In the coming weeks, the city of Seattle and the state of Washington plan to present nearly one million dollars in public money to Roberto Maestas, head of El Centro de la Raza, the main social services agency serving Seattle's Latino population. The money--which will go toward paying for the building El Centro occupies--is a reward of sorts. Maestas is viewed by the media and local politicians as a tireless promoter of social justice and racial equality, a formidable and fearless activist who will fight to defend his stated causes: improved working conditions for farmworkers, sovereignty for native tribes, and civil rights for all.

Maestas is famous for his fiery speeches and confrontational demonstrations. He also has wined and dined a very impressive array of visiting luminaries, including former New Mexico governor Tony Anaya, who lobbied for NAFTA in the early '90s; the late U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown; Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu; and Jesse Jackson. And he has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles fighting, preaching, and building an international reputation on El Centro's dime. During one recent week, he flitted between Washington, D.C., where he lambasted the CIA; Yakima, where he demanded housing for farmworkers; and finally Mexico, for unstated reasons.

What generous public officials don't publicly acknowledge, and what the major media seems to ignore, is that Maestas is regarded by many in the Latino community, including some of those who helped start El Centro, as a self-promoting tyrant. For more than three decades, they say, Maestas has been building an empire and doing whatever it takes to defend it. That includes busting a unionizing effort by his own employees, fighting off a community-supported effort to build a public library on El Centro's largely vacant south lot, and even the use of physical intimidation.

Certainly, the center has done some good work over the years. El Centro helps people eat, and to find jobs and homes. It teaches English as a second language, and runs a food bank, a bilingual child-care center, and a citizenship program. But critics claim that Maestas (you can't talk about El Centro without talking about Maestas) is an overbearing leader, incapable of cooperation and more dedicated to promoting his own interests than those of the community he supposedly represents.

"El Centro de la Raza was created to give the community a meeting place, a place for a wedding or a weekend bash or a baptism, as well as a place where people could go to get services and help finding a job," says Roberto Gallegos, a former board member at El Centro who has known Maestas for 40 years. "Now El Centro is like a foreign embassy. Maestas will throw a big bash for Nicaragua or a $5,000-a-plate dinner for Jesse Jackson, but he won't allow someone from White Center to use the building for their wedding or somebody's daughter's birthday party."

Gallegos thinks giving Maestas a million dollars is a big mistake. "We're about to give a million dollars to a tyrant," he says. "El Centro is an entrenched dictatorship, and Maestas has got to go."

Maestas was born in a tiny farming community just outside Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1938. According to press accounts, his mother died young, not long after his birth, and he and his brother and sister were raised without much money by his maternal grandparents in rural New Mexico.

He claims to have come to Seattle after joining a migrant farmworking community that moved west to the Yakima Valley when he was 14. Though his background as a migrant worker certainly serves to bolster his credibility among those he tries to organize, his first wife, Janet Tassin, claims that part of this history is a lie. She says that, sure, he worked one summer on a farm in Colorado, but he never migrated with fellow campesinos. "He rode out here on a Greyhound to stay with his aunt," she says.

Tassin says Maestas first introduced himself to her as "Bobby May-stas"--a decidedly Anglo pronunciation--and insisted that he was Spanish, not Mexican. She and Maestas married in Seattle in 1955. He was a high-school dropout, who later put himself through community college working at a gas station, and for a short time, Boeing. She was 15 at the time, and pregnant. Tassin would have three children by Maestas before their divorce in 1970.

The separation was ugly, involving restraining orders and allegations of violence and flagrantly bad parenting. Tassin claimed in court documents that Maestas once left the kids unattended next to a raging river at an Indian reservation, while he drank at a bar.

She also claimed that during a particularly heated fight, Maestas put a switchblade to her throat and ripped the phone out of the wall. Another time, she said, he threw rocks at her car as she drove away with their children in the back seat.

