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El Centro de la Raza marks 50 years and buys a roller rink

A large room with smooth wood floors, benches on the far end and colorful lights throughout.
El Centro de la Raza
Pattison’s Rotunda Skating Rink.

As people across the country celebrate Latino Heritage Month, a longtime cultural institution in Seattle is marking 50 years.

On Saturday, El Centro de la Raza, the Beacon Hill nonprofit, is throwing a community gala at the Washington Convention Center to celebrate its decades of service. The event will be livestreamed.

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Parker Miles Blohm
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KNKX
DACA recipients and supporters gather September 5, 2017 in support of the program at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood.

A peaceful occupation led to the creation of El Centro de la Raza. In 1972 a group of activists took over a vacant elementary school to protest the abrupt closure of a program at South Seattle Community College for adults wanting to learn English.

Teacher and the late civil rights leader Roberto Maestas was among those who led the three-month occupation. He was joined by people from other communities of color, members of the faith community, and also people from the anti-war movement, said Estela Ortega, El Centro's executive director for more than a decade.

Eventually, the occupied building was turned over for a fee of a $1 a year, and became El Centro De La Raza. Since then, El Centro has developed dozens of different programs for the community. Ortega said they officially purchased the building in 1997 for about $1. 3 million.

These 50 years, you know, we've obviously used different methods of organizing in terms of providing human services, community advocacy,” Ortega said. “Get out the vote, being plaintiffs in civil rights suits, obviously developing housing.”

Since El Centro de La Raza was first founded, the Latino community in Seattle has only grown, with many moving south of the city. The population shift has prompted the organization to find ways to reach Latinos living in the suburbs.

“Just at some point it's like, OK, we need to figure out how we're going to have a physical presence in South County so it's easier for our people to get to us,” Ortega said.

In February 2020, El Centro opened a new space in Federal Way, a city 20 miles south of Beacon Hill. After starting with an office building, the nonprofit plans to expand its presence into a multi-block community campus.

An architecture firm's rendering shows the proposed community campus overlaid on a satellite map. It lists three phases for the proposed site plan starting with the community plaza, then in later phases adding future housing.
Third Place Design Co-operative
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El Centro de la Raza
Proposed site plan for El Centro de la Raza's Federal Way expansion.

El Centro plans to build affordable housing with approximately 200 units across two buildings. A new community center would be next to Pattison’s West, a 40-year old roller skate rink that the nonprofit now owns and plans to keep running.

El Centro also plans to develop a bilingual child care center there, and retail space, including a mercado – or market – for small businesses and entrepreneurs to sell their products. Construction is expected to begin in 2025.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. Reach her at lfowler@knkx.org.
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