Maestas, Roberto Felipe (1938-2010)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 10/11/2009
  • Essay 9186

Roberto Maestas, raised by grandparents in rural New Mexico in subsistence circumstances and a migrant worker in his teens, was a Mexican American activist and politician. He led the occupation of a boarded-up Seattle school in 1972 and founded the social-service agency El Centro de la Raza (Center for the People of All Races) on Seattle's Beacon Hill. Maestas became involved in the University of Washington campus civil-rights and antiwar demonstrations of the late 1960s-early 1970s and was a fiery revolutionary for Latino and other minority concerns. He early recognized the importance of multiracial coalitions and alliances in the civil-rights battle and his efforts helped foster Seattle's reputation for interracial harmony and purpose. These efforts coalesced in the often-honored "Gang of Four" -- Maestas, Bob Santos (1934-2016), Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000), and Larry Gossett (b. 1945). Some called Maestas despotic and nepotistic and others in the Latino community criticized him for spending some El Centro funds on international political trips instead of social services. His refusal to allow the unionization of El Centro in 1997-1998 triggered a schism with the once-supportive labor movement. After 37 years as El Centro's executive director, Maestas stepped down July 1, 2009, to take on a senior advisory role. Roberto Maestas died on September 22, 2010, of cancer.

Early Hardships 

Roberto Maestas was born on July 9, 1938, on a “a little subsistence plot,” he said, in San Augustin, New Mexico, a few farmsteads in a box canyon about nine miles southeast of Las Vegas, and about 65 miles east of Santa Fe. His mother, Lina, died of tuberculosis when he was six months old and his father, Francisco, disappeared.  “The Maestas part of my heritage is almost invisible,” Maestas said.

He and his older brother and sister, Francisco and Mariana, were raised by his maternal grandparents, Isidoro and Emelia Vigil, along with the Vigils’s own 12 children and two other grandchildren. He remembered the “generosity and the elegance and the compassion of my grandparents to everybody.” Isidoro, who died in 1986, lived to be 100.

San Augustin is now deserted.

When Maestas first attended public school in Las Vegas, a town of about 13,000, he spoke only Spanish. He was thrown out of school a couple of times for speaking Spanish, though the enrollment was entirely Mexican-American.  

His youngest uncle, Arturo, had a paper route in Las Vegas, which Roberto inherited when Arturo was drafted into the Army in 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War. “I  would read the paper religiously,” he said. “That’s why I got into journalism.”

Arturo was killed in Korea 1951. He was buried in the national cemetery in Santa Fe, and it was a “traumatic experience” for Roberto.

The Migrant Worker Stream 

When he was 14, he hooked up with a family named Monroe -- Latino, despite the name -- and ran away with them to work in the sugar beet fields of neighboring southern Colorado. For the next two years he worked in the fields and orchards -- sugar beets, potatoes, and cucumbers in Kansas and Wyoming, he said, then the apple orchards of the Yakima Valley.

He arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1955 and stayed briefly with an aunt, Maria Vigil. He attended Cleveland High School for a year and half, dropped out for financial reasons and worked various jobs to support himself -- messenger, delivery boy, gas station attendant, as well as working in the fields of Vashon Island and the Kent area.  “I was an ambitious Mexican, I enrolled in Edison Tech and got my high school diploma” (Bryant). He graduated from Edison -- the former Broadway High School, now Seattle Central Community College -- in 1958, at age 19.

In 1956, he married Janet Tassin and they had three children: Tina Maria, Angela, and Roberto Jr.  They divorced in 1970.

Hard Times and Incendiary Times

Maaestas began attending the University of Washington in 1959, supporting himself and the family by working swing and graveyard shifts at Boeing. The schedule was brutal, and exhaustion and illness interrupted his education, but he ultimately graduated with a degree in Spanish and a minor in journalism. He also found time to work on the UW student newspaper, The Daily.  

He taught Spanish at Franklin High School from the fall 1966 through spring 1969, a tenure interrupted March 29, 1968, by a sit-in led by three young black revolutionaries with Black Panther ties: Larry Gossett, Aaron Dixon, and Carl Miller.