While Maestas avoided numerous requests for interviews for this story, he did scratch out terse answers to a list of 27 questions faxed to him by The Stranger. Maestas denies all allegations against him and rejects all criticisms. When asked whether he had ever threatened his wife, he emphatically answers, "NO."

Still, neither Maestas' marital troubles or the fact that he was often short on money were enough to keep him down. While a student at the University of Washington--where he studied Romance languages and journalism--and during a stretch as a teacher at Franklin High School, he became more and more caught up in the political battles of the '60s. And his reputation in the Latino community grew. A bad-ass revolutionary with a red bandanna, dark glasses, and a military flak jacket, he fit the part perfectly.

Maestas was good at riling people up, getting himself onto television and into the papers, and stomping his foes. Longtime friends still remember the time he took on a right-wing student named Richard Sanders at a public debate, and made mincemeat of him. Today, Sanders is a formidable justice on the State Supreme Court.

Maestas also cultivated strong friendships with key leaders in Seattle, particularly ex-Black Panther and current King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, International District activist-turned- HUD-bigwig Bob Santos, and Bernie Whitebear of United Indians of All Tribes. He fought for Indian fishing rights as field director of the Survival of American Indians Association. He worked his way onto the board of the Council for the Spanish Speaking, which publishes the bilingual newspaper La Voz.

But the event that did more to cement Maestas in the minds of the public than any other was the formation of El Centro, which was founded in 1972 as a result of what Maestas calls a "peaceful and creative occupation." About 50 activists, Maestas included, took over an old Beacon Hill school, abandoned by the school district, to protest cuts in federal social services funding and to draw attention to Seattle's fast-growing but relatively disempowered and scattered Latino community. They stayed there--and even staged a hunger strike--until the city had no choice but to turn the property over and recognize El Centro de la Raza (translation: "the center of the people") as an organization. Seattle officials agreed to rent the school to them for a mere one dollar a year.

The group raised a Chicano power flag in front of the building. And one of the first celebrations inside El Centro's new home was Maestas' wedding, where he married 22-year-old Estella Ortega (rumored to be related to Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega). "All we really knew when we walked into that huge building on October 11, 1972," wrote Maestas in a bit of El Centro promotional material, "was that we had to involve children, youth, adults, and elders of all races and nationalities in a climate of love and understanding through total communication."

Roberto Gallegos was one of Maestas' closest friends and allies at the time of the takeover. Gallegos welcomes me into the kitchen of his Ballard home, just upstairs from the basement where 27 years ago, he and Maestas plotted the schoolhouse occupation and the beginning of El Centro.

From their first meeting, Gallegos recognized that Maestas was a smooth talker, as skilled at making new friends as he was at humiliating enemies. He recruited Maestas to run an English as a Second Language group he and some friends were starting in South Seattle. Maestas came to the interview hungover and half-drunk, Gallegos recalls, with his resume folded up in his back pocket. Still, there was no doubt that he was the man for the job.

"We needed someone with an attitude, and he certainly had that," recalls Gallegos. "He also was connected with the university, and he was effective at creating links between Latinos and Blacks and also Asians and Indians."

Building such alliances was one of the goals of El Centro from the start. Once the agency had a location, its leaders went about the business of building a full-fledged organization. Maestas finessed his way into the executive director's position in 1973--pushing out a woman named Gloria Rivera--and has held the post ever since. "Maestas has always been a great politician," Gallegos says, smiling. "But he was never elected."

It wasn't long before Gallegos began to recognize some disturbing patterns in his old friend. He watched as Maestas ran detractors into the ground, stomped out nascent Latino organizations that might compete with El Centro, and purged the agency of anyone perceived to be a non-believer.

Gallegos started to ask questions. He wondered about a partnership between Maestas and Joe Garcia, a deputy director at El Centro in the late '70s and early '80s, who is currently under investigation by the FBI for allegedly over-billing the state $340,000 while running the finances for a different social services group. Gallegos also began to notice that Maestas was spending the agency's money on purchases unrelated to El Centro's mission, including a ranch in south-central Oregon allegedly bought with funds donated by a California philanthropist (El Centro eventually sold the property and recovered the investment). And then there was the large number of plane tickets that Maestas and other El Centro higher-ups purchased with money that could have helped local poor people.

