SALLY RICCOBONO FIRST met Roberto Maestas, longtime executive director of the Latino multiservice center El Centro de la Raza, more than 25 years ago. As


Reexamining El Centro

A series of crises has the nonprofit's charismatic director circling the wagons.

SALLY RICCOBONO FIRST met Roberto Maestas, longtime executive director of the Latino multiservice center El Centro de la Raza, more than 25 years ago. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, she attended an English class he taught while he was studying for his master's in literature, and she got to know him further in the Chicano-power movement that Maestas was helping lead on campus. She was mesmerized by him.

"He was a real role model," she explains. "Especially to someone like me who had come from the Yakima Valley, with 10 brothers and sisters, who came from a farm-worker, Mexican-Catholic family. . . . Roberto was someone who came from the same background—who had made it. Not only did he educate himself, but he was using his education to help his people." In 1972, when Maestas led an occupation of a vacant Beacon Hill school that he hoped to turn into a Latino community center, Riccobono followed along, playing a hand in the foundation of what became El Centro.

Subsequently, life took them in different directions. But after a lapse of two decades, Riccobono got in touch with Maestas as she was pressing a discrimination lawsuit against Pierce County, for whom she worked. Maestas didn't hesitate to help: He first tried to mediate with the county, then testified on her behalf at trial.

Although she won a large award, the experience plunged her into a depression. Maestas was unfailing in his moral support, continually encouraging her to get back to work. Finally, he offered her a job as his personal assistant—a job she has now held since January. "I really feel like he gave me my life back," she says.

Maestas' role in Riccobono's life speaks volumes about both his appeal and his operating style as head of the most prominent Latino organization in the state—a 70-person, $2 million operation. Like an elected official catering to constituents, Maestas treats phone calls from those in distress with the utmost seriousness even as he plays in the more powerful national political arena. Given to hugs and bursts of laughter, his personal warmth can be overpowering. And his organization depends on the emotional ties he creates; he has surrounded himself with employees with whom he has a long history—often people he has helped. His family members work at El Centro, too—as does his longtime companion Estella Ortega, who, as director of operations, is El Centro's second in command.

Given such an intimate workplace, it's easy to understand why a recent unionizing drive among El Centro employees must have come as a shock to Maestas. No less shocking to the outside community were his apparently fierce attempts to clamp down on the effort, and the El Centro working conditions exposed by the bitter struggle. (Workers, for example, had no sick leave.)

The affair seemed almost inconceivable to those who knew Maestas as an "absolutely unwavering defender of labor," as Wenatchee-based El Mundo editor and publisher Jim Tiffany puts it. In the circle of El Centro's liberal supporters, the union battle hit home in a way that previous sniping at Maestas—accusations of nepotism, despotism, and, at times, political incorrectness—never did.

In July, Maestas reached a settlement with the organizing union, the Office & Professional Employees International Union Local 8. El Centro will remain non-union, but now provides a sick leave policy. The saga, however, begs for a deeper look at El Centro, particularly in light of other disruptions there. Over the past six months, onetime funders say, rampant staff turnover and under-performance have cost El Centro funding for three social service programs.

IF MAESTAS HAS BEEN weakened by these recent events, he wasn't showing it last week. He was in his element, in fact, having just come back from a National Latino Summit that he helped organize in Washington, DC, to mobilize a campaign against a congressional measure that would enable the importation of temporary "guest workers" from Mexico—legislation that critics say would foster worker exploitation. While in DC, he had met with Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (from her office he could see the Starr report being delivered to Congress). Back home, he sent what he labeled an "urgent request" to his old friend the Rev. Jesse Jackson—in whose Rainbow Coalition Maestas participates as a member of its executive committee—to ask that Jackson hold a press conference on the issue. Meanwhile, he dashed between telephone briefings and strategy meetings.

On the phone from DC, a lobbyist working for the cause gave the bad news to Maestas that the legislation has a good chance of passing, in part because it is tacked on as an amendment to the annual Senate appropriations bill. If so, the defeat would hardly be Maestas' first. Yet he has also had some notable political victories. Last year, Gov. Gary Locke vetoed a bill that would have eased standards on farm-worker housing despite the bill having sailed through the Legislature. The veto, says El Mundo's Tiffany, was "mostly accomplished by Roberto Maestas on the telephone."

Sixty years old, with a thin face and gray beard, his attire enlivened by a watch with a stunning turquoise band and a large matching ring, Maestas holds court at a table in his office decorated with Mexican figurines. He freely acknowledges that the task El Centro has set for itself in balancing political and social service work is complicated: "There is an unwritten law in community organizations that to get involved in politics will jeopardize your funding. And that has happened." But noting that the government allows a tax-exempt nonprofit like El Centro to participate in political advocacy, if not electoral politics, he also says, "We refused to submit to that. We decided from the very beginning that the crisis in Seattle was intimately linked to the crises in Yakima, New Mexico, Africa, and Asia." Thus Maestas travels to many of these places regularly, giving speeches and participating in cultural exchanges.

All of this political activity has given rise to the charge, as disgruntled and ultimately fired staffer Julio Sanchez puts it, that "the management at El Centro is more concerned with playing politics than serving the community." Critics of Maestas often cite, in this regard, his controversial opposition to the radical United Farmworkers of America in that union's ultimately successful effort to unionize the Chateau St. Michelle winery. (He backed another Ohio-based union more amenable to company proposals.) And now, the recent loss of several El Centro programs lends credence to Sanchez's argument. Renton Technical College's daily classes in English as a Second Language, the SeattleKing County Private Industry Council (PIC) job-search program for the homeless, and a more general job-training program supervised by the private company Pacific Associates all have been taken away from El Centro by their funding agencies. In all three cases, El Centro's high turnover was cited as the reason funding was pulled. "Sometimes the turnover was two or three times a year," says Pacific Associates' operations director Jack Moffitt. Stephen Hurd, PIC's planning manager, says, "Constant staff turnover meant clients would get lost in between changing staff."

The turnover affected performance. The PIC-funded program for the homeless set a goal for El Centro of placing 75 percent of its clients in jobs; when PIC pulled the plug last March, job placement was at 25 percent.

The turnover also reinforces the picture that emerged in the union battle of El Centro as a tough place to work. Aside from low pay, long hours, and uneven benefits, staffers seem to face an expectation of unquestioned fealty—both to the "cause" and to Maestas. The director suggests as much when he says, "We have to have people who are dedicated, who buy into the mission." Despite his undeniable talent in fostering such loyalty, there clearly are staffers who resist.

Still, it would be unfair to portray El Centro's problems as terminal. The organization's lost funding, some $138,000 a year, represents only seven percent of its budget. Among the social services still maintained by the organization are a child-care program, a food bank, a daily hot-meal program that includes a delivery service for seniors, and a citizenship class. While politics may take up much of El Centro's time, the organization continues to be the first place to which many Latino immigrants turn for more concrete help.

They are people like a 29-year-old named Raul from Mexico, sitting on the steps in an El Centro hallway one day last week after eating a free lunch downstairs. Since leaving his homeland, he has picked blueberries in New Jersey, peaches in North Carolina, and tobacco in Kentucky. He's been in Seattle all of three days, living in a homeless shelter while he tries to figure out how to get out of the farm-worker business. While walking around downtown, someone told him about El Centro. He walked the whole way to Beacon Hill, hoping to find help in getting a shower and maybe a new start.

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