As the co-founder and Executive Director of El Centro de la Raza, a center for Seattle’s Latino Community, Roberto Maestas has long been involved in the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the city.
Born in New Mexico in a small farming community, Maestas 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. After completing his studies at the UW, 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. When funding for the program was abruptly cut-off in the fall of 1972, Maestas, his fellow teachers and students, and a number of community activists peaceably occupied the abandoned Beacon Hill School and negotiated its conversion into a community center, El Centro de la Raza.
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.
Roberto Maestas shared memories of his activism in a videotaped interview conducted by Trevor Griffey on February 22, 2005. The interview provides a detailed account of his life as a migrant worker; his move to Seattle; the difficulty of working as a radical high school teacher in the 1960s; and the early days of El Centro. Maestas’s interview also highlights the important role of multiracial coalitions and alliances in Seattle’s civil rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s.