Such criticisms were not welcome at El Centro, where a Marxist-Leninist world view demanded absolute loyalty to the cause. "When you become involved in El Centro," says Gallegos, "you get indoctrinated into a philosophy, and that philosophy is everything. People are basically brainwashed. And the minute that you start becoming a free thinker, or you start questioning any activity at El Centro, then you're labeled, and you're spit out. One of these days, Maestas will give everyone up there a little bit of juice to drink, and they'll go for it."

Gallegos left El Centro in 1982 and since then has been watching the agency move further and further from its original mission. Other stalwarts left around the same time, which bolstered Maestas even more. "We used to be able to keep him in check," says Gallegos. "Once we all left, he had no one to stop him.... El Centro no longer serves the purpose that it once did. It's a self-serving institution."

The president of the board of El Centro, Ricardo Aguirre, rejects the idea that Maestas runs the show: "Roberto Maestas answers to a board of directors. Everybody on the board has degrees, and most are Latinos. And yes, most of us have the same philosophy. Would Seafirst invite somebody to join their board of directors if that person didn't share Seafirst's goals and objectives?"

In the cavernous hallways of El Centro, employees quote Martin Luther King, Jr., while the children at the bilingual daycare center smile, shake hands, and offer gifts. The seniors in the dining room look happy to be there. There are gorgeous murals and revolutionary poems on the walls, plus inspiring quotes from Emiliano Zapata ("Better to die on your feet than live on your knees").

El Centro's Volunteer Coordinator Carmen Miranda leads the tour. Maestas is nowhere to be found. He is in a meeting, she says, without offering further details. Clearly, she's more comfortable talking about El Centro than about her boss.

Miranda describes the crummy living conditions endured by farmworkers everywhere, the toxic pesticides dumped on crops and pickers, and the greed of Washington's apple companies. She emphasizes that El Centro is open to people of all races, not just Latinos, and that many women are in positions of power in the agency.

El Centro was not always so open-minded. A 1978 document outlines the agency's past position on gays: "As a general policy, El Centro does not look with favor upon the arrival of homosexuals, and only in special cases could El Centro contemplate the integration of such persons. It is necessary to clarify that as a social phenomena of capitalism, homosexuality is an example of the decadence of this society, and only in extreme situations in which a person does not put their sensual sentiments before the political objectives of El Centro could they join."

The same document also excluded vaguely defined "persons of other parties" or "other dogmas," "persons of religious influence," drug users and alcoholics, and people with "lumpen practices or tendencies" who are "undisciplined, individualistic, and egocentric" and present security problems. Anyone wanting to join El Centro had to subject themselves to "total ideological and practical orientation," according to the guidelines.

These policies helped Maestas make headlines in 1980 for refusing services to anti-Castro refugees. In a letter of explanation he referred to the refugees as "parasites," causing a member of the Seattle City Council to demand a re-examination of the dollar-a-year sweetheart deal they were giving El Centro. Nothing ever came of that demand, and Maestas remains well-connected to the Castro regime, as well as to Nicaragua's Sandinistas.

There are a lot of empty rooms in El Centro. The computer lab is locked up, and the only infant at the "infant mortality" program is the daughter of a staffer. The high ceilings and huge windows accentuate the building's empty feel. Miranda talks a lot about people coming to El Centro after being evicted or when they're hungry or destitute, but she is short on examples during the tour.

There are a number of private, for-profit companies housed in the old schoolhouse, including Excelsior Travel, which is open and doing a brisk business. The company began operating out of El Centro in the '80s after Maestas began to delve into foreign policy, trading discounted tickets for cheap rent. Maestas became a frequent flier to points south of the border--in 1989 alone, he made 50 trips to Central America.

