Roberto Maestas at a City Council hearing, Seattle, November 10, 1972 | Photo: Tom Barlet, Seattle Post-Intelligencer | Property of MOHAI, Seattle

Unsettled Territories:El Centro de la Raza

Chicano History in Seattle

Evidence of Seattle’s thriving Latino/a/x* community can be found throughout the region: in public art, live music, cultural events, popular restaurants, and more. At organizations such as El Centro de la Raza in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, you can attend vibrant celebrations for Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos, and other occasions.

Fifty years ago, that would not have been the case. Much of what you see today has its roots in the Chicano Movement—a nationwide movement based on shared cultural identity and the empowerment of communities and workers that had a major influence on local politics and culture beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s. Those involved fought against institutional racism and economic barriers, often joining forces with other minority groups advocating for Black Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans.

The term “Chicano” was itself a political statement when it became more widely used. Formerly considered derogatory, activists reclaimed the term to invoke a sense of solidarity and pride in their indigenous roots.

*The most appropriate terminology to use is contested, and individuals have different preferences. Generally speaking, Latino/a refers to people with roots in Latin American countries, though there is a movement to use the more inclusive Latinx or Latine which reject the use of a masculine or feminine suffix. Chicano/a was adopted by many people during the Chicano Movement, but is less commonly used today.

"To know us is to love us. We still have that same philosophy…please come and visit us, figure out how you can become a part of what we do. People want to be a part of something that is bigger themselves."
--Estela Ortega, CO-Founder & Executive Director, El Centro de la Raza
A photo of Councilman John Miller speaking to group occupying Beacon Hill School, October 12, 1972

Councilman John Miller speaking to group occupying Beacon Hill School, October 12, 1972 | Photo: Cary W. Tolman,
Seattle Post-Intelligencer | Property of MOHAI

Historical Context

Around the 1940s, greater numbers of Latino people began moving north to Washington’s Yakima Valley, where many worked grueling agricultural jobs. Workers were paid paltry amounts and had little to no legal protections, especially if they were undocumented. In schools, students were pressured to assimilate. Their frustrations were shared by Latino people across the country.

In the 1960s, California activist Cesar Chavez and other organizers led the creation of the United Farm Workers of America labor union, inspiring Chicanos in the Northwest. In 1966, two young men from the Yakima Valley, Tomas Villanueva and Guadalupe Gamboa, met with Chavez. When they returned to Washington, they founded the United Farm Workers Cooperative and Service Center, which included a medical clinic and a store with guaranteed fair prices—something they’d formerly been denied.

The Role of Student Activists

In Seattle, members of the University of Washington’s Black Student Union (BSU) traveled to Eastern Washington to encourage Chicano youth to enroll at UW. Though only a handful were able to attend, those that did were highly politically active, forming several student groups and aligning themselves with larger national campaigns.

The UW student Chicano movement left a powerful legacy. Students in subsequent generations worked to establish a Mexican-American Studies class and lobbied administrators to hire Chicano/a faculty. In the 1990s, they supported United Farm Workers in a boycott of Washington winery Château Ste. Michelle. And in 2006, many were among the 25,000 who marched in Seattle as part of a national movement to protest immigration laws they deemed unjust.

Photo of student activists at Beacon Hill School during the protest.

Student protesters inside Beacon Hill School, October 18, 1972 | Photo:
Cary W. Tolman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer | Property of MOHAI

“I saw all these people of all races and economic backgrounds coming together to form El Centro de la Raza.”
--Estela Ortega, CO-Founder & Executive Director, El Centro de la Raza

“The Latino community had no political clout whatsoever, and our clout came from the supporters that we developed.”
— Estela Ortega, El Centro de la Raza

Building Community through Activism

El Centro de la Raza was formed more than fifty years ago when a group of bold, committed activists peacefully occupied an abandoned elementary school and established a community center within its walls. They were led by Roberto Maestras, now one of the most well-known activists in Seattle’s history.

During that period, Maestras worked at South Seattle College as an instructor for a basic education program geared toward students with limited English proficiency. Because the Latino community was largely disadvantaged at the time, the program functioned as a de facto crisis intervention program, with students coming to staff for help with employment, childcare, and more. When the program was abruptly defunded as part of broader defunding for the national War on Poverty, more than 70 students were left adrift.

At the time, there were several abandoned buildings in the area, and the governor encouraged the use of them. In the fall of 1972, Maestas led a group of people invested in the cause to ask Seattle Public Schools if they could tour an empty school for possible rental or purchase. Once inside, they refused to leave, holding their ground for 75 days while gathering support from other minority groups in the area. Eventually, after negotiations with the local government, the city granted them the building to use as a community center.

Meanwhile, Maestas, who served as the Executive Director of El Centro de la Raza for many years, gained a reputation for jumping to the aid of nearly every major worker and minority-led movement, and sanitation workers, actions by Black construction workers asking for fair treatments and efforts led by members of the Chinatown-International District to resist displacement. He had a storied friendship with three other community leaders—Bob Santos, a prominent leader in the Asian community, Larry Gossett, a member of the Black Panthers who would go on to become a King County Councilperson, and Bernie Whitebear, a founder of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation—who earned the nickname, “The Gang of Four” or “The Four Amigos.”

The Chicano Community Today

More than fifty years after El Centro de la Raza’s revolutionary founding, the organization continues to serve the community along with other organizations such as CASA Latina and Sea Mar. During Hispanic Heritage Month, from Sept 15-Oct 15, parades, dance performances including Sea Mar Fiestas Patrias, and other events are held throughout the city. Aqui Mercado, a monthly pop-up in Pioneer Square, brings together dozens of vendors and performances.

Unsettled Territory celebrates the often untold, yet evocative, moments that have helped to shape Seattle’s cultural heritage.
We invite you to come and explore.



Seattle’s best every month in your inbox

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Book Your Trip

Partner Advertisements