Beacon Hill School--El Centro de la Raza

Entrance to a two story building with large windows on both wings.
Beacon Hill School (El Centro de la Raza)

Photograph by Poppi Handy & Kira Connery, courtesy of Washington State Historic Preservation Office

Quick Facts
2524 16th Ave. S, Seattle Washington
Architecture, Art, Education, Hispanic, Social History
Listed in the National Register – Reference number 100004297
The Beacon Hill School (now known as El Centro de la Raza), located south of downtown Seattle, Washington is significant for its association with its connection to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the 1970s.

In 1903 the Seattle school district announced that plans were almost ready for an 8-room, $20,000 building, to be built at Beacon Hill, to accommodate a growing population. The next several decades saw an increase in student population, reaching a peak in the mid-1960s.

The late sixties marked the beginning of a district-wide decline in enrollment that would continue until 1984, when the student population reached a low of 43,500. Seattle’s population decline during this time reflected the broad national trends of the end of the baby boom and widespread migration from urban to suburban areas.

By the 1970s, the demographics of the neighborhood had changed. Interstate-5 completed between Seattle and Tacoma in 1967, had cut off the hill from the rest of the city. Middle and upper class white citizens moved to the suburbs, and persons of color began to move into the Beacon Hill area.

It was during this time that the Chicano Civil Rights Movement was beginning to take hold. The movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s was a response to a variety of cultural and political factors, from farm worker’s rights and racial discrimination to access to education and community resources. In the Pacific Northwest, these factors affected Latino communities in the Yakima Valley as well as Seattle. Mexican-American youth adopted the term Chicano as their cultural identity, a term that spoke more broadly to the diversity of non-white identities within Spanish-speaking communities.

Local Chicano students expressed that one of their primary concerns was “the failure of the educational system to cope with the cultural differences and the problems of the bilingual child.” A local college student, Roberto Maestas, led an ESL program at South Seattle Community College that was lost in federal budget cuts in 1972. His group began searching for alternative locations to continue their work in southern Seattle. The vacant Beacon Hill School presented a potential solution. Maestas and Roberto Gallegos, another program leader, developed a plan to peacefully stage an occupation of the vacant school and drew on their network of community leaders for support. In early October, Gallegos called the district to arrange to inspect Beacon Hill School “to determine if it was still a viable alternative for the community.” On October 11, 1972 three individuals (two of which were Maestas and Gallegos) met a district facilities manager at Beacon Hill School.  Reportedly the group soon swelled to over 100 students and staff from the ESL program.  Chicano students from the University of Washington joined the effort, and Maestas called Larry Gossett who brought 12 other African American activists with him to join the occupation, including John Gilmore, Eddie Rye, Todd Hawkins, and Tyree Scott. Maestas also called Bob Santos to get the support of the Human Rights Commission. The assembled coalition peacefully refused to leave.

Maestas also informed the media of the event, and coverage of the “inspection” turned occupation began immediately. Initially the school district indicated that they were willing to allow the building to become a “Chicano multiservice center”. On October 22, 1972 the Seattle City Council agreed to lease the building from the district for $1/year. Within the week however, the Council’s finance committee voted no, based on the uncertainty about whether or not repair efforts and monies would be wasted if the district could eventually sell the building to someone else. The occupation of Beacon Hill School ended when Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman finally signed the lease in May of 1973. Once the sublease was finalized and city funds were appropriated for repairs.

The occupation and eventual lease of the Beacon Hill School was a pivotal foothold for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in Seattle, and a galvanizing event for multiple minority communities in the city. As a multi-service community center, El Centro de la Raza provided a place for Seattle’s Chicano community to gather, learn, connect with other minority communities, and obtain services previously difficult to access throughout the city. El Centro’s services grew with the community it served: by 1980, there were an estimated 30,000-40,000 Latinos living in King County.  Today El Centro de la Raza continues to pursue its mission to serve diverse communities and is a thriving community resource. The original Beacon Hill School building is at the heart of El Centro, which has grown to provide a variety of resources including a community food bank, a bilingual child development center, and affordable housing. El Centro offers multiple programs for youth and adults that engage with complex social issues, ranging from homelessness and Veterans services to education and literacy programs. El Centro also maintains a strong volunteer program, with the continued goal of building “Beloved Community” through cultural events, celebrations, and shared traditions.

Last updated: September 2, 2022