Organizers with El Centro de la Raza protest against police brutality in the 1970s, holding a large sign that reads "EL CENTRO DE LA RAZA!" and others that read "Stop Murdering Oppressed People," "Stop Police Murder," and "Stop SPD Attacks Against the People"

El Centro de la Raza Celebrates 50 Years of Resistance in South Seattle

by Victor Simoes

El Centro de la Raza (The Center for People of All Races), a Beacon Hill-based organization grounded in the Latine community of Washington State, celebrated 50 years of resistance and civil rights advocacy in the South Seattle community last October.

The center started as a peaceful occupation of the Beacon Hill School building on Oct. 11, 1972. Initially built in 1904, the school closed because of low student enrollment. The activists occupied the building, asking for better conditions for the Latino and Chicano community in the region.

“As an organization that started with a bang, one might say, in terms of occupying a building, in 1972, we were taking a stand to demand that our communities, Latino, the Chicano Latino community, needed programs and services and dignity to our people’s lives,” said Executive Director Estela Ortega. 

After almost a year of occupation and resistance, activists reached an agreement with City officials. The former school would be leased by the city to El Centro for a symbolic value of $1 a year. Even though El Centro’s initial actions were led by the Latino community, it quickly became a hub for Black, Indigenous, and other immigrant communities in Seattle, who helped to restore the building. 

In the 50 years that followed, El Centro de la Raza continued to champion civil rights and develop services for the Latine community in South Seattle. Today, the organization reaches thousands of people year-round and has expanded its activities to community advocacy work, electoral education, and, through 110 units of on-site affordable housing, a project that El Centro plans to continue developing in other parts of the city. 

The exterior of El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill
El Centro de la Raza is in Beacon Hill, where the organization started as an occupation in 1972. (Photo: Dana Meade)

Even with its exponential growth, El Centro de la Raza still carries its community-centered values of the early occupation days, ​​Ortega explained. The center’s organizers meet with community members monthly to talk and conduct programs to raise their social consciousness about local issues, such as the air and noise pollution on Beacon Hill. 

While celebrating and reflecting on the work done in its 50 years of history, El Centro wants to keep building and expanding its services to the broader Seattle community. The organization just acquired property in Columbia City, at 3728, 3808, and 3740 South Angeline St., which it will turn into affordable housing. It plans to open more child development centers in the near future and to continue voting-incentive programs, preparing for the 2024 election. 

“We’ve got some work ahead of us. We’re going to have to be out in the streets more. I think we need to be creating relationships with people,” said Ortega. “We were a part of defending our democracy.”

More recently, the nonprofit acquired a 2-acre property in Federal Way that includes Pattison’s West Skating Center. Ortega says El Centro seeks to maintain the skating rink, which it hopes can become a hub for the community, and then develop the rest of the property.

“Because we are doing development — community and housing development, for example — we’ve got programs that have to last a good 50 to 75 years,” said Ortega. “We work knowing that we’ve got to continue affordable housing and business development and teaching people how to start a business, grow a business, and so forth.”

Victor Simoes is an international student at the University of Washington pursuing a double degree in journalism and photo/media. Originally from Florianópolis, Brazil, they enjoy radical organizing, hyper pop, and their beloved cats. Their writing focuses on community, arts, and culture. You can find them on Instagram or Twitter at @victorhaysser.

📸 Featured Image: Organizers with El Centro de la Raza protest against police brutality in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of El Centro de la Raza archives)

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