“We are a people torn apart from era to era. It is logical, moral and psychologically constructive for us to resist oppression, united as families…the inner strength and integrity will make us whole again.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)
This Is Our Story
The fall of 1972 was not the “best of times” for Seattle, the Northwest, the United States or the world at large. Seattle was struggling with the “Boeing bust,” the area’s worst recession since the 1930’s. The deep racial divide as well as the nightmarish war in Vietnam were tearing apart the soul of our nation. At one point, some anonymous “carpenters” made national news by erecting a creative and elegant billboard along a main highway reading, “Will the last person leaving Seattle, please turn off the lights?” (Accompanied by a sketch of a bare light bulb and a dangling string.)
As fall came, the days shortened, the rains arrived and the air cooled into one of Seattle’s coldest winters on record.
A regressive governmental decision demonstrated how the lines between international, national and local issues could easily become one. A “War on Poverty” centerpiece program, barely after the highly-touted “WAR” had begun, was abruptly defunded, sparking an issue that led to the creation of “El Centro de la Raza.”
About seventy Latino students and ten staff of the Chicano: English and Adult Basic Education Program at the Duwamish branch of the incipient South Seattle Community College found themselves without an educational home.
The First Big, Bold Step
At about 8:00am on October 11, 1972, a three person delegation was greeted by the facilities manager of the Seattle Public School District who was showing a decaying, dilapidated facility to representatives of “some” organization interested in renting or buying the abandoned three story elementary school building located in the middle of the one square block.
As the lock clicked open, the leader of the delegation slipped the lock out of the mechanism and placed it in his pocket confusing the custodian who said nothing.
Thus began a now almost 50-year historic journey as core staff, students and their families nervously and silently walked from behind bushes and parked cars through the open door.
The occupation of the abandoned Beacon Hill School located on the crest ten minutes from the heart of downtown Seattle had begun. At that moment Beacon Hill School ceased to exist and El Centro de la Raza was born.
This incident mirrored the countless political and social demonstrations and tenor of the previous decade and had intensified in 1968 with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (following his short but magnificent two decades of struggle for racial equality).
The following year, Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was occupied.
In 1970, Fort Lawton, a surplus military facility in Seattle, was occupied by Indian people seeking the restoration of their treaty rights including salmon fishing and land based rights. Large farmworker strikes were occurring in California and in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. Asian residents in Seattle’s “Chinatown” adjoining the Beacon Hill neighborhood were fighting the gentrification of the area by repeatedly hitting the streets.
Most university campuses in the state, nation and the world were experiencing mass demonstrations and occupations against the Vietnam War. The entire nation was stunned by the military killings of protesting students at Jackson State and Kent State Universities under the Presidential watch of the infamous Richard Nixon.
Those who led the peaceful occupation of the crumbling Beacon Hill School had participated in many of these activities and had experienced the power of joining efforts across racial and class barriers.
El Centro De La Raza: Center For People Of All Races
From the beginning, those of us who occupied and began to transform the old elementary school were joined by hundreds of previous movement allies of all races and economic sectors who were clear and trusted with our decision. Like the surrounding neighborhood, and Seattle as a whole, we represented the rainbow of humanity.
So, although the founding of El Centro de la Raza was sparked by Latinos and acquired a Spanish name, it began, and remains, “The Center for the People of All Races.” It is “home” for all people who are interested in continuing the struggle for a better world by serving, educating, defending and organizing each other and our people to build the “beloved community” as envisioned by King, Bolivar, Zapata, Ghandi, Martí, Joe Hill, Mother Teresa, Ho Chi Minh, Emma Tenayuca, Che, Black Elk, Geronimo, and thousands of others of our heroes and martyrs.
Since the beginning El Centro de la Raza has provided a gathering place for Seattle’s otherwise dispersed…and in 1972, largely invisible Latino community and welcomes all individuals with open arms.
We who peacefully occupied the Beacon Hill School created a “beloved community,” without running water and heat, as negotiations took place with the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools. As a result of months of official “inaction” it became necessary to occupy the seats and Chambers of the Seattle City Council to underscore our determination to develop an authentic grassroots and truly democratic community center on the site.
One of the key debates raged around the most appropriate location for a Latino center. We were convinced that the Beacon Hill site was the most appropriate because of it’s centralized location, availability, and potential for expansion and development.
The final approval from Mayor Wes Uhlman to secure the facility came only after the peaceful occupation of his office and subsequent arrest of El Centro de la Raza leaders. The three-month occupation, in one of Seattle’s coldest winters, resulted in a five year lease of the building at $1 a year.
After the victory, reality set in and those of us who had endured and organized for three difficult months realized that the real work had just begun.
Since 1972, people’s sweat, tears, songs, study, sacrifice, and creativity have built and now own lock stock, and barrel, and with all due modesty, one of the most uncompromising and productive community-based organizations in the nation.
Citing only two of the countless international, national, state, and local awards, El Centro de la Raza is probably the only organization in the world to hold, on the one hand, the Nicaraguan “10th Anniversary Medal of the Sandinista Revolution” (1989), and the “Thousand Points of Light” award (1991) from the George Bush Sr. White House (Given that these two governments were deadly enemies. Between those two awards lies a remarkable story).
The Mission, The Vision
El Centro de la Raza has sought to serve and empower all whom we reach to learn from each other and unite our energies in the noble struggle for basic social change. The provision of a wide range of survival services alone is only a temporary relief for deep societal wounds; it does not address the roots of poverty, discrimination, alienation and despair.
El Centro de la Raza strives to use social, cultural, educational, economic and civic activities as vehicles to bring together peoples of all races and refuses to separate our nation’s economic model form the historic tragedy of racism, poverty, and war. Our organization tries to combine a strong sense of self-worth and connectedness to one’s family and culture with active participation in community affairs. Our collective self governance has developed an extensive network-locally, nationally and internationally-to join diverse peoples, with common problems, in search of effective and just solutions.
We Will Never Give In To Injustice
We all know it is a difficult struggle. The organization squarely confronts problems of racism, sexism and other forms of inequality that have bedeviled the world for centuries. These problems were created over many generations and only the progressive march of history will solve them.
El Centro de la Raza’s dedication to solving them by building a sense of community is best expressed in the words of the first of our 12 Principles; all of which speak to the autonomy and to a global agenda and which have guided us with clarity and success through a tumultuous era of history.
“To share, disburse and distribute our services, resources, knowledge and skills to our participants, community, visitors and broader human family with all due dignity for their individuality, needs and condition. To do so creatively with warmth, cultural sensitivity, fairness, enthusiasm, compassion, honesty, optimism, patience and humility in all areas of work.”
The mainstream media, whenever it found it convenient (or necessary ) to cover bits of our story, has always been incomplete, distorted, sensationalized or outright false.
Now, with the brilliant progressive possibilities of cyberspace, we will continue to tell our unfiltered story.
Bienvenidos Siempre a El Centro de la Raza