Memories of Roberto: Roberto still lives!

Juanita Maestas is a member of the Solid Ground Advisory Council, the Statewide Poverty Action Board, and a fierce advocate for people struggling to get by in our communities. She is also a cousin of Roberto Maestas, the longtime civil rights leader who recently passed away. Roberto is fondly remembered and was much eulogized for his legacy: founder of El Centro de la Raza, founder of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, and one of the Four Amigos of multi-cultural organizing. A few weeks after he died, Juanita sat down with me to share a more personal set of memories about Roberto and his lasting impact on her family. This is Part Three of a three-part interview. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here.

Roberto’s passing is a great loss to us because we have no more. Me and the kids have no more aunts and uncles on my dad’s, the Maestas, side. We have nobody.

Juanita

My son came to me yesterday and said, “You know what, I want to be a Maestas.” He goes, “If something happens to you, I am going to take over your place.” And that is like the most beautiful thing somebody can say to you, “I want to take over.” You know, “Don’t worry, I got you.”

I remember saying that to Roberto: “I’m learning. You put my foot in the door. I’ve done the walking. I know you watch me. I know you kept tabs on me.”

And today my son is like, “Teach me what you know.” And I’ve never heard that. And so I know what Roberto felt like when people were like, “Teach us, we want to know, we want to learn.”

Roberto

So I am going to do that for my son for Christmas; he is going to get his name changed.

When he found out Roberto had passed, he was down for an hour crying. “Why? Why? We have nobody left.” He’s a Maestas, my son, he has to carry the name. And he knows that and it is a big burden on him. ‘Cause it is like he has own thinking, his own ways.

But I said, “Remember, Roberto will walk with you, through everything that you are going through.”

He’s gonna pick up where I left off. By my son being around Roberto when he was younger, you know, going in and listening.

I’d go: “OK, we have to go help Roberto today. OK, what can we do.” We’d help with mailings, all that. Roberto would come down to see who all is down there.

And losing Roberto to us – you know, you want to ask him more questions, you are not done. To us he is not done. To him, he’s like, “OK, I did what I did, somebody else take over” – his children, his daughters, his wife. But, you know, we will take over in our own ways and still represent that. And it is a great loss. And we struggle with that every single day now.

I look at my son every day now and I say, “What are you going to do? Life is too short, you’ve got to find your way, you’ve got to make something of yourself.” He’s 17, he’ll be 18 in June.

Today for him to come and tell me – I mean that is pretty big for a 17-year-old. And he’s like, “Let me see the project you are working on. Let me see what you are doing, how it is going to affect everybody.” He says, “Mom, I’m not into politics, but I will get into them, just show me.”

I’m glad to have him do that. But like I said, Maestas is a loss not only to the people out there, but to us too, and he is in our hearts.

The thing that he loved the most was his El Centro. That was his home. All the kids in the Day Care – he would go down there and try and grab every single one of their cheeks – he had this cheek pinching thing. He called them all his kids. You know, “I’m gonna go see my babies down there.”

Everybody has lost a warrior. We lost a warrior and a family member. He wouldn’t want us to sit around crying for him. Because he is more like, “Get out there and do something. What would I have done? Get out there and be happy, I lived my life. I left a legacy for somebody else to carry on.” Always remember that: Roberto still lives and that is all we can do.

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Memories of Roberto: it’s in the blood

Juanita Maestas is a member of the Solid Ground Advisory Council, the Statewide Poverty Action Board, and a fierce advocate for people struggling to get by in our communities. She is also a cousin of Roberto Maestas, the longtime civil rights leader who recently passed away. Roberto is fondly remembered and was much eulogized for his legacy: founder of El Centro de la Raza, founder of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, and one of the Four Amigos of multi-cultural organizing. A few weeks after he died, Juanita sat down with me to share a more personal set of memories about Roberto and his lasting impact on her family. This is Part Two of three-part interview. You can read Part One here.

Roberto and coffee: Viva!

Now, Roberto was the kind of man that always had a Styrofoam coffee cup full of coffee. When he’d start, when he would leave his office, it would be full. By the time he got to where he was going it would be half empty. You could see the coffee dots everywhere, down the stairs, just everywhere.

