October 11, 1972: El Nacimiento del Centro de la Raza

El Centro de la Raza, photographed in 2010
Kelly O / The Stranger

Seattle’s autumn of 1972 was reportedly one of the coldest in then-recent memory, which made the historic direct action described below all the more memorable. On the date in focus here, approximately fifty Latino/Latina (or, in the representational parlance of the time, Chicano/Chicana) activists, led by Roberto Maestas (1938-2010), Roberto Gallegos, and Juan Bocanegra, began an occupation of the then-recently-closed Beacon Hill Elementary School. The action was an attempt to convince the City of Seattle to convert the site into a bilingual community and social services center for Greater Seattle’s Chicano/Chicana community, at the time still unjustly invisible on the city’s municipal radar.

Most of the action’s participants were the faculty, staff, and students of a South Seattle Community College English and adult basic education program for Chicano/Chicanas that had recently been defunded as one local consequence among many of Seattle’s early-1970s Boeing Bust economy. The Beacon Hill school building had been closed and boarded up during the 1970-71 school year after a new elementary school was opened several blocks away. The activists had already been negotiating with the city government to obtain the building for several months. The occupation, a result of collective frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations, began when the activists asked to visit the building for a casual tour. When a school district facilities manager allowed the group inside, they then announced that they were not going to leave.

“We’re here to force action by the federal and city government,” Bocanegra later said. “We want to focus attention on the needs of the Chicanos in Seattle and the Puget Sound area.”

Maestas, explaining the decision to occupy the building, said, “We reached the frustration level to the point where we asked to see the school and decided to stay a little longer than they expected.”

The occupation would last into early 1973 as further negotiations took place among the activists and the Seattle City Council and the Seattle School District, all while the activists made do without heat or running water. The negotiations were largely amicable, as the city government, then led by liberal mayor Wes Uhlman, officially welcomed the idea of an ethnic center for Chicanos. The barriers were mostly bureaucratic, since the school district, for legal reasons, could not lease the school building directly to the Chicano group.

Ultimately, the school district conceded and agreed to lease the property to the city, initially for five years for $1 per year. The city then agreed to sublease the property to the activists. For the resulting institution, the activists chose the name El Centro de la Raza — “The Center of the People.” Despite occasional episodes of internal and financial strife over the years, El Centro still thrives today as one of the largest community-based organizations in the nation. Maestas served as its executive director until his death on September 22, 2010.

Sources: “Chicanos Occupy Beacon School,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 12, 1972, p. A11; “Chicano school take-over spurs city into action,” The Seattle Times, October 12, 1972, p. E1; Hilda Bryant, “Bottomly Will Appraise School for Possible Use by Chicanos,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 13, 1972, p. A4; Bruce Johansen, “$18,000 to renovate Chicano school site,” The Seattle Times, October 13, 1972, p. D1; Hilda Bryant, “6 Councilmen Back Use Of School for Chicanos,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, 1972, p. A4; Bruce Johansen, “Chicanos vow holdout, seek lease, renovation,” The Seattle Times, October 14, 1972, p. A4; Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project (www.civilrights.washington.edu).

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