Juanita Maestas is a member of the Solid Ground Advisory Council, the Statewide Poverty Action Board, and a fierce advocate for people struggling to get by in our communities. She is also a cousin of Roberto Maestas, the longtime civil rights leader who recently passed away. Roberto is fondly remembered and was much eulogized for his legacy: founder of El Centro de la Raza, founder of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, and one of the Four Amigos of multi-cultural organizing. A few weeks after he died, Juanita sat down with me to share a more personal set of memories about Roberto and his lasting impact on her family. This is Part One of a three-part interview.
I have two kids, one is 19, one is 17. I’ve got a two-year-old grandson and we just lost a huge family member. Not only for his politics, but also as a family member.
We found Roberto in 1997. We were going through some discrimination and he stepped up to the plate and said, “That’s my family. Family takes care of family.”
We had a lot of family at that time. Throughout the years me and my kids have lost basically everybody on my dad’s side, which is the Maestas side. But, one of the world’s greatest leaders – I think of him as a leader of the whole world – he was my cousin.
When I first met him we looked at the family tree. He has a big family tree book in his office. We located my family members that were connected to his family members and that’s it, we’re cousins, you know.
His office was beautiful. It has masks, paintings, Caesar Chavez paintings, artwork from kids that went through his life and out.
Roberto had a cheek pinching thing. He would always go and pinch my kids’ cheeks. My son, he had like the fattest cheeks. So after about the second time I’d seen Roberto, my son held his cheeks and walked in and smiled.
He said, “Hi, Uncle Roberto.”
Roberto said, “Come here, come here, sit here.” And he pulled out five dollars and said, “Go get ice cream.”
And when my son grabbed the money, Roberto would grab his cheeks! And that was it. He would always do that.
My daughter was in fifth grade and at the end of year she had to do a big project. Well she decided that she wanted to go to El Centro. And I was like, “Why do you want to go to El Centro so bad?”
And she said, “I want to go, I have this project.” So ok, we went up there and my daughter is like, “I want to see Roberto.”
They call him, “Roberto, Jessica is here.”
He’s like, “Yeah, tell her come in, come in.” He gives her a hug and kiss. He’s like, “What can I do for you, Mija?”
She’s like, “I want to record you, I want to interview you.”
He’s like, “Ok, yeah, let me check my book.” So they did the interview and it was so emotional, because here is this great man. He’s talking about education. He put it in her head, don’t ever quit school. Tell your friends, don’t ever quit school. Education is important.
She took the interview back to her class, they all watched it. She got, you know, her claps and everything. And her teacher was like, “She got an ‘A’ but I wish I could give her a higher grade. I never seen an interview like that.”
So, she took her report card to Roberto. Every ‘A’ she got, he gave her a dollar. And when he looked at the project she did, because you know the teacher noted on the box, “Your interview was excellent,” and he’s like, “Good job, Mija, now keep that in your head. I want to see you educated. I want to see you go to college. Do something, be productive, you know.”
So, there was a Seattle Fun Run and everybody had sponsors. And my daughter was like, “I want to run but I don’t have a sponsor.” So El Centro had their volunteer days. My daughter would go to volunteer day, and she went to Roberto and said, “I want to do the Fun Run in Seattle.”
He’s like: “Ok, Mija, what you need?”
She goes, “I don’t know, something with El Centro.”
They had a gift shop at El Centro. He went and got her a pair of shorts that had El Centro on there. So, while they were at school, I came up there and we did a big banner. It was in Spanish. Roberto signed it, everybody at El Centro signed it. And she ran her Fun Run. She went back after it was done and showed him her ribbon. She gave Roberto her ribbon and said, “Thank you.”
To be continued…
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