His role as a self-appointed international diplomat taught Maestas to work with the right and the left, and he earned accolades from both. In 1991, two years after receiving an award from Nicaragua's Sandinista regime, Maestas and El Centro were named one of President George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light."

While Maestas is touted as a champion of the underprivileged, his record is actually pretty spotty. His critics charge that in 1994 he was silent on California's Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-alien ballot measure. They also raise questions about his fluctuating position on NAFTA, the labor pact that many people feel is bad for workers and the environment. They claim that Maestas lobbied for NAFTA early on, but later reversed himself in the name of solidarity with the Zapatistas, who rose up to protest NAFTA. Maestas counters that he never supported the agreement.

Closer to home, Maestas has earned respect for pushing for better lives for the farmworkers of rural Washington. But sometimes it seems he's more interested in taking credit for progress than in creating it. Guadalupe Gamboa, the state's top United Farm Workers leader, has known Maestas since the late '60s and says, "Maestas has a lot of good in him, and a lot of bad." Gamboa learned about the bad part during a dispute between farmworkers and management at the Chateau St. Michelle winery in the early '90s. Maestas interjected himself into the middle of the debate, and even brought in an out-of-state labor organization that was predisposed to compromise with company management. The feeling that Maestas sold out the farmworkers caused bad blood that lingers to this day.

"We tried very hard to get Roberto to be more reasonable and to solve the situation without a big fight, but he didn't want to listen," remembers Gamboa. Still, he adds, "When you're in an all-out fight, you certainly want Maestas on your side. When he sees an injustice being done, he doesn't stand for it. He still gets angry and he still gets motivated."

Maestas certainly became motivated when, in 1997, Local 8 of the Office and Professional Employees Union tried to convince him to allow his own employees to organize. His longtime allies in the labor movement watched in disbelief as Maestas reacted just as any stubborn apple-baron would, and busted the union.

Gallegos recalls that employee relations were never a big priority for Maestas. "[He] would withhold paychecks for weeks and weeks. He wouldn't pay medical insurance. Basically, he was screwing with people's lives." Gallegos remembers one employee in particular who lost her house through foreclosure after going three months without payment. "Maestas kept lying to me and lying to me. He kept saying the checks were coming, but it never happened."

The dispute between Maestas and El Centro employees grew so rancorous last year that even former governor Mike Lowry (Washington's version of Jimmy Carter) failed to broker a diplomatic solution. In July of last year The Seattle Press called Maestas' tactics a "textbook example of union busting... firings, isolating union sympathizers, interrogations, and sponsorship of anti-union groups of workers."

Maestas and El Centro were accused by the National Labor Relations board of forcing out and even firing workers who supported the union effort. The NLRB also charged that an ex-con staying with Maestas had publicly assaulted the husband of one of the biggest proponents of the union.

Nancy Matta, a former employee of El Centro who was active in the union organizing drive, remembers well the night that the ex-con tough guy known as Mosco (Spanish for fly) intimidated her and assaulted her husband at a Seattle restaurant. Here's what happened, according to her account and police reports: After asking her about the union, Mosco went ballistic, calling her a "fucking bitch" and moving toward her until their faces were only inches apart. Maestas just stood there, not interfering. Matta's husband tried to get the guy to back off, but Mosco swatted a cigarette out of his mouth and went after him. Other men in the restaurant finally broke up the fight.

Speaking to The Stranger a year ago, Maestas verified that Mosco was staying at his house at the time of the incident, but calls claims that he arranged the fight "ridiculous." "I have never asked anyone to fight my battles," he said. "I fight my own battles."

The incident with Mosco reveals the dark side of El Centro (which has been the target over the years of three arsons and one takeover attempt allegedly foiled by a shotgun blast), and of Maestas. "He's like a chameleon," says Gallegos. "He changes colors and blends with the surroundings. He can go to Gary Locke and fit in perfectly. Same with George Bush. But that same skill allows him to blend with and attract shady characters.... An example is Mosco, who is absolutely loyal to Maestas. Mosco is quite a tough guy, and there are others like him. Maestas exploits them and uses them when he needs them. And then he spits them out."

