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2011 Superheroes for Washington families: Estela Ortega and Roberto Maestas

Estela Ortega and Roberto Maestas, El Centro De La RazaEstela Ortega and Roberto Maestas, El Centro De La Raza

It has been quite a year of highs and lows for Estela Ortega, who lost her beloved husband, Roberto Maestas, last September. Maestas was the cofounder and longtime director of El Centro de La Raza, and a nationally recognized advocate for social justice. In February, Ortega, now the executive director of El Centro, was honored by Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray as a 2011 Woman of Valor.

El Centro de La Raza (The Center for People of All Races) was born in 1972, when a group of activists led by Maestas occupied the abandoned Beacon Hill School, eventually transforming it into a community center for the Latino and Chicano community. Since then, El Centro has offered a wide array of services, including a youth program, emergency service center, hot meal program, food bank, and an education and skill-building program.

Maestas began life as the youngest child of 17 in a small farming community in northern New Mexico. He worked in fields and orchards along the “migrant trail” to Colorado, then traveled to Seattle, where he worked his way through the University of Washington. Ortega says that Maestas never forgot the struggles of his youth. “Poor people were always very important to him.”

Maestas was a member of Seattle’s famous “Gang of Four,” which founded the influential Minority Executive Director’s Coalition in the 1980s. The group united the Asian-Pacific American, African-American, Native American and Chicano-Latino communities in advocacy for people of color. His work touched the lives of young and old.

“Many times, our program works with youth who have decided to fight on behalf of a gang and represent that as their only way of life,” says Alex Bautista, coordinator of El Centro’s youth program. “Roberto, through his example, showed youth that they don’t have to lead a life as a gang member, but instead fight for the community and build alliances with others rather than creating enemies. I look up to Roberto today. Even though he is no longer here with us physically, his memory and legacy is alive and well.” —KFM

Get to know Estela Ortega and Roberto Maestas...

Maestas’ personal heroes, per Ortega: His abuelo [grandfather] Isidoro Vigil for his love, wisdom, spirit of giving, patience and optimism. Roberto would often quote his grandfather, who said, “There is nothing so bad that you cannot find the good in it.” Also, his tio [uncle] Arturo, who was in many ways a father figure to him. Arturo was killed in the Korean War. His community hero was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose message of unconditional love, multiracial unity and the beloved community were lessons that were always a part of Roberto’s speeches and talks. To some degree, his older brother Francisco, although he would never admit it to him, for providing an example of confidence and success to him.”

Pet peeve: He continually picked up after me. I had a bad habit and still do of not hanging up my coats, scarves, leaving my clothes on the bed or a chair. He would just put my things away or hang them up and he would tell me, “You don’t like to put away your things!” It bugged him, but he patiently picked up after me.

Best recent read: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Best way to get kids involved in giving back: He would say through example, fostering compassion through unconditional love, teaching them about our shared humanity. Validate them as special and capable. Teach them to find the beauty in everything.

Up Next: Karen Kodama, Seattle Public Schools >>

Flip ahead to meet the rest of our 2011 Superheroes:
Dr. Beth Harvey, pediatrician
Ron Sher, creator of local retail centers
Rebecca Mallos, Attachment and Trauma Specialists
Mike Heinisch, Kent Youth and Family Services
Karen Bryant, The Seattle Storm

Flip back to see previous 2011 Superheroes:
Shandra Benito, Reach Out
Michael Schindler, Operation Military Family
Sebrena and Rena Mateja Burr, Wellspring Family Services
Dan Savage, It Gets Better Project
2011 Superheroes: Home

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