A last letter to Roberto Maestas

An old-friend's final letter to the community leader captures some of the powerful impact that the visionary Maestas had on those around him.

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Roberto Maestas attended the 2008 Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project, speaking from the floor during a discussion that focused on Latin contributions.

An old-friend's final letter to the community leader captures some of the powerful impact that the visionary Maestas had on those around him.

Editor's note: Roberto Maestas, the co-founder and longtime leader of El Centro de la Raza, died on Wednesday (Sept. 22). On Sept. 2, the author wrote this letter to his long-time friend Maestas.


It was great speaking with you the other night and going over fond memories of some of our numerous capers together.  I am glad you have, not only the advice of excellent medical personnel, but also the blisteringly honest advice that only daughters can give.  I know you will listen to them.

I will be honored to submit a few thoughts about El Centro as part of your history project, and I will begin immediately to sort through the numerous recollections that have piled up over the years in that dusty old attic of my mind.  But I do want you to know that in so doing, I will need to betray the sage advice of a wise old man I have been following in recent months as I strive to become a better person in body, mind, and spirit.  I speak, of course, of Satchel Paige, whose “Six Steps to a Youthful Life” include this admonition:  "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."

Sure enough, as I begin to look back, I can see that old bandito, Father Time, is definitely in the saddle, gaining on me with each passing day.  So be it.  But in looking back, I can also see a kaleidoscope of our many adventures, conspiracies and good times, most of which are suitable for publication, all of which bring a smile to my face.

For now, I want to skip over the mental snapshots of Frank's Landing, the Maggie campaign, the Royer days, the Sohappy Support Group presence at El Centro (you were the best damn landlord I ever had!), the Kamiah MLK Day celebration, and our never concluded, but respectful, disagreement over who was a better point guard, and send along one additional especially cherished memory.

It was you who insisted that I meet with this (as you described) "beautiful Native American sister who just moved back to town and is trying to save the Seattle Indian Health Board!"  Despite my numerous protests that I wasn't dealing with community issues in the mayor's office, and that health matters were [deputy mayor] Tom Byers' concerns, you persisted, and I relented, so long as you would agree to be at the meeting.

When the day for the meeting arrived, you were late (nothing new there) and I walked out into the reception area, spotted JoAnn and her assistant Becky Corpuz, and asked, "Where's Maestas?  The meeting doesn't start until the El Centro folks get here!" I turned and left the room, after which JoAnn looked at Becky and said, "Let's get out of here.  I don't want to have anything to do with that arrogant SOB!"

Thankfully, you arrived in time to salvage the meeting, and I survived to try a variety of other tactics to get JoAnn Kauffman’s attention, and ultimately earn her grudging respect.  And the rest, as they say, is history:  three children and 26 years later, I still wonder:  "If Maestas had been on time for a change, I might never have had the chance to piss her off and later crawl and drag my way back into her good graces!"

Living here in Spokane, as I awake in the early morning hours to the haunting sound of a train whistle, I am constantly reminded that nothing stands still in life.  Among my fondest recollections is a train ride from Seattle to Toppenish, back when you and I first partnered up (I'm excluding those hair-raising elevator rides you took me on when I was a kid, on Saturday mornings in the Smith Tower, while my dad was doing research, and all I wanted to do was see how fast you could drive the car without crashing it!) on the campaign trail for Maggie.  As we moved from Yakima to Toppenish, and the mariachi band snaked through the cars, blaring out their music, it was a magic moment.  I remember wishing the train would sprout wings, so you and I could storm the engine and grab the controls, while one of us announced over the public address system, "Please remain calm, folks, we’re on our way to Havana!"

And I still have a fresh memory of that rally in Toppenish, 30 years ago this summer, with an ocean of straw hats, Maggie signs, and a ring of cops in riot helmets with batons glaring at our volunteers, who were doing voter registration and passing out campaign literature written in Spanish.  It was a revolutionary act at the time, and I hope it set in motion some of the inclusive politics in our state that have occurred since. We weren't afraid to try.

But whatever the consequence, I recall that train ride as a reminder that, while it is always a good thing to be able to laugh and have fun, the work we were committed to is still, as you say, "serious as a heart attack," and makes a difference in the lives of real people.

So I guess I just need to advise you that as I begin to sift through those memories (and with apologies to Satchel for ignoring his advice for a while), I'm realizing more than ever that Che was right when he said that a true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.  And in the times that we have worked together over the years, we did strive every day to make that love of humanity transform into actual deeds and into acts that serve as examples, and as a moving force.  Whatever our failings, history will absolve us.

With the deepest appreciation for all that we have meant to each other over the years, as brothers in the struggle for human dignity, and the hope that we can keep adding to the memories, and laughter, for a long time to come.


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