th vice president of the United States, William Rufus DeVane King, who (ironically) had been a slaveholder.

The vote stirred some controversy, but because the county retained its crown-shaped symbol, many residents remained unaware of the decision. Many (to be fair) also didn’t know why the county had been named “King” to begin with. In 2000, petitions were delivered to the Metropolitan King County Council urging its members to add Dr. King's profile to the county's logo—on stationery and the shoulder patches of law-enforcement officers, for example.

NLRB problems

The organization and its founder have, at times, been controversial even within the Latino and activist communities, although even their critics have generally acknowledged Maestas' as a leading voice in the struggle for civil rights for women, workers and minorities. Nonetheless, in 1998, a scandal shook the organization. The National Labor Relations Board found that Roberto Maestas and leading board agency members set out to bust a unionization effort that El Centro employees were attempting to initiate through Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 8. Employees sought to reform the agency due to what they claimed were abusive work conditions, including low pay, long hours, and no benefits. The NLRB found that management had undertaken a campaign of firings, threats and an even an assault against the spouse of a pro-union employee. Court records also emerged indicating that Maestas had been involved in some violent incidents, including a knife assault against a former spouse. Maestas denied all the charges and allegations regarding his ethics,[9] and El Centro weathered the storm, with Maestas remaining its head until his death 12 years later.[2]


  1. ^ Prominent civil rights leader Roberto Maestas dies, KOMO news, September 22, 2010. Retrieved September 23, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Jerry Large, Roberto Maestas, leading advocate for social justice, dies at 72, Seattle Times, September 22, 2010. Retrieved September 23, 2010.
  3. ^ Council Bill Number: 117136, Ordinance Number: 123588, Seattle City Clerk's Online Information Resources, City of Seattle. Retrieved 12 June 2011.
  4. ^ a b Johansen, Bruce. “Beacon Hill Confrontation: Chicanos were Following Slogan ’Power to the People’”, Seattle Times, October 22, 1972, N.p.
  5. ^ a b Johansen, Bruce E. and Roberto Maestas. El Pueblo: The Gallegos Family's American Journey. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983.
  6. ^ Martin, Cecilia. “El Centro de la Raza: A Look Back”, University of Washington Daily, September 3, 1996.
  7. ^ Johansen and Maestas, op. cit., p. 133.
  8. ^ Lacitis, Erik, Taco Trucks Offer Mexican Cuisine North of the Border, Seattle Times, July 19, 2003.
  9. ^ Ben Jacklet, El Gran Jefe, The Stranger, Jun 10 - Jun 16, 1999.

External links

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