A big thing that he taught me is, don’t let people bring you down. I’ve gone to his meetings, once we went to a party with lawyers. Lawyers that are high-class lawyers. I was so embarrassed to be in there because here I am low-class. I’m up here with Roberto on the high-class, and I’m like, “What am I doing here?”

He’s like, “It’s ok, Mija, come on, I’ll introduce you.” And it gave me so much to watch the way he talked to people, the way he does things. And he is quick, very quick. I’ve never seen somebody so into what they are doing.

Once at his office I said to him, “It’s like you live here.”

He’s like, “Mija, sometimes I’m on the couch. I can’t go home, I’m tired.”

Juanita (l) leading the MLK Day Rally in Olympia, January, 2010

One time I found him in a meeting in his office. He’s like “Mija, go get me some food.”

And I said, “OK, Roberto.” And I set up a table for him with the food and everything. He goes, “Would you like to stay?”

“Sure, why not.” So he put me in the corner, but everybody who came in he introduced me. Larry Gossett – I remember Larry Gossett because they were very, very close – and a couple of other people from Eastern Washington. They come in and to hear him talk – he’d speak English and then Spanish, English and Spanish. And you know, Larry Gossett is just sitting back there, going, “Uh huh, uh huh!” I’m like, “OK, look at these guys. Look at Roberto work!” They listened to him.

I told him, “One of these days I am going to walk in your footsteps. I may not be as great as you are. But I will be out there. I will carry on something that you gave me.”

I was up to see him, maybe the last two months of his life. My grandson Anthony was just crawling and I went up there and Roberto looked different.

Warriors for Peace: Uncle Bob Santos (l) and Robert Maestas

And I was like, “He’s all skinny, is he ok?”

And he was like, “Mija, come in, come in.” And he’s on the phone. I’m looking at him, and I bring Anthony in. And he goes, “Ok, ok, I’ll call you back.” Hung up. He goes, “Who’s this?”

And I go, “This is Jessica’s son, Anthony.”

And he goes, “ANTHONY!” and he went and grabbed his cheeks!

I said, “It’s another generation!” He goes: “Yeahhh!” And Jeremy came walking in and he goes, “Who’s this?”

I said, “This is Jeremy.”

He said, “Oh, my gosh, you are such a handsome man, come here.” And he went and grabbed Jeremy’s cheeks.

He said, “What’s that on your face?”

And Jeremy is like, “Hair, man.” It was just funny

He looked at me and he goes, “How you doing?”

I say: “I’m trying to get active, I’m trying to do what I got to do, get out there and let people know that this world is not what they expect or think it is.”

And he goes, “You know, you are going to have a lot of people telling you that you can’t do it. Don’t listen to them. If I listened to them I would have never got where I’m at now.” He goes, “Remember your culture; remember who you ARE. Remember that and nobody is going to take you down.”

And I said, “You know what, I never told you thank you.”

And he goes, “For what? Mija, it’s in the blood, you are going to be just as mean as I am!”

And I said, “You are not mean, you know that.” He started laughing.

I said, “Let me see your coffee cup.”

And he said, “Oh yeah, it’s right here.” And there was like half a cup of coffee. And I’m looking, he says, “What you looking for?”

And I say, “Coffee marks!”

And he’s like, “Oh, I know, I cleaned it up…”

So I took a drink of coffee and I said thank you. And that is the last time I seen him. And then I heard what happened.

To be continued…

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Memories of Roberto: Do something productive

Juanita Maestas is a member of the Solid Ground Advisory Council, the Statewide Poverty Action Board, and a fierce advocate for people struggling to get by in our communities. She is also a cousin of Roberto Maestas, the longtime civil rights leader who recently passed away. Roberto is fondly remembered and was much eulogized for his legacy: founder of El Centro de la Raza, founder of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, and one of the Four Amigos of multi-cultural organizing. A few weeks after he died, Juanita sat down with me to share a more personal set of memories about Roberto and his lasting impact on her family. This is Part One of a three-part interview.

Juanita Maestas, pinching her cheeks in honor of Roberto

I have two kids, one is 19, one is 17. I’ve got a two-year-old grandson and we just lost a huge family member. Not only for his politics, but also as a family member.

We found Roberto in 1997. We were going through some discrimination and he stepped up to the plate and said, “That’s my family. Family takes care of family.”