The times were incendiary, for the nation and for Seattle. The Vietnam War was spawning escalating opposition, sometimes violent. And the country’s efforts to integrate its black citizens -- which began in 1948, when President Harry Truman (1884-1972) signed Executive Order 9981, integrating the armed forces -- had regressed rather progressed. Riots in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles in 1965 and Newark and Detroit in 1967 had shocked the country.

Protest at Franklin High

At Franklin, two female black students had been suspended for refusing to change their Afro hair styles. Gossett, Dixon, Miller, and the other protesters demanded reinstatement for the girls, recognition of a Black Student Union chapter, and other reforms. The school acceded to the demands, but 16 of the protesters were briefly jailed.

“Just the contradictions, the absence of minority history, the growing sentiment in the black civil rights movement ... . I became a pretty active teacher,” Maestas said.

He caught the eye of Joseph Summers, a University of Washington professor of Spanish, whose specialty was the literature of the Mexican revolution. “He had a highly developed social conscience ... a remarkable teacher,” Maestas recalled.  In 1965, Summers had helped launch a Latin American Studies Committee at the University of Washington, later expanded to a program which became part of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies in the 1970s.

Summers encouraged Maestas to become involved in Latino issues, and found some grant money to send Maestas to a Latino education conference in Monterey, California. “It was empowering, exhilarating. It was the beginning,” Maestas said.

Summers helped arrange a fellowship and Maestas entered graduate school at the UW in 1969. “For the first time in my life I could study without having to work ...  I did OK with my academic work, but the most exciting things were happening in the political arena on campus -- the antiwar movement, the Mexican-American student movement, the black student movement, the Asian student movement” (Chesley interview).

Groups such as the Brown Berets and Las Chicanas also were presenting a more militant face.

Revolutionary Days

Maestas became a revolutionary, one of the most outspoken agitators for the Latino and other ethnic-minority causes, and a regular at demonstrations for them -- Native American, black, and Asian.

He nonetheless received his master’s degree in Latin American studies in 1971.

Other Chicano activists, including Roberto Gallegos, were launching an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) program at South Seattle Community College (SSCC) in 1971, and Maestas was recruited to run it. There were a half-dozen teachers, an outreach worker, a total staff of about 15.

"We needed someone with an attitude, and he certainly had that," recalls Gallegos. "He also was connected with the university, and he was effective at creating links between Latinos and Blacks and also Asians and Indians" (Jacklet).

Seattle’s Latino community was growing in the early 1970s, though it still represented only about 5 percent of the population. But there was no barrio. It was scattered, and it was “almost invisible” (Chesley interview).

The SSCC program, a product of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, had to close its doors in the fall of 1972 when President Richard Nixon froze funding for adult training programs. Maestas, his staff, and students sought use of the boarded-up, decaying Beacon Hill School, but the school district refused.

El Centro Is Born

On October 11, 1972, Maestas led about 70 to 80 Latino and other activists -- Larry Gossett among them -- to occupy the building, which had no heat or running water.  When media interest began to wane, the protesters took over the Seattle City Council chambers for a few hours and demonstrated at the office of Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935). There also was a brief hunger strike. Tony and Josy Manjarrez, owners of a nearby Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda, let the protesters connect a long hose for water and fed them.

On December 10, 1972, during the occupation, Maestas and Estela Ortega, 22, of Houston, Texas, were married in a Native American ceremony in the school’s chilly gymnasium. The couple had met a few months earlier at a conference in El Paso, Texas. About 100 persons gathered for the ceremony, which was performed “by Semu Huaute, a Chumash elder now living with an intertribal group near Simi, Calif.” (Sanger). They would have three children: Cubana, Amalia, and Adriana.

After three months, the school district and the City of Seattle agreed to a five-year lease on the property for $1 a year, and El Centro de la Raza (The Center for People of All Races) was born. 

“I felt a moral imperative then, and I still feel it,” said Maestas (Harrell).

El Centro slowly restored the building, built in 1914, restarted the ESL program and began offering a range of social services. Among them were a child development center with a Head Start program, other classes, job training, emergency services, a food bank, hot-meal delivery for seniors, and other food programs. El Centro became a major presence in the state’s Latino affairs.

