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Kids at El Centro
10.11.02
Society and Community
Transcript: El Centro de la Raza
More on This Story:
Elisa Maria Miranda
Transcript

BILL MOYERS: We're sending a valentine tonight — five months ahead of the rush. We're sending it in behalf of some people in the heart of Seattle. They belong to El Centro de la Raza - the Center for the People.

If that sounds very 60-ish, well, this organization was indeed spawned by the turbulence of that fated era, when everything came tumbling apart and aspirations and hopes sounded across the land from quarters long silent and denied.

But unlike so much else from that period, El Centro de la Raza is still around, trying to break down barriers of race and class, feeding the hungry, sheltering the needy - and teaching English to Latino children and adults seeking a foothold in America.

Language is a passion for the center's founder, Roberto Maestas. He considers language the soul's music, and finds it in the youngest hearts. Nothing earth shattering has happened at El Centro; no miracles have appeared to the naked eye. But they are celebrating their 30th birthday this month - and that, given the odds, is something.

ROBERTO MAESTAS: This is a home for the left out, the locked out, the people with noble intentions, and the people who want friendship and love, and maybe a small bowl of tortillas or enchiladas or caldolares.

MOYERS: Young people like Elisa Maria Miranda learn to read and write poetry - to find the words for their own version of Roots.

ELISA MARIA MIRANDA: We walked like the cement had carried us. Gritos of Welga drying our mouths as yellow grass. Welga from the growers' dangerous fields and cold homes. As we marched I held the sign of a little girl standing in her dirty river that she calls home.

ROBERTO MAESTAS: Poetry has become a powerful weapon for our children, for the adults, for our elders. And we are constantly looking for the natural inclination of human beings to be poetic.

MOYERS: Here's El Centro's Roberto Maestas as a much younger radical. He grew up in the neighborhood, had dreams of a gathering place for the dispossessed. Down the street was a deserted three-story school building.

ROBERTO MAESTAS: Seattle was in a deep economic political crisis. The war was grinding away at the fabric of our nation. We decided to find a home, create a home.

We tried to convince the authorities to build a community center that would address the needs of the most left out, most locked out.

We asked that they show us the building. We pretended we were interested developers, and we asked them to open the building up for us. They opened the door. I took the lock, put it in my pocket, and we've had it ever since.

MOYERS: Hundreds of people came from all over. They came to see if they could help make this community center work. A deal was struck with the city and school board; the vacant Beacon Hill School became El Centro de la Raza.

ROBERTO MAESTAS: The job really started the day we won. And now that we have this huge building, what do we do, and how do we do it…

MOYERS: Today it houses a child development center… trains people to run small businesses... sponsors art exhibits, poetry workshops, conferences - and keeps urging everyone who shows up, young and old, to stand up and be counted.

REGINO MARTINEZ: I always tell people that I'm a generation away from being in the fields. My grandparents, my parents…all my aunts and uncles were migrant farm workers, so I never forget them.

ROBERTO MAESTAS: "I think the most important thing we can do is to...invite them, convince them that they are valuable and important."

"We have learned to use language to define our terms, to express ourselves, and to bring out of our children the noblest and most beautiful sentiments that human beings have. That's how powerful language can be."

CAMILO ANDRES ALMONACID: We once wore rainbows that curved out of hidden realms arcs of tradition around our necks, showering spectrums, streams of shades, we wore the offspring of rain, we wore rainbows like cloth, like war paint spread across cheeks Like juice stains on children's mouths, thorns on kings, like halos on angels, like do rags and old t-shirts and bandannas. Today we don't wear rainbows like we used to. Different, children don't slide down them or use them like Frisbees, now they hide behind cities, on top of gasoline stains, on clean glass, in people eyes. On dirty, they reflect on the back CDs if you hold them sideways. They hide between mountains, behind sprinklers on suburb lawns, on silverware in restaurants, at home in mom's garden, in clubs on strobe lights, on diamonds, acid trips, carnivals and city blocks. But it's not like we're less now because we don't wear rainbows.

ROBERTO MAESTAS: "The constant for our children is to be kind and loving and generous, to be forgiving, to learn from each other, to be open about each other's ideas, to respect each other - whether they agree or not, to never use violence and aggression.

CAMILO ANDRES ALMONACID: We're practically the same now that we don't wear rainbows, think about it. I got a cell phone, you got a cell phone, little kids got cell phones, grandmothers, grandfathers, squirrels and barbers got cell phones. Maybe cell phones are the reincarnation of rainbows.

MOYERS: A book of poems by these young people was published a few years ago to considerable acclaim.

ELISA MARIA MIRANDA: No shoes, socks or warm clothes, standing in her dirty river. I wish I could hold the little munequa that cooked her food by a campfire, stored and kept it cool by an ice chest, bathing drinking and washing in her dirty river. She may have the pleasure of a tent at night, or simply a cardboard house and a dirt floor. Families hungry cold and sick standing in her dirty river, only to get up before the sun rose, to work in poisoned land. Pesticides poisoning the food and the people. I could just picture the girl that stands in her dirty river watching our people bent over, whipped by the sun and its long hours. 3 dollars a day for picking fruits and vegetables in the land of the free? Rows and rows of these families down these river banks, and down these fields. Staining my mind like grape juice on a white shirt.

MOYERS: El Centro de la Raza may be the only organization in America to receive the Reagan-Bush "Thousand Points of Light" Award…and the anniversary medal of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. As we say, nothing earthshaking here...no miracles...no miracles, that is...to the naked eye.

And may it be so.

Visit the El Centro de la Raza Web site.


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