HistoryLink Essay: Chicano activists occupy abandoned school that becomes El Centro on October 11, 1972.

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Chicano activists occupy abandoned school that becomes El Centro on October 11, 1972.

On October 11, 1972, Chicano activists led by Roberto Maestas (b. 1939) occupy the abandoned Beacon Hill School, 2524 16th Avenue S, Seattle. Maestas founds El Centro de la Raza, (Center of the People) a Chicano/Latino civil rights organization.

The protesters were mostly the Latino faculty and staff of an English and adult basic education program at South Seattle Community College. The program was defunded and they found themselves without an educational home. The activists saw the Beacon Hill site as a central location suitable for expansion and development. The facility lacked heat and running water in what turned out to be a record cold winter.

Over the next three months, protesters also staged demonstrations in the chambers of the Seattle City Council and at the offices of Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935). The leaders of the protests were arrested.

Ultimately, the Seattle School District and the City of Seattle agreed to lease the property to El Centro for $1 a year. 

In 1997, the school district insisted on fair market rates and rent rose to $12,000 a month. By 1999, El Centro owed $150,000 in back rent. Grants from the City of Seattle and from Washington state totaling $1 million allowed El Centro to buy the site from the school district.

Walt Crowley,  Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press: 1996), 314; Linda Keene, "El Centro Clashes with Neighbors Over Beacon Hill Site," The Seattle Times, April 1, 1999, (www.seattletimes.com); El Centro de la Raza Home Page (www.elcentrodelaraza.com).

By David Wilma, August 2, 2000

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El Centro de la Raza, 2001
Photo by David Wilma