Our Founder: Roberto Maestas

July 9, 1938 – September 22, 2010

This page is a dedication to our late founder, Roberto Felipe Maestas, to his foresight, love, dedication and passion. As Roberto often remarked in the spirit of Cuban revolutionary poet, Jose Marti,

It is for the children that we work for they are the ones who know how to love, for they are the hope of the world.

Roberto Felipe Maestas, long-time executive director and a founder of El Centro de la Raza, was born July 9, 1938, on a subsistence plot in the village of San Augustin del Valle de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, near Las Vegas, New Mexico.  Roberto was six months old when his mother, Lina, died of tuberculosis.  He was raised by his maternal grandparents whom he treasured, Don Isidoro and Doña Emilia Vigil, along with 16 other children.

Early in life Roberto’s passion for social justice was instilled in him. He sensed the “manifest unfairness” of being forced into the migrant stream at age 14. His memory was vivid, his family having lost their land in New Mexico. “We were pushed off our land and then we became essentially slaves in the fields,” he would recall. “… it was clear to me that I needed to learn as much as I could about this system, its history, and its functioning.”

Roberto left New Mexico following the migrant stream to Washington, eventually landing him in Seattle in the early 50s.  Roberto attended Cleveland High School and worked, among other jobs, as a gas station attendant, an elevator operator at the Smith Tower, a factory worker at Boeing, and a Spanish teacher at Franklin High School.  Roberto graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s in Spanish and Journalism (’66) and Master’s degree in Romance Languages and Literature (’71). He was one of the first Chicano graduates of the university, and was recently included in a University of Washington Alumni Association magazine as one of the University’s “Wondrous One Hundred.” Some of his most recent awards and recognitions include:

NFL Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award 2011; 2011 WSCAP Roberto Maestas Humanitarian Award; 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy Award; 2011 Seattle Japanese American Citizens League – Lifetime Achievement Award; 2011 Música Festival- Martin Luther King County Executives Awards for Excellence in Hip Hop; Seattle Human Services Coalition Ron Chism Anti-Racism Award presented by Representative Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney – June 3, 2010; YMCA A.K. Guy Award; (Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas, Bob Santos and the late Bernie Whitebear, for the first time ever, the YMCA of Greater Seattle recognized four  unrelated individuals with this award) – November 12, 2009; 2009 Change Agent Award, Real Change Presented to Roberto Maestas by Larry Gossett, Martin Luther King, Jr. County – October 20, 2009; Latino Community Fund Lifetime Achievement Award, Roberto Maestas – October 17, 2009; Thomas C. Wales Award for Passionate Citizenship – November 18, 2006; Tabor 100 “Crystal Eagle” Leadership Award for Community Service – September 15, 2007

Roberto dedicated his life to advocating for the poor and empowering the disadvantaged. He took part in or helped to lead almost every major movement for this purpose that took place in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years.  In 1969, Roberto took part in Tyree Scott’s peaceful takeover of construction sites using exclusionary practices for black workers and joined the Puyallup Indian Tribe in demanding respect for their fishing rights treaty. He supported strikes for both Boeing employees and garbage workers who demanded fair wages and benefits, and he joined the Asian community in their protest against the Kingdome’s encroachment on Chinatown/International District.  Roberto’s participation in these and other movements made him a leader in the civil rights struggles of all peoples in the Pacific Northwest.

Roberto’s coalition-building work also led him to others who would become close lifelong friends, including (now) King County Councilman Larry Gossett; Bob Santos, a prominent leader in the Asian community; and the late Bernie Whitebear, a founder of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. They became known affectionately in Seattle as the “Gang of Four” or “The Four Amigos.”

In October of 1972, Roberto helped orchestrate the peaceful occupation of the abandoned Beacon Hill Elementary School and the Seattle City Council chambers occupation where, at a mock hearing, participants began “negotiating” (demanding) the creation of a “center for the people,” and El Centro de la Raza was born.

Today, El Centro provides an array of social, human, and educational services to people of all races and ethnicities. Advocacy for human rights, justice, peace, and dignity for all people remains central to the organization’s mission.  For this, El Centro has been recognized and honored locally, nationally, and internationally.

In 1981 the Four Amigos formed the Minority Executive Director’s Coalition (MEDC); in essence solidifying the collaboration among communities of color that had become a trademark of social justice work in Seattle and the State of Washington during the early 70’s. Today, MEDC is recognized for its success in sustaining a diverse multi-racial coalition of individuals who work together to inform, educate, influence and empower the diverse constituencies of Washington State in an effort to work toward social, political and economic equity and justice for communities of color in King County.

Roberto was a man of the earth who worked tirelessly to create the beloved community and loved everybody.  He loved children, reading, the Huskies, musical show tunes, playing basketball, gardening, and was an environmental steward.  He lived each day to the fullest.

Roberto and Estela raised two daughters, Amalia Cubana, attorney for the Muckleshoot Tribe in Auburn, and Adriana Emilia, an attorney in New York City as well as 5 wonderful grandchildren. Roberto is also survived by his children from his first marriage:  Tina Maria Bocanegra, Angela Martinez, and Robert Maestas, Jr.