The NLRB ended up dropping all 21 of the charges it filed against Maestas and El Centro as part of a settlement reached a year ago. In return, Maestas agreed to offer workers sick leave and to post notices that all employees have the right to organize. But by that time everybody pushing for the right to bargain collectively were long gone from El Centro. Only diehard loyalists remained.

Both the board of directors and the workplace at El Centro have been purged of opposition--most notably Norma Kelsey, the president of Local 8 and a former board member, and Julio Sanchez, who claims he was fired for union organizing (Maestas says Sanchez was fired for poor work habits). The board is now dominated by Maestas supporters Ricardo Aguirre (an insurance man who counts El Centro among his clients), David Gasca (a banker), and Ramon Soliz (a UW personnel employee).

Board president Aguirre hardly comes off as progressive in an interview. When asked his opinion about the ex-employees who tried to unionize, he comments, "If someone's griping a lot, they're probably not quite the social workers we need."

The NLRB settlement was a victory of sorts for Maestas, but it came at a high price. His reputation suffered. The progressive labor coalition Jobs With Justice chose Maestas as "Grinch of the Year" in 1997. To earn the prize, Maestas outpolled the Plath Family (Washington apple orchard owners accused of mistreating Latino workers) and right-wing pundit John Carlson, the man who used the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to turn the tide against affirmative action in Washington state.

El Centro, long supported by pro-labor groups, was left in disarray. And public support started to crumble. After the battle with the union came the heated fight with Beacon Hill neighbors over the proposal to place a public library on El Centro's property. On top of that, a bilingual newsletter called El Picador was established with the sole purpose of exposing Maestas as a hypocritical union-buster, a strong-arming cacique, and a wife beater. The newsletter, written by muckraking reporter Harold Avelar, was widely distributed to members of the Latino community and state politicians.

When Maestas' ex-wife, Tassin, saw a copy of El Picador, which spelled out the grisly details from her past conflicts with Maestas, she felt vindicated. "I was so happy to find out that somebody else knew what a phony he was. I always wondered when the hell he was going to get caught, when he was going to pay for everything that he's done."

"I know he's not a saint," says Maestas' longtime friend Bob Santos, a respected civic activist who now runs the regional HUD office in Seattle. "None of us were. But you have to take the positive along with the negative. I always look at the results. Are you helping people? Are you feeding people?"

Santos notes that whenever someone is in a position of influence, there will be supporters and detractors. "Maestas has always been in the trenches," he says. "He's tackled a lot of tough issues over the years, and he's put together some tough programs up at El Centro. You have to respect what he's accomplished."

Avelar disagrees, and wonders why every time Maestas is criticized for his leadership style or his lack of ethics, his supporters hold up El Centro's social services in response. Those services could easily exist without Maestas, he says, and, in fact, El Centro and the Latino community would probably be better off without him. "Maestas is spending public money, and he needs to be held accountable, just like any Anglo leader would be," says Avelar.

El Centro's board president Aguirre insists that Maestas is accountable and continues to do good work. As far as Aguirre is concerned, people criticize Maestas for the same reason the government is after Bill Gates: namely, jealousy. "Maestas is a bright individual who has autonomy. It's important that he have autonomy. Without it, there's no power."

It's unclear what comes next at El Centro de la Raza. Programs to teach English as a Second Language and help people find jobs have been lost recently, partly due to the massive turnover of employees that came with the union dispute. Maestas is now viewed as a political liability who can prove outright embarrassing--critics say he often shows up at political meetings flat-out drunk and rambling endlessly, tossing in quotes from Dr. King.

But Maestas has never been a man to be underestimated. As his son-in-law Juan Bocanegra, who helped break into the Beacon Hill school 27 years ago, puts it: "They say that the devil knows more because he's old than because he's the devil."

There is one thing history has taught us for certain: Anyone thinking about taking out Roberto Maestas had better be ready for one hell of a fight.

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