El Centro de la Raza
in Seattle, Washington
, United States
, is an educational, cultural, and social service agency, centered in the Latino
community and headquartered in the former Beacon Hill Elementary School on Seattle's Beacon Hill
. It serves a broad range of clients in Seattle, King County
El Centro has received diverse honors and recognition. Their web site points out that they are "probably the only organization in the world to hold the Nicaraguan '10th Anniversary Medal of the Sandinista Revolution' (1989), and the 'Thousand Points of Light' award (1991) from the Bush administration. El Centro founder Roberto Maestas was the 2004 "Seafair king", the first Latino ever to receive this civic honor.
El Centro began with the October 11, 1972 "occupation" by a group of Chicanos of the then recently closed Beacon Hill School. They were inspired, in part, by the 1970 occupation by Native Americans of the decommissioned Fort Lawton in Seattle's Magnolia district, which had resulted in the founding of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center, but more generally by the activist spirit of the time, ranging from opposition to the Vietnam War to the growth of the United Farm Workers of America (a labor union). At that time, there were relatively few Latinos in Greater Seattle.
The three-month Chicano occupation of the Beacon Hill School was not without incident and some arrests were made — but it ultimately resulted in a dollar-a-year lease on the disused building. Eventually City officials gave in to the group's demands. Though Roberto Maestas has generally been credited as the most vocal and primary founder of the agency, nearly 50 Chicano activists actually took part in the founding of El Centro. Most of these founders later left the organization due to internal strife. Among these activists is Gloria Rivera, the first El Centro director, Roberto Gallegos and Juan Bocanegra, names deleted from the agency's official history.
In 1999 Seattle Mayor Paul Schell awarded the ownership deed of the property to the Board of Directors of El Centro.
El Centro and the NLRB
The agency is controversial even within the Latino community the agency claims to represent, and Executive Director Roberto Felipe Maestas has often been linked to the wrongs of which the agency has been accused. A long-time Chicano activist with strong local political allies, Maestas has been a leading voice in the struggle for civil rights for women, workers and minorities. In 1998, a scandal shook the foundations of the organization. The National Labor Relations Board
found that Roberto Maestas and leading board agency members set out to destroy the union movement that El Centro employees were attempting to initiate through the help of Office and Professional Employees International Union
(OPEIU) Local 8. Employees sought to reform the agency due to what they claimed were abusive work conditions, including low pay, long hours, and no benefits. The findings of the NLRB undermined El Centro de la Raza and its director, concluding that management attempted to bust the union through a campaign of firings, threats and an even an assault against the spouse of a pro-union employee. Revelations further sank the image of Director Maestas when court records exposed his behind-the-scenes violence, including a knife assault against a former spouse. Director Maestas, however, denies all charges and community allegations regarding his ethics. (Jacklet, 1999)
El Centro's declared mission is "to achieve equality, justice, dignity and freedom for all people without regard to race, color, creed, sex or national origin. Our purpose is to empower — through peaceful means and social change — those affected by poverty, racism, sexism, alienation and despair so that they may become self-reliant." They served over 13,000 clients in 2003 and have an annual budget slightly over $3 million.