The Four Amigos

Maestas’s involvement in multiethnic alliances and solidarity also expanded when his kinship with Gossett grew to include Bob Santos, Seattle’s most prominent International District (Asian) activist, and Bernie Whitebear, founder of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and one of the state’s most visible Native American activists. They became known as The Gang of Four or The Four Amigos and they came to symbolize Seattle’s unusual success in fostering interracial harmony and purpose. Bernie Whitebear died on July 16, 2000, of colon cancer.

The Four, despite their histories of confrontation, revolutionary rhetoric, and arrests, concluded that the change they sought would have to come through the ballot box and formed an organization called Making Our Votes Count (MOVE). MOVE didn’t last long, but the friendship did. “‘We were close politically, but also socially. We liked each other,’ said Santos” (HistoryLink, Chesley).

Confrontation to Cooperation

MOVE morphed into the Minority Executive Directors Coalition (MEDC) of King County, an umbrella group representing ethnic-minority communities. By the end of 2000, there would be some 120 community-based organizations in MEDC. The Four emphatically embraced the democratic process in 1977 when they supported Charles Royer (b. 1939) in his race against Paul Schell (1937-2014) for mayor of Seattle. Royer won handily and Gossett went to work for him, briefly.

A couple of decades later, in March 1992, the Four would be invited to Japan, Santos said, "to give presentations of our roles in grassroots organizing, how we interfaced with the other major minority community groups, and how we formed the Minority Executive Directors Coalition. Japan was hiring more foreign workers and wanted to figure out how best to work with these immigrants" (Chesley interview).

On December 1, 2005, in Washington, D.C., Partners for Livable Communities honored Santos, Gossett, Maestas, and Whitebear (posthumously) with a Bridge Builders Award "for building and fostering a coalition of minority leaders who work together to best advocate for King County, Washington's diverse population."

Settling Down -- A Bit

Maestas’s firebrand image faded somewhat, to the point where the Post-Intelligencer could publish a mostly positive article in 1984 (“Fiery Hispanic activist mellows for the ’80s”) in which then-Seattle City Council President Norm Rice is quoted as saying, “Like all of us, Roberto has matured ... . He is still an effective voice and he is still a person I listen to” (McConnell).

But he didn’t entirely abandon his role as a provocateur. Later that year, in a Seattle Times op-ed piece, Maestas excoriated “the corporate media” in general for its “hype” for President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), and The Seattle Times in particular “for characterizing Seattle voters as ‘eccentric’ for voting out of step with the rest of the nation” (Maestas).

From Seattle to Central America

El Centro has an International Relations Department, sponsoring forums, programs, fundraisers, and facilitating the market for Latin American arts and crafts. It also gave Maestas a platform from which to pursue his political interests, which remained militantly progressive. “We decided from the very beginning that the crisis in Seattle was intimately linked to the crises in Yakima, New Mexico, Africa and Asia” (Shapiro). In 1980, he “made headlines for refusing services to anti-Cuban refugees” (Jacklet).

He traveled extensively, all over the world, including many trips to Central America on political and cultural visits. His frequent trips to Nicaragua earned him and El Centro the Nicaraguan “10th Anniversary Medal of the Sandinista Revolution” from the Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega (b. 1945). (Ironically, El Centro also won a “Thousand Points of Light” award in 1991 from the administration of President George H. W. Bush, who was vice-president when the Reagan administration was involved in an illegal effort to overthrow the Sandinista government.) Maestas also moved in political circles that included Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 1998 he was in Washington, D.C., campaigning against a measure allowing importation of temporary guest workers.

Politics and Conflicts

Maestas was politically active closer to home, as well. In 1997, then-Governor Gary Locke vetoed a pro-farmer farmworker-housing bill passed by the Legislature. "The veto," says El Mundo’s [editor and publisher Jim] Tiffany, was "mostly accomplished by Roberto Maestas on the telephone" (Shapiro).

He is one of six Washington state Latinos and Latinas providing testimonials on the website of Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a highly visible, supportive voice on Latino causes.

