Roberto Maestas, Longtime Latino Leader Who Ruled with Charm and an Iron Hand, Dies

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The eulogies are coming in for Roberto Maestas, the longtime Latino leader and El Centro de la Raza founder who died this morning of lung cancer. Mayor Mike McGinn ordered city flags to fly at half-mast today, and spoke of the "beloved community" Maestas envisioned building through "nonviolence, community engagement and an empowered citizenry." But Maestas (pictured at right at a recent event) was a complicated figure.

Maestas was beloved himself, to be sure. Gregarious and charming, he seemed to have a hand in everything that was going on in minority communities, from big national debates (he was a friend and supporter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson) to personal disputes. In a conversation with Seattle Weekly this spring, he recalled how he had intervened after hearing complaints about a local Latino lawyer named Antonio Salazar. Maestas said he sat down with Salazar and urged him to do better, although the talk seemed to do little good and Salazar was disbarred this year.

Maestas ran a tight ship himself--too tight, some would say. As a 1998 Seattle Weekly profile showed, employees felt Maestas demanded total loyalty--both to himself and the causes they espoused. And there were a lot of causes, some quite controversial. He opposed importing "guest workers" from Mexico, for fear they would be exploited. He took sides in the long-ago unionization battle at Chateau St. Michelle, coming out in favor of a Ohio union that was attempting to organize workers, and against the more radical United Farmworkers of America, which ultimately signed an agreement with the winery. And he opposed unionization--successfully--at his own shop, where at the time there was no sick leave.

In recent years, Maestas seemed more mellow. He stepped down as executive director in 2009, although he continued to occupy an advisory role with the group. But it was his wife and El Centro's new executive director, Estela Ortega, who often showed up at rallies to represent the organization, a role that is now firmly in her hands.

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