How an occupied protest created El Centro de La Raza

In December 1972, Larry Gossett, Estela Ortega and Roberto Maestas (top) celebrate the successful occupation of the school. Photography by Tom Barlet/MOHAI

Oords scribbled on a blackboard reveals the indignation behind despair, the root of pain. The reason why hundreds of activists slept on hardwood floors, trying to claim an abandoned school like El Centro de la Raza, the Center for People of All Races: ‘No one is entitled to superfluity when someone another does not have the necessary.”

Hastily scribbled on a whim or dutifully transcribed in chalk, these details are lost in time. What we do know is that early that morning of October 11, 1972, Roberto Maestas and three or four other Chicano activists – the preferred term for many Mexican Americans at the time – presented themselves as potential buyers for the vacant Beacon Hill school. They had the necessary in mind.

Quickly, silently, after the Seattle School District facilities manager unlocked the front doors, another 60 people hiding nearby made their way to the entrance. The disturbed school representative handed the key to Maestas. “You lock up when you’re done,” he told the tall, lanky 34-year-old. The activists will not leave school for three months. Fifty years later, the people of El Centro de la Raza are still not done.

Spanish was salvation for Roberto Maestas, a lifeline to his Chicano heritage and a means of connection with so many others born into unequal status because of their skin. At 14, kicked out of his school in New Mexico for speaking Spanish, he joined dozens of migrant farm workers seeking opportunities wherever they could: Colorado beet farms and California lettuce, then finally potato and hop crops in Idaho and the Yakima Valley. . The desire to see the “ocean’s edge” led him to hitchhike to Seattle, where Maestas decided to stay, eventually graduating from high school and college.

On March 29, 1968, teaching Spanish at Franklin High School, Maestas involuntarily joined his first school profession. Black students, outraged at the unfair treatment of school administrators, marched by 100 men into the principal’s office. Among them was Larry Gossett, a leader of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington. He and Maestas, along with fellow minority leaders Bernie Whitebear and Bob Santos, would later become known as the Gang of Four for their racial justice activism.

In the middle of the sit-in, after other students and teachers ran “screaming out of the building,” as Gossett puts it, he noticed Maestas standing in the hallway. “He said to me, ‘I’m interested in why all my black students are so upset. I want to learn and understand what the issues are,” recalls Gossett. Over the next few hours, Maestas joined the protesters, listening to the litany of issues they faced as black people in Seattle.

The next morning, the sit-in over but his consciousness changed forever, Maestas entered the staff room and announced that he would no longer tolerate being called Bob or Robert, anglicized bastards of his name. . “My name is Roberto,” he told them, deliberately trilling Rs.

Four years later, in 1972, Maestas taught English as a Second Language at South Seattle Community College and led activism efforts in Seattle alongside Gossett, Whitebear and Santos. He also participated in his next school occupation, not as a curious spectator this time, but as a mastermind.

Estela Ortega is as small as her late husband, Roberto Maestas, was tall. But his stature belies the ferocity within. The current executive director of El Centro de la Raza, Ortega, has done everything at the nonprofit, from greasing the building’s cumbersome heating system to leading divisions for affordable housing development and youth re-engagement. She devotes seven days a week to the organization’s efforts in fair housing, access to child care, financial and educational empowerment, and social justice. When Maestas died in 2010, Ortega came to work again the next day.

“Personally, I never tire of what I do,” she says. “I have a vision. I want to stabilize El Centro de la Raza and I have worked very hard to get the structures in place and [our work] will continue. »

In 1972, when Ortega was just 22, she was already a regular at anti-war protests and rallies for farmworkers’ rights in and around her home state of Texas. Then she met Maestas at a national Chicano movement conference in El Paso.

They had stayed in touch when, weeks later, he sent her a newspaper clipping about the school occupation. Seattle activists, frustrated by the decimation of Chicano-centric social services and, more recently, the ESL program that Maestas taught, had decided to make their case known. “We try to dramatize our needs with agencies that don’t respond,” Maestas said. Seattle weather a day after the occupation, delivering both an explanation and a scathing critique of city and school officials who had delayed aid since that summer.

Ortega traveled to Seattle, the occupation already three weeks old, and quickly decided to stay. The activists conquered the press. “Bureaucracy is often not responsive to people’s needs. The Chicanos’ action elicited a response,” school board chairman Al Cowles admitted to the Seattle Post Intelligence October 19. “At each turn, the paper beaters met them with delays”, a Seattle Times article delivered later on October 22.

Donations from local groups and individuals poured in: eight dollars here, groceries there, sleeping bags and electric heaters to make cold nights with a broken oven more bearable, Chinese food and Japanese and soul food, countless buckets of water carried from nearby restaurants and gasoline. stations to compensate for broken plumbing.

Gosset was there. Like-minded activists of all races—Black, White, Asian, Indigenous—were too. Ortega and Maestas were married on December 10, two months after the occupation began, in the school basement. Maestas began a liquids-only fast the next day to protest the city council’s repeated failure to approve a lease for the vacant building.

That winter, the building belonged to them, and then the real work began. Decades of tight budgets and pro bono work followed, Ortega says. “Every 15 days there was a heartache. Are we going to do the payroll? Then, when Plaza Roberto Maestas, a $45 million mixed-use development south of the school, finally opened in 2016, development costs more than tripled El Centro’s operating budget. Now Ortega is focused on future developments throughout South Seattle to Columbia City and Federal Way to continue to deliver what is needed where it is most desperately needed.

Don’t paint anymore is peeling off the walls of El Centro de la Raza, though the refinished hardwood floors still bear scuff marks from its former elementary school life. Tissue paper marigolds from the 2019 Día de los Muertos celebrations line the hallway ceilings, surviving the more than 20 ofrendas provided by local community groups when public gatherings were still a thing.

Near the main entrance, however, is an ofrenda that will never disappear. Above rows of framed pictures, flowers, candles, and occasionally fruit, a massive portrait of a smiling Roberto Maestas takes up half the wall. El Centro volunteers have maintained it from the start, Ortega says, cleaning it up and providing fresh flowers and new decorations. They do it spontaneously, without questioning or persuading. They insist on following in the footsteps of Maestas, it seems, to do what is necessary because it is right.

Roberto Maestas Square

El Centro’s The mixed-use spin-off Plaza Roberto Maestas opened in 2016, bringing affordable housing, bilingual daycare and community spaces to what was a parking lot south of the former Beacon Hill School. The nonprofit will open a similar 87-unit development in Columbia City later this year and is currently considering a plot of land in Federal Way for a third iteration.

0.7 acres to Santos Rodriguez memorial park.

Public place frequented by food stalls.

144 additional apprenticeship places José Martí Child Development Center.

3 commercial spaces, including Tacos Chukis and the Station cafe.

Way of the Roberto Maestas Festivala pedestrian corridor connected to public transport.

112 affordable housing.

3,110 square feet of space Centilia Cultural Center.