El Centro de la Raza has been around since the Fall of 1972. During an economic crisis that hit Seattle hard in the early seventies, several dozen Latino students of the English and Adult Basic Education Programs of the Duwamish branch of South Seattle Community College found themselves without an educational home as it had to be shut down. On October 11th, 1972, the core staff, students and their families peacefully occupied the abandoned Beacon Hill School. As negotiations took place with the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools, they created a community and lived together without running water or heat. To help boost the determination and perseverance in developing the center, some of their supporters and friends even occupied the Seattle City Council Chambers. It was a three-month occupation during one of Seattle's coldest winters. After hardship and arrest, it finally resulted in a five-year lease of the building at a dollar a year.
Thirty-seven years later, after sweat, equity, songs, and study, the people of El Centro de la Raza have built one of the largest and most productive community-based organizations in the nation. El Centro strives to "use social, cultural, educational, and civic activities as vehicles to bring together people of all races". It refuses to separate economic activities from social and human service. The organization provides a holistic response to its community's needs through its culturally competent services, comprising of four different aspects namely human services, child and youth services, education and skill building program, and community building development. Through these services, participants are able to "address multiple barriers to stability".
El Centro's human services program provides basic necessities, such as the Food Bank, "La Cocina" Latino Hot Meal Program, Homeless Assistance, Senior Nutrition and Wellness, and Infant Mortality Prevention. The cores of human services lie in the Food Bank and their Kitchen, "La Cocina". El Centro does its best to feed everyone it possibly can. The Food Bank addresses the issue of hunger in their community by providing emergency and supplemental food to low-income individuals and families in the Seattle area to meet nutritional needs. At the heart of the Food Bank is Jose "Francesco" Rosales. Francesco has lived in Seattle for sixteen years, hailing from Mexico and Merced, California. He runs the Food Bank, Hot Meal Delivery Program, Consejo program, drives the forklift and the van, and does some grounds keeping for El Centro. He also works as a janitor on weekends. He says the center will not let him work at nights but Francesco is almost always on site and is an integral part of many programs. When asked about his many involvements with El Centro, he says he wants to work so much because of his mortgage but his passion for the organization is prominent.
Francesco reported that El Centro uses about five thousand pounds of food a week distributed throughout the different programs. In the Food Bank, he observed the different ethnic groups that use the service and found it interesting how they differ in preferences of food. He said that the Caucasians usually want canned goods because they were always in a hurry unlike the Asians mostly want fresh items and vegetables. The Latinos like tomatoes in any form. However, everyone always ask for rice, milk and eggs. Francesco said with a smile, "Especially eggs, we never have enough eggs."
The Food Bank supports many programs in El Centro, and one of the major programs linked to it is "La Cocina", which serves the Latino Hot Meal Program. Hayda Baez runs "La Cocina". She is the main chef and plans all the meals that are served by the center every day. She runs a tight ship and impressively feeds everyone with minimal help and a lot of heart. She serves everyone who works there and makes lunches for multiple programs depending on the day. Even though El Centro only has donations and a monthly stipend of six hundred dollars from the government drop-off to supplement all the food they utilize, Hayda has managed to stretch the dollar and cook amazing meals. The money received by "La Cocina" is mostly spent on eggs, milk and cereals such as oats.
The programs at El Centro not only nourish the physical but also the emotional, social and intellectual state. Education is an emphasis in the organization as it is a step towards self-sustainability for the people. Understanding the potential and the importance of children and youths in the society, El Centro believes that the future is secure only if they are adequately educated. The Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores After School Program (LAVFASP), Hope for Youth (HYP), Seattle Team for Youth (STFY), and the Jose Marti Child Development Center (JMCDC) make up the Child Development and Youth Programs. JMCDC is a bilingual, multicultural and early childhood educational center that offers childcare services to families with children ages one to five years. It is a sought-after program, so much that there is a long waiting list.
The Hope For Youth program provides true ethnic history, poetry and service-learning classes that meet graduation requirements through Proyecto Saber to students at Ballard and Chief Sealth High Schools. Through HYP, they promote positive self-expression, improve academic performance and give Latino youths and other youths of color the opportunity to learn more about their community and the contributions their communities have made in the United States. The Seattle Team For Youth, in partnership with Seattle Public Schools, offers comprehensive case management services to, but not limited to, Latino youth ages eleven to twenty-one who reside in Seattle and are at risk of dropping out or have dropped out of school. They have offices at Chief Sealth and Cleveland High Schools and Denny Middle School. The objective of STFY is to provide youth with the tools and resources they need to succeed academically. The recent Youth Celebration, held on June fifth, was an event to celebrate as a graduation, the accomplishment of all those who attended their high school age youth programs and are moving on to college.
Education is not just limited to those who are of young age. El Centro also provides support to adults through its Life Skill & Job Readiness Training, such as Resume Workshops, ESL & Citizenship Classes, and Bilingual Legal Clinics to help them achieve their goals. The seniors are not forgotten in El Centro too. The Senior Nutrition and Wellness program ensures that they receive nutritional education, daily lunches, home delivered meals, and a weekly grocery bag from the Food Bank. They also partake in various social and educational activities. In addition, exercise classes are offered three times a week for the seniors to stay active.
El Centro received a 20,000 dollars grant to install raised garden beds in local seniors' yards. Raised beds are beneficial because they are more accessible, very healthy for growing plants and offer seniors an opportunity to grow some of their own food. Kahlyn Keilty-Lucas was hired as a part-time employee to construct and install the beds for a rapidly approaching deadline: this summer. Many of the materials and soil were donated. Kahlyn works hard for many hours installing the beds and has enlisted the help of Miguel, a volunteer who recently arrived from California. They initially build boxes on site at El Centro and as they build them, they deliver completed boxes and soil using El Centro's van. It is a hit among the seniors and there is a long wait list of people wanting these boxes installed.
As seen so far, El Centro advocates for community building through involving people of various age and racial groups and providing them with the necessary resources and skills to sustain themselves. It also invites local businesses and organizations to engage with El Centro by renting out a small portion of its building for commercial space. Currently, there are a few non-profit organizations, a dance workshop and even community acupuncture. Furthermore, El Centro provides low-income housing through their multi-family, tax credit apartments, two transitional houses and one triplex all located on Beacon Hill. Everyone who lives in El Centro's housing shares duties and chores, and works together as they are propelled toward self-sustainability.
El Centro de la Raza's mission is "to build unity across all racial and economic sectors, to organize, empower, and defend our most vulnerable and marginalized populations and to bring justice, dignity, equality, and freedom to all the peoples of the world". It believes in developing self-sustainability, as people will then be more able to fully participate in the society. It aims to establish greater equality and a stronger community for all people. This is best encapsulated in the words of Roberto Maestas, El Centro de La Raza's executive director and founder, "A better world is not only possible, it is a necessity."