Wednesday, September 22, 2010
El Centro de la Raza co-founder Robert Maestas died of cancer today
Roberto Maestas, the long time leader and co-founder of El Centro de la Raza, a center for Seattle's Latino community, died of cancer Wednesday, September 22, 2010, morning. He was 72.
Maestas's most recent public work was helping to choose Seattle's new police chief. He was loved and respected.
"This is a man who believed in people, in all people," said John Hayes with the Seattle Police Dept. "He believed that everyone had rights, that everyone needed to be together, work together."
But his role in community spans decades. He founded El Centro de la Raza and led a movement for Latino rights in the 1970s. He organized the takeover of the Seattle City Council in 1972, along with now King County Councilman Larry Gossett.
"It was an effort to make America what it could be," said Gossett.
That year, he and Gossett and others occupied a Beacon Hill school, which the city later turned over the civil rights movement. It became El Centro de la Raza, the Center for the People.
"More fully integrating low income people into mainstream America, and we were willing to do any means necessary to do that," said Gossett.
On Wednesday at El Centro, a meeting was called to tell of Maestas' death. There were tears for their leader.
"Right now I feel sad," said Graciela Gonzalez. "Because we lost a great man. You know, but because of his legacy, we are going to continue because he taught us never to give up."
"It's very painful but in a way it's a reminder of the work that we still have to do," said Enrique Gonzalez.
According to the University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project page, Maestas was born in New Mexico in a small farming community and worked his way north through the migrant stream, first to Colorado and eventually to Seattle, permanently settling in the city in the 1950s.
Maestas was educated as a teacher and taught at Franklin High School before leaving secondary teaching and pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Washington in 1968. At the University, he became involved with the Chicano student activism, the black freedom struggle, and farm worker organizing in the Yakima valley.
Maestas helped form a program at South Seattle Community for Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language (ESL) to cater to the city's growing Latino community in the early 1970s.
In addition to providing a range of social services, El Centro played a prominent role in local solidarity campaigns with Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. Maestas also co-founded the Minority Executive Directors's Coalition in the 1980s with fellow "Gang of Four" colleages Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett and Bob Santos.
Maestas died at University Hospital with his wife, daughters and grandchildren at his side.
Mayor Mike McGinn ordered flags be lowered to half staff in honor of Maestas.