We had a lot of family at that time. Throughout the years me and my kids have lost basically everybody on my dad’s side, which is the Maestas side. But, one of the world’s greatest leaders – I think of him as a leader of the whole world – he was my cousin.

When I first met him we looked at the family tree. He has a big family tree book in his office. We located my family members that were connected to his family members and that’s it, we’re cousins, you know.

His office was beautiful. It has masks, paintings, Caesar Chavez paintings, artwork from kids that went through his life and out.

Roberto Maestas

Roberto had a cheek pinching thing. He would always go and pinch my kids’ cheeks. My son, he had like the fattest cheeks. So after about the second time I’d seen Roberto, my son held his cheeks and walked in and smiled.

He said, “Hi, Uncle Roberto.”

Roberto said, “Come here, come here, sit here.” And he pulled out five dollars and said, “Go get ice cream.”

And when my son grabbed the money, Roberto would grab his cheeks! And that was it. He would always do that.

My daughter was in fifth grade and at the end of year she had to do a big project. Well she decided that she wanted to go to El Centro. And I was like, “Why do you want to go to El Centro so bad?”

And she said, “I want to go, I have this project.” So ok, we went up there and my daughter is like, “I want to see Roberto.”

They call him, “Roberto, Jessica is here.”

He’s like, “Yeah, tell her come in, come in.” He gives her a hug and kiss. He’s like, “What can I do for you, Mija?”

She’s like, “I want to record you, I want to interview you.”

He’s like, “Ok, yeah, let me check my book.” So they did the interview and it was so emotional, because here is this great man. He’s talking about education. He put it in her head, don’t ever quit school. Tell your friends, don’t ever quit school. Education is important.

She took the interview back to her class, they all watched it. She got, you know, her claps and everything. And her teacher was like, “She got an ‘A’ but I wish I could give her a higher grade. I never seen an interview like that.”

So, she took her report card to Roberto. Every ‘A’ she got, he gave her a dollar. And when he looked at the project she did, because you know the teacher noted on the box, “Your interview was excellent,” and he’s like, “Good job, Mija, now keep that in your head. I want to see you educated. I want to see you go to college. Do something, be productive, you  know.”

So, there was a Seattle Fun Run and everybody had sponsors. And my daughter was like, “I want to run but I don’t have a sponsor.” So El Centro had their volunteer days. My daughter would go to volunteer day, and she went to Roberto and said, “I want to do the Fun Run in Seattle.”

He’s like: “Ok, Mija, what you need?”

She goes, “I don’t know, something with El Centro.”

They had a gift shop at El Centro. He went and got her a pair of shorts that had El Centro on there. So, while they were at school, I came up there and we did a big banner. It was in Spanish. Roberto signed it, everybody at El Centro signed it. And she ran her Fun Run. She went back after it was done and showed him her ribbon. She gave Roberto her ribbon and said, “Thank you.”

To be continued…

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Rest in Peace, Brother Roberto

Roberto Maestas passed away this morning, one of the few times in his long career as a community leader and activist for social change that he fought a losing battle.

Maestas was founder of El Centro de la Raza and a lifelong leader of the multicultural civil rights movement in the Northwest.

“He was a tremendous fighter for social justice and truly a great friend,” said Frank Chopp, Washington State Speaker of the House, who worked closely with Maestas through his long-time role as Executive Director of Fremont Public Association (which became Solid Ground).

Maestas’ passing marks the second death among the Gang of Four, a powerful alliance of Maestas, Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear and Larry Gossett that brought together Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, Native American and African-American communities to work for civil rights and social justice for all people. Among their many achievements was the formation in 1981 of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, which supports and nurtures people of color in non-profit leadership. Whitebear passed away in 2000.

This painting by Al Doggett shows the Gang of Four: Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas and Bob Santos

The Gang of Four were honored as Local Heroes by Solid Ground in 2004. The painting by local artist Al Doggett shown here hangs in our lobby, along with a plaque that recognizes these four unique men for “their charismatic leadership and achievements in building multicultural alliance in King County, for their community activism work to undo racism and support equal rights and leadership of non-profit organizations…”

Godspeed, Roberto. Your impact has been great and good. You will be missed.

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