Remembering the fiery Roberto Maestas personally

The community leader filled a room with force that was hard to contain, even when editing his words.

Crosscut archive image.

Roberto Maestas. Excerpts from an interview with him by the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project are <a href="; target="_blank">here</a>.

The community leader filled a room with force that was hard to contain, even when editing his words.

The last time I saw Roberto Maestas, who died Wednesday, was just over a month ago. The founder of the El Centro de la Raza and I reminisced about our long, and at times stormy, relationship.

We’d first met in the 1970s when he was the fiery leader of a half-dozen civil rights and justice campaigns and I was a still-wet-behind-the-ears journalist, grateful for a chance to be editing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Saturday Op-Ed page.

I realized it was absurd for the paper to pay to run a syndicated national column on Saturdays when we had so many untouched local issues and emerging community leaders that needed to be given a voice. My boss, Editorial Page Editor John de Yonge, and I picked eight local civil rights activists as prospective contributors and I was lucky enough to become their editor. Every other month, these activists and advocates took their exciting, ground-breaking, and innovative messages from the streets to the columns of the PI. They earned $25, about 4 cents a word.

What an awe-inspiring eight they were — civil rights leaders like now-King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Mount Zion Baptist Church's Rev. Sam McKinney, the late Native American leader Bernie Whitebear, and community activist Sharon Maeda.

None of the eight was any more room-filling than Roberto Maestas. He had such a large persona that, although a compact man, he seemed a giant, born 10-feet tall with a megaphone. At the time we met, he had just finished converting the abandoned Beacon Hill School into a community center that he called El Centro de la Raza ("The Center for People of All Races").

Maestos brought his bi-monthly columns to me on unlined paper, typewritten with multiple cross outs. But, given the content, he could have been writing on flammable vellum. His columns were rife with accusations and even an occasional libel, words the paper couldn't risk printing without running them past a lawyer.

That's where the stormy part of our acquaintance flared up. Roberto didn't take kindly to editing. In fact, if I changed a word of his copy, he'd storm into the P-I editorial offices to protest.

"Why did you change that part?" he'd demand.

"I'm sorry, I had to," I said. "You can't say someone broke the law without some proof."

Roberto would stomp off to see my boss to complain and even to hint that I should maybe be fired.

In retrospect, I can understand his anger and no doubt I may have seemed off-base. But, on the good side, Roberto got to say most of what he intended, protesting the exploitation of farm workers, the inequality for workers of color, and the mistreatment of union workers.

Over the years, Roberto and I met in other venues and became good friends, often finding ourselves on the same side of such controversies, as with our opposition to Initiative 200, the anti-affirmative action measure.

For that reason, it was no surprise to see Roberto at a recent fundraiser for 46th District Legislator Phyllis Kenney, a mutual friend and staunch social activist.

We met that night with a hug — one of Roberto's typically enthusiastic greetings, a benediction as well as a welcome. We talked about the city that he and I both have loved and we discussed ways that it could be made better, how we could do more for immigrants and refugees. We talked about El Centro and how he'd retired after 36 years, handing operations over to his wife, Estela Ortega.

Roberto said that he'd had some health problems recently. That seemed difficult to believe. It's true that he looked a little thinner. Still he seemed still capable of feisty responses and strong leadership. "Old age isn't for sissies," he said with an experienced air.

"You handle it well," I said, thinking about our long acquaintance. In the beginning, it was a kind of love-hate-love relationship. I am glad that it evolved and matured. Roberto is someone I am honored to have known. He’s someone that I will miss more than I can say. And, in the end, our quixotic acquaintance was all about the love. And the respect.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.