Today, the clients, staff, board, and friends of El Centro de La Raza, a Seattle community-based organization mourned the lost of its co-founder and former executive director to cancer. What began as community protests over educational disparities, testimony before elected city officials and ultimately a takeover of an abandoned Seattle school that would result in El Centro is an example of the power of community organizing, perseverance and dedication. It’s co-founder Roberto Maestas led and sustained the fight for over three decades.
As a student at Skagit Valley College we sought the help, guidance, and mentorship of Maestas. SVC’s community radio station, KSVR, was in the midst of a hostile takeover by the state’s largest university on the other side of the state, Washington State University (WSU). Along with a delegation of MEChistAs and our advisor, Jovita Hernandez, we traveled from Mount Vernon to Olympia to lobby our representatives and along the way we stopped at El Centro. Maestas graciously invited us in and listened intently to our problem. He spoke to our group about power. About the little guy. He shared with us stories about the organizational, financial, internal and external struggles at El Centro, from the beginning, and how there will always be trials of hostile takeovers by larger, more organized and well-funded groups. Through the discussions, we felt as if we had known Maestas all this time. As if we had known his staff, and the University of Washington Chicana/o students who protested and fought for the creation of El Centro. It felt like sitting in a Chicano Studies and Political Science class. He advised us to fight for the little guy. That one worker or bilingual parent or student that listens and relies on KSVR for their news. He inspired us to build thick skin and to continue to take the fight directly to the top–and we did. Successfully.
Maestas advised us to continue the fight on the high school and college campuses to close the educational disparities that plague nearly every American city. He advised us to continue our work honoring farmworkers and paying our respect for those who harvest the foods we put on our dinner tables. He advised us to continue to fight to make sure the little guy gets his fair shake. He advised us to get organized and build organizations from the ground up that serve the needs of the people and defend them by whatever means necessary.
Today, Seattle’s Mayor ordered flags to half-staff to honor Maestas. I was saddened by the news and headlines this morning. I will forever be grateful for his compassion for the well being of others; his courage to stand up for the little guy; his mentorship that day; the inspiration and his persistence he has imparted on others to succeed.
RIP Roberto Maestas.