Our History, Our Community

Top Floor

22. Portrait of Roberto Maestas – Daniel DeSiga


This portrait of Roberto Maestas was painted by the artist Daniel Desiga, the artist of El Centro de la Raza’s largest mural “Explosion of Chicano Creativity” on the main floor of El Centro de la Raza. This portrait depicts Roberto Maestas in the early days of El Centro de la Raza, wearing his iconic red bandana.

23. Roberto Maestas (July 9th, 1938-September 22nd, 2010)

One cannot talk about the history and progress of El Centro de la Raza without acknowledging one of our principal founders and longtime Executive Director, Roberto Maestas. Roberto Maestas was born in a small, humble community near Las Vegas, New Mexico. He learned from an early age about injustice and racism when he was suspended for speaking Spanish, chastised for bringing tacos for lunch and referred to by an anglicized name “Bobby”.  At 14, he entered the migrant labor streams and in 1956 found himself in Seattle. He found work at the Boeing assembly lines while he worked to get his High School diploma from Edison Tech. In 1959 he began his studies at the University of Washington. He was one of the few students of color at the University of Washington. During his time there he was involved with activism in the Chicano, black and anti-war movements and was involved with the grape boycott in support of farmworkers. In these movements he learned the importance of multi-racial unity, a passion he would advocate for in all of his organizing work. He continued on to pursue an advanced degree at the University of Washington for over three years but he was asked to leave before completing the program due to tensions caused by his activism. However, Roberto Maestas was unfazed by these clashes with authority. After leaving the University he found work with an ESL and Adult Basic Education class. This class would eventually form the core group of community members that established El Centro de la Raza through the peaceful occupation of the old Beacon Hill Elementary School and occupations of City Council and the mayor’s office.

El Centro de la Raza was Roberto Maestas’ life work. He was dedicated to the connecting with all people and building multi-racial movements to address inequity. Our latest development project, Plaza Roberto Maestas serves as a physical manifestation of the Beloved Community he worked so hard to create. He will be remembered for the incredible things he accomplished at El Centro de la Raza and beyond, but also for his charm and sense of humor. Stories about Roberto Maestas always highlight his charisma, magnetic personality and sharp wit. His legacy will carry on here at El Centro de la Raza and with those he met and influenced in his life.

24. Old Beacon Hill Elementary School

El Centro de la Raza is located in the old Beacon Hill Elementary School building. In the 1890s, with the construction of a new streetcar line, the population of the Beacon Hill neighborhood began to increase. The Seattle School Board purchased this site to be used for a school to meet the needs of the neighborhood. In 1899, a small two room schoolhouse was constructed (this small structure was later destroyed by a fire in 1988). The beautiful main building that still stands today was built in 1904. As the Beacon Hill neighborhood continued to grow and thrive, so did the school. At its height in the 1931-1932 school year, the school had a total of 928 students. Eventually other schools were constructed in the area to attempt to alleviate overcrowding including the neighboring Kimball Elementary and the current Beacon Hill International School. The building was abandoned and officially closed in March of 1971. It wasn’t until the following October that a group of Chicanos peacefully occupied the building and gave it a second life as El Centro de la Raza.

25. Occupation Story

The occupation story and founding of El Centro de la Raza is a great source of pride and inspiration for our community. It is a story of determination, cooperation and radical action. It all began with a group of ESL and Adult Basic Education students at South Seattle Community College. The group began as simply a class of students, but as they began to get to know each other and learn about their shared struggles they soon became activists and advocates for the Latino community and other communities of color. Unfortunately, the funding for the ESL class was cut with the elimination of War on Poverty programs.  It was at this crucial moment that this community had to make a decision-they could either be dissolved or they could stick together and determine their own destiny.

Needless to say, they chose the latter.

After discovering the abandoned Beacon Hill Elementary School building, the group requested to use the building as a space to build their vision for a center that could meet the needs of the Latino community in Seattle. Their requests to local government to use the building were repeatedly dismissed. Eventually it became clear that their voices would not be heard by authority figures and traditional methods would not be effective. So a strategy was planned to occupy the building and take matters in their own hands.

On October 11th 1972, a group of these students turned activists scheduled a tour of the abandoned building and once the door was opened for the “tour” a powerful group of students, families, community members and neighbors flooded into the building. This action began the peaceful, three-month occupation of what is now El Centro de la Raza. While the occupation was a symbolic act of defiance, it also was a very real challenge to the occupiers and their ability to come together and create the “beloved community” within a building that had neither heat nor running water in one of the coldest winters in Seattle’s history.  With the help of friends and family and strong support from a multiracial alliance of activists these inspiring individuals endured the occupation. After subsequent occupations of City Council chambers and the Mayor’s office, El Centro de la Raza eventually won the lease of the building for the price of one dollar per year from the Seattle School District and the City of Seattle.

The occupation story of El Centro de la Raza is a beautiful example of a community refusing to be ignored. The story continues to resonate with those who struggle against close-minded institutions.

26. Four Amigos

The enduring success of El Centro de la Raza is due in large part to our commitment to multiracial unity. During the civil rights movement in Seattle, Roberto Maestas along with other leaders of color were involved in increasingly visible organizing efforts to combat racial inequities in their communities. Although these communities each faced unique barriers, they were united in their battles against institutionalized racism which impacts all communities of color. The Four Amigos are a model of unity in the face of this shared struggle. The members of this “Gang of Four” included Roberto Maestas, Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear and Larry Gossett who each served as directors of organizations representing their respective communities: Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, Native American and African-American. These leaders learned that by supporting one another in their struggles, they could be a highly effective political alliance. Besides their political success, the Four Amigos are unique in their charismatic sense of humor and sincere friendships. While Bernie Whitebear and Roberto Maestas have passed away, their individual and collaborative efforts are felt to this day and continue to inspire the work of El Centro de la Raza.

27. Social Justice Posters

The posters in this room represent a selection of El Centro de la Raza’s social justice artwork collection. Poster artwork has always been an important part of the Chicano movement and other social movements because of its ability to educate and provoke their audiences. Posters are also a unique medium because they can be easily mass produced and spread among a lot of people. Poster artwork is special because not only is it beautiful to look at, but it also contains deeply significant meanings of social issues.

The posters in this room serve as a visible representation of the diverse social justice causes that El Centro de la Raza has supported throughout its history. Some of those movements include: the apartheid struggle in South Africa, the revolutions in Nicaragua and Cuba, and the farmworker struggle in Texas.

These posters were framed and made visible to the public thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

28. Rubén Salazar (1928-1970)Daniel Desiga (b. 1948)


This unique painting by Daniel DeSiga utilizes three-dimensional multimedia techniques to depict the famous Chicano journalist Rubén Salazar. Born March 3rd 1928, Salazar was brought to the United States as an infant. He built a distinguished career as a journalist. He was a columnist, foreign correspondent, and a Spanish language television director at KMEX. He interviewed President Eisenhower, Bobby Kennedy, and Cesar Chavez. As the first Mexican-American columnist at the Los Angeles Times, he is perhaps best known for his coverage of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in Los Angeles. Tragically, on August 29th, 1970, while covering a protest, Salazar was killed when a Los Angeles County Sheriff fired a tear gas canister into a bar where he was spending time with a fellow reporter. Many believe his death was an attempt to silence the voice of a community and for this Salazar is remembered as a martyr, a man who for died while trying to bring attention to the injustices faced by Chicanos. Salazar’s life and legacy continues to inspire people to work for justice in their communities.

Link: Remembering Ruben Salazar, 50 Years Later