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Originally published September 22, 2010 at 11:42 AM | Page modified September 25, 2010 at 8:34 PM

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Roberto Maestas, leading advocate for social justice, dies at 72

Roberto Maestas, a founder of El Centro de La Raza and a leading advocate for social justice, died of lung cancer Wednesday morning at University of Washington Medical Center. He was 72.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Roberto Maestas used to say that what made his long partnership with three other civil-rights advocates work was that they all loved people unconditionally.

For nearly four decades, that characteristic allowed Mr. Maestas to fight hard for causes that mattered to him while maintaining a sense of humor and even having fun.

Mr. Maestas, a founder of El Centro de La Raza and a leading advocate for social justice, died of lung cancer Wednesday morning at University of Washington Medical Center. He was 72.

A former Spanish teacher at Franklin High School, Mr. Maestas demonstrated for Indian fishing rights, participated in the fight to open up construction jobs to black workers and supported farmworkers, among many other movements and causes.

His nephew, Miguel Maestas, said Mr. Maestas was "an incredibly successful leader within the Latino community and helped to build movements and bridges locally, nationally and internationally."

Through it all, Mr. Maestas maintained a sense of humor and perspective.

"The power of his personality lit up any room," said his friend Larry Gossett, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council. Mr. Maestas would say, "What would the movement be if we couldn't laugh and talk and have fun with each other," Gossett recalled.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn ordered city flags lowered to half-staff Wednesday in memory of Mr. Maestas.

Mr. Maestas was part of a coalition of leaders whose work on social-justice issues helped change the face of Seattle beginning in the 1970s. Mr. Maestas was the first to suggest formalizing those relationships, Gossett said.

The leaders became known as the Four Amigos — along with Gossett and Mr. Maestas, they included the late Indian leader Bernie Whitebear and Bob Santos, a prominent voice in the Asian-American community.

His wife, Estela Ortega, said, "Roberto's legacy is multiracial unity. He believed in peoples of color and progressives coming together to make change in our city, our state, and our nation. Anybody you talk to will say that is one of his biggest contributions." She said he knew the struggles of other groups and could relate those to the challenges faced by Latinos.

"I am Roberto"

Gossett said he and Mr. Maestas first met when Gossett was a student at the University of Washington and organized about 150 black students to protest a decision by the principal at Franklin High to kick two black girls out of school because they wore their hair unstraightened. That was March 1968. Teachers and staff left the school when the students occupied the principal's office. Mr. Maestas was the only teacher who stayed to hear their concerns.

"The righteousness of their cause had such an impact on him that the next morning he went into the teachers' lounge and said, 'My name is no longer Robert or Bob,' " Gossett said, "He said 'I am Roberto,' rolling those Rs as only he could do. That's when he became an activist."

And since then, Gossett said, "No one has been more on the front lines of every significant movement for social change in the Northwest than Roberto."

After the Franklin sit-in, Mr. Maestas went to Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River to support the fight for Indian fishing rights and ended up in jail. Gossett said Mr. Maestas was jailed again demonstrating on behalf of the United Construction Workers Association, led by the late labor activist Tyree Scott. He stood with Native Americans during the takeover of what would become the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

He subsequently led the takeover of an old school on Beacon Hill that became the home for El Centro de la Raza, which he meant to be a center for all people who needed an advocate.

Mr. Maestas served as director of El Centro for 36 years until he stepped aside in June of last year and was succeeded as executive director by his wife.

The two met at a Latino political gathering in El Paso in 1972, Ortega said. He invited her to come to Seattle when they occupied the school later that year. She did, and they were married that December.

"He was charming, funny, smart, committed, brilliant," she said. "That's why I fell in love with him and married him."

"Beloved community"

Mr. Maestas was born July 9, 1938. His mother died when he was 6 months old, and in the absence of his father he was raised by his maternal grandparents in the small town of Las Vegas, N.M. He always talked about New Mexico and his roots there.

Gossett said his friend loved basketball and was conflicted last year when the University of Washington and the University of New Mexico played each other for a spot in the Sweet 16. And despite his declining health, he accepted an invitation to sit courtside with Seattle Storm co-owner Anne Levinson at the team's last home game.

Mr. Maestas had been wrestling with cancer for two years, but his death came more suddenly than family and friends expected. Ortega said he attended a celebration of Mexican independence Sept. 16. He was frail, but his spirits were high. "He loved life, and he projected that to people," she said.

Two days before his death, the family was told chemotherapy was not working.

His nephew said Mr. Maestas was taken early Wednesday to the hospital, where he died surrounded by friends and family.

In 1956, Roberto married Janet Tassin of Seattle. He is survived by their three children, Tina Maria Bocanegra, Angela Martinez and Roberto Maestas Jr., all of the Seattle area, and by two daughters from his marriage to Ortega, Amalia Cubana Maestas, of Seattle, and Adriana Emilia Maestas, of London.

In a statement, McGinn said Mr. Maestas "often spoke of building a 'beloved community' through nonviolence, community engagement and an empowered citizenry."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the beloved community as a world where poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated, a world made possible by the transformative power of nonviolence to turn opponents into friends.

Services are pending.

In lieu of flowers, Mr. Maestas' family asks that contributions be made in his name to El Centro de la Raza, with the funds to be used to establish a college fund for Latino students.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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