But Maestas’s style and his overseas travel had been prompting criticism in the Latino community. “All of this political activity has given rise to the charge, as disgruntled and ultimately fired staffer Julio Sanchez puts it, that ‘the management of El Centro is more concerned with playing politics than serving the community,” and there were “accusations of nepotism, despotism, and, at times, political correctness ... ” (Shapiro).

“A recent [1998] cartoon in El Mundo, Washington’s leading Spanish-language publication, depicted Maestas milking a cow with the name of El Centro ... Maestas squirts the milk not into a nearby pail marked social services but into another container marked international relations” (Varner).

Maestos generated more animosity when in the early 1990s he joined a dispute between the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville, Washington, and farm workers seeking to unionize. Guadalupe Gamboa, one of the pioneer activists organizing Eastern Washington’s migrant workers, said, “We tried hard to get Roberto to be more reasonable and to solve the situation without a big fight, but he wouldn’t listen” (Jacklet).

The United Farm Workers of Washington State and the winery reached agreement allowing a unionization vote in 1995.

The Battle with Local 8

Maestas aroused further enmity in 1997-1998 when he successfully fought attempts by the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 8, to organize El Centro.

Its significance was captured in the lead paragraph of a Seattle Times article on May 12, 1998:: “A fierce struggle to organize workers at El Centro has escalated into a battle over who can best represent workers of color, sending reverberations through labor and civil-rights communities on the West Coast” (Varner).

During the 10-month confrontation, there were accusations that “El Centro mounted an anti-union campaign using harassment, threats and coercion” (Sánchez and Farfán). Maestas was once the darling of the labor movement, but the King County Labor Council placed El Centro on its “Do not patronize” list. Former Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) was called in to mediate the dispute, but failed to reach an accord.

In July 1998, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that was a partial victory for both sides. The charges against El Centro were dismissed but El Centro had to offer five days of sick leave (which it had not previously provided) and post signs informing workers about their union-organizing rights. By this time, however, unionization supporters at El Centro had left the agency, three of them with severance packages.

Maestas saw El Centro then and saw El Centro later as a sort of commune, “where everybody has a right to vote ...,”  with no such concept as “management.”   “We don’t see ourselves as management," he said. "We see ourselves as administrators and leaders of a progressive, revolutionary organization” (Chesley interview).

(The 1,700 employees of Sea Mar Community Health Centers, a Western Washington organization specializing in social and health services for Latinos, belong to the union, said Michael Leong, SeaMar vice-president for legal and corporate affairs.)

Controntation Fallout

The turmoil at El Centro triggered a heavy staff turnover and in 1998, three contractors pulled funding for language and job-training contracts. Said one, “Constant staff turnover meant clients would get lost in between changing staff.”  The lost funding, however, represented only 7 percent of its annual budget (Shapiro).

El Centro was weathering another financial crisis during that period. In 1997, the school district insisted on fair market rates, rather than the symbolic $1 a year, and rent was increased to $12,000 a month. But El Centro did not pay any and by 1999 owed $150,000. Grants from the City of Seattle and Washington state for almost $1 million enabled El Centro to buy the site from the school district.

This development spun off another spat -- with some of El Centro’s Beacon Hill neighbors, who wanted an unused piece of the El Centro property to be considered for a new library. Maestas resisted, saying El Centro had other plans for the property.

“‘El Centro is there as a gift from the taxpayer, and for them to blow off taxpayer interest is not appropriate,’ said Roger Pence, president of the North Beacon Hill Council” (Keene).  

The Library Board did not list the property among its top three choices and the new library ultimately was built in 2004, at 2821 Beacon Avenue S. In 2009, El Centro was participating in hearings on planning for the advent of a transit hub on Beacon Hill. It was proposing “a four-to-six-story, mixed-use building, retail and commercial apartments for the Latino community,” said Pence, who no longer is involved with the North Beacon Hill Council, but remains involved in community affairs (Pence).

Relationships in 2009? “We’re getting along fine.”

