Occupy Beacon Hill

The Origins of El Centro de la Raza

A peaceful takeover of a vacant schoolhouse once rocked the city—and inspired future racial justice fights.

By Angela Cabotaje March 7, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

In December 1972, Larry Gossett, Estela Ortega, and Roberto Maestas (top) celebrate the successful school occupation. Photograph by Tom Barlet / MOHAI

Words scrawled on a blackboard reveal the indignation behind the desperation, the root of the hurt. The reason why hundreds of activists slept on hardwood floors, trying to claim an abandoned schoolhouse as El Centro de la Raza, the Center for People of All Races: “Nobody has a right to the superfluous when somebody else lacks the necessary.”

Hastily scribbled on a whim or dutifully transcribed in chalk—those particulars are lost to time. What we do know is early that brisk October 11 morning in 1972, Roberto Maestas and three or four other Chicano activists—the preferred term of many Mexican Americans at the time—posed as potential buyers for the vacant Beacon Hill School. They had the necessary in mind. 

Quickly, quietly, after the Seattle School District facilities manager unlocked the front doors, 60 others hiding nearby strode toward the entrance. The perturbed school representative handed Maestas the key. “You lock up when you’re done,” he told the tall, lanky 34-year-old. The activists wouldn’t leave the school for another three months. Fifty years later, the folks at El Centro de la Raza still aren’t done.

 

Spanish was salvation for Roberto Maestas, a lifeline to his Chicano heritage and a means of connection with so many others born into unequal status based on their skin. At 14, ousted from his New Mexico school for speaking in Spanish, he joined the scores of migrant farmworkers seeking opportunity where they could: beet farms of Colorado and lettuce fields of California, then eventually to potato and hop harvests in Idaho and the Yakima Valley. A desire to see the “edge of the ocean” had him hitchhiking to Seattle, where Maestas decided to stay, eventually earning a high school diploma and college degree. 

El Centro de la Raza protesters outside the Beacon Hill School on the first day of the occupation, October 11, 1972.

On March 29, 1968, teaching Spanish at Franklin High School, Maestas unintentionally joined his first school occupation. Black students, outraged by unfair treatment from school administrators, marched 100 strong into the principal’s office. Among them was Larry Gossett, a Black Student Union leader at the University of Washington. He and Maestas, along with fellow minority leaders Bernie Whitebear and Bob Santos, would later become known as the Gang of Four for their racial justice activism.

Seattle City Council member John Miller addresses the Beacon Hill activists on October 12, 1972.

Mid sit-in, after other students and teachers had fled “screaming out of the building,” as Gossett puts it, he noticed Maestas standing in the hall. “He told me, ‘I’m interested in why all my Black students are so upset. I want to learn and appreciate what the issues are,’” Gossett recalls. Over the next few hours, Maestas joined the protesters, listening to the litany of issues they faced as Black people in Seattle.

The next morning, the sit-in over but his awareness forever changed, Maestas entered the teachers lounge and announced he would no longer tolerate being called Bob or Robert, Anglicized bastardizations of his name. “My name is Roberto,” he told them, purposefully trilling his Rs.

Four years later, 1972 found Maestas teaching ESL at South Seattle Community College and leading activism efforts in Seattle alongside Gossett, Whitebear, and Santos. He also participated in his next school occupation, not as a curious bystander this time but as the mastermind.

 

Estela Ortega is as diminutive as her late husband, Roberto Maestas, was tall. But her stature belies the fierceness within. The current executive director of El Centro de la Raza, Ortega has done it all within the nonprofit, from greasing the building’s unwieldy heating system to directing divisions for affordable housing development and youth reengagement. She devotes seven days a week to the organization’s efforts in equitable housing, childcare access, financial and educational empowerment, and social justice issues. When Maestas passed away in 2010, Ortega still came to work the next day. 

Larry Gossett and Estela Ortega, today outside El Centro de la Raza, still fight for social justice issues.

“I personally don’t get tired of what I do,” she says. “I have a vision. I want to stabilize El Centro de la Raza and have worked really hard so structures are in place and [our work] is going to continue.”

Back in 1972, when Ortega was just 22, she was already a regular at anti-war protests and rallies for farmworker rights in and around her home state of Texas. Then she met Maestas at a national conference for the Chicano movement in El Paso. 

They had kept in touch when, weeks later, he sent her a newspaper clipping recounting the occupation of the school. The Seattle activists, frustrated with the decimation of Chicano-centered social services and, most recently, the ESL program of which Maestas was a teacher, had decided to publicize their case. “We are trying to dramatize our needs to unresponsive agencies,” Maestas told The Seattle Times a day after the occupation, delivering at once an explanation and a scathing critique of city and school officials who had delayed help since that summer.

Ortega visited Seattle, the occupation already three weeks old, and promptly decided to stay. The activists won over the press. “Bureaucracy is often not responsive to people’s needs. The Chicanos’ action got response,” school board president Al Cowles admitted to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on October 19. “At each turn, the paper-shufflers met them with delays,” a Seattle Times article later opined on October 22. 

Donations from local groups and individuals flooded in: eight dollars here, groceries there, sleeping bags and electric heaters to make cold nights with a broken furnace more bearable, Chinese and Japanese and soul food, countless buckets of water ferried over from nearby restaurants and gas stations to make up for the busted plumbing.

Gossett was there. Like-minded activists of all races—Black, white, Asian, Indigenous—were too. Ortega and Maestas married December 10, two months after the occupation began, in the school basement. Maestas began a liquids-only fast the next day to protest the city council’s repeated failure to approve a lease for the vacant building. 

By that winter, the building was theirs—then the real work began. Decades of tight budgets and volunteer-dependent work followed, Ortega says. “Every 15 days, there was a heartache. Are we going to make payroll?” Then when Plaza Roberto Maestas, a $45 million mixed-use development south of the schoolhouse, finally opened in 2016, the developer fees more than tripled El Centro’s operating budget. Now Ortega is focused on future developments throughout South Seattle in Columbia City and Federal Way to continue providing the necessary where it is most desperately needed.

 

Paint no longer peels from the walls of El Centro de la Raza, although the resurfaced hardwood floors still bear scuffs from its former life as an elementary school. Tissue paper marigolds from 2019’s Día de los Muertos celebrations edge the hallway ceilings, outlasting the 20-plus ofrendas provided by local community groups back when public gatherings were still a thing. 

Near the front entrance, though, is an ofrenda that will never go away. Above rows of framed pictures, flowers, candles, and sometimes fruit, a massive portrait of Roberto Maestas, a whisper of a smile on his lips, takes up half the wall. El Centro volunteers have maintained it from the beginning, Ortega explains, cleaning it and providing fresh flowers and new decorations. They do it unprompted, without questioning or coaxing. They insist on following in Maestas’s footsteps, it seems, to do what is needed because it is right.


Plaza Roberto Maestas

El Centro’s mixed-use spin-off Plaza Roberto Maestas opened in 2016, bringing affordable housing, bilingual childcare, and community space to what was a parking lot south of the old Beacon Hill School. The nonprofit will break ground on a similar 87-unit development in Columbia City late this year and is currently eyeing a parcel of land in Federal Way for a third iteration.

➽ 0.7 acres at Santos Rodriguez Memorial Park.

➽ Public plaza frequented by food stalls.

➽ 144 additional early-learning spots at José Martí Child Development Center.

➽ 3 retail spaces, including Tacos Chukis and the Station coffee shop.

➽ Roberto Maestas Festival Way, a transit-connected walking corridor.

➽ 112 affordable housing units.

➽ 3,110 square feet of space at Centilia Cultural Center.  

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