Amigos Remain Loyal

Despite the swell of dissent, Maestas’s Gang of Four friends stood by their amigo. An article in The Stranger got at the roots of their loyalty:

"'I know he's not a saint,’ says Maestas' longtime friend Bob Santos ... . ‘None of us were. But you have to take the positive along with the negative. I always look at the results. Are you helping people? Are you feeding people? ... . Maestas has always been in the trenches ... . He’s tackled a lot of tough issues over the years, and he's put together some tough programs up at El Centro. You have to respect what he's accomplished’ ” (Jacklet).

When El Centro celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2007, Gossett said:

"I think El Centro is the premier center for the multicultural social-justice movement over the last 35 years, not just in the Northwest but west of the Mississippi ... . El Centro's doors have always been open and welcoming to all people because of Roberto's insistence. He is the philosophical leader, not just admired by Latinos, but others" (Harrell).

The greater community honored and acknowledged Maestas as well. In 1996, he was one of 11 citizens chosen by United Way to carry the Olympic torch through King County. He served on the King County Civil Rights Commission from May 1996 to November 2000.

On October 11, 2002, Bill Moyers, on his “Bill Moyers Journal,” presented a lyrical report on El Centro and Maestas. He introduced El Centro as a child of the 1960s and said:

“But unlike so much else from that period, El Centro de la Raza is still around, trying to break down barriers of race and class, feeding the hungry, sheltering the needy -- and teaching English to Latino children and adults seeking a foothold in America” (Moyers).

In 2004, Roberto Maestas was Seafair’s King Neptune, the first Latino on that throne.

A New Role and New Honors

On July 1, 2009, Maestas stepped down as executive director of El Centro and was succeeded by his wife, Estela Ortega. 

Said the El Centro Summer 2009 Newsletter: “In his new role Maestas will serve as Senior Advisor & Chair of Historical Resources, leading a program to chronicle, collect, record and preserve El Centro de la Raza’s historical contributions to the local, national and international community and the social justice movement. Maestas will also act in a senior advisory capacity to ensure that his knowledge and strategic expertise is successfully captured for the benefit of the community” (Newsletter).

On November 12, 2009, the YMCA of Greater Seattle will honor the Gang of Four with its 26th anniversary A. K. Guy Award, the first time the YMCA will recognize four unrelated individuals for the award.

In 2008, El Centro served 25,497 program participants, according to its annual report. Its projected budget for 2009 was about $5 million, provided by both public and private benefactors.

Roberto Maestas died on September 22, 2010, of cancer.


Frank Chesley interviews with Roberto Maestas, September 15, September 30, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Hilda Bryant, “10 Years of Campus Strife -- and Progress,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 9, 1974, p. A-1; Ben Jacklet, “El Gran Jefe,” The Stranger, June 10, 1999, Stranger website accessed September 2009  (; Steve Sanger, “Chicanos Wed in Chilly Ritual,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 11, 1972, p. B-1; Debera Carlton Harrell, “El Centro de la Raza Marks 35 Years,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, website accessed September 2009 (; Nina Shapiro, “Reexamining El Centro,” Seattle Weekly, September 23, 1998, website accessed September 2009 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "“Santos, Robert ‘Bob’ Nicholas,” (by Frank Chesley); Pete McConnell, “Fiery Hispanic activist mellows for the ’80s,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 22, 1984, p. A-28; Roberto Maestas, “The Power of the Media,” The Seattle Times, December 15, 1984, p. A-19; Lynne K. Varner, “Union Organizing Splits El Centro,” Ibid., May 12, 1998, website accessed September 2009 (; Julio Sánchez and Ligia M. Farfán, “Workers’ rights at stake at El Centro de la Raza,” Ibid.,, May 25, 2001, website accessed September 2009 ( /archive); Linda Keene, “A lot to resolve on Beacon Hill -- neighbors, El Centro founder clash over plans for site,” Ibid., April 1, 1999, website accessed September 2009 (; Frank Chesley interview with Roger Pence, September 29 2009; Bill Moyers, “Bill Moyers Journal,” PBS, October 11, 2002, website accessed September 2009 (
This essay was updated on September 22, 2010, and August 28, 2016.

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