'There's truly lives that we really have saved'; Celebrating the women behind El Centro de la Raza

El Centro de la Raza, which translates into 'the Center for People of all Races,' has been a part of the South Sound community for more than 50 years, serving around a half-million people during that time.

March is Women's History Month, and FOX 13 News is introducing you to a local trailblazer who worked her way to the top, showing courage in the face of adversity to make a change here in the community.

You may not know El Centro de la Raza is run majority by women. It's represented in the artwork around the building. Though, only few can say they've been there since the birth of El Centro de la Raza—one of whom is their executive director, Estela Ortega.

"Well, you know, I grew up extremely poor," said Ortega. "Extremely poor. I worked in the fields of Texas, eight or nine years old, to make ends meet for my family."

From a young age, Ortega manifested a better world. Not just for her, but for all people—especially those of color.

"The racism and 'Do you really belong?' is there, it's open," Ortega said. "You know? In terms of how one feels. I mean, I could look back to when I was six years old and knew I was being treated differently because of the color of my skin."

In 1972, Ortega alongside her late husband, Roberto Maestas, and a few others created El Centro de la Raza, envisioning equal rights, opportunities, and eliminating oppression.

But, it wasn't without a fight. Seattle was struggling at that time. The city was still recovering from the 1930s recession, and the war in Vietnam was creating a deep racial divide throughout the community. What is now a large organization in Beacon Hill was once run by just a handful of people who wanted to push beyond class and race barriers.

"I've done every conceivable job that one can think of when you're starting something," Ortega said. "I mean, I've done janitorial work. I was security for the building."

Ortega says if you want to create something great, no task is beneath you.

Thanks to her tenacity and grit, there is a place where people in need could come and get basic human services—food, housing, counseling. They wanted a space to protect those most vulnerable.

"There's truly lives that we really have saved," Ortega said. "There were people who were on the verge of suicide and just on the wrong path, but because El Centro connected with them, it changed their lives."

During the pandemic, El Centro de la Raza became crucial for families. It helped young people keep up with their schooling and feel stability in a world that was unpredictable.

"Without these programs in and available for community, we are not deterring, we are not offering healthier pathways towards [the] future," said Liz Huizar, director of youth services for El Centro de la Raza. "Sometimes, students are placed on pathways that they have no control over."

El Centro de la Raza prides itself on empowering young people to thrive in authenticity. Huizar said kids and teenagers often struggle with a dual identity challenge. Many students are born in the United States, but speak a different language at home. Their job as leaders is to let them know it's okay.

"We amplify and say, 'You're both,'" Huizar said. "You are your home culture, and you are your American culture. And it's okay to have both these things and bridge them together. We always say, ‘You can have a burger and have tacos, too.’"

Feeling that common ground is what Ortega wishes for all who come through doors of El Centro de la Raza.

"You can learn about the importance of community, building and being involved in community," Ortega said. "And, as you go off to school and you go off to different aspects of your life, don't separate yourself from community. Figure out how you're involved with a community-based organization."

That desire of wanting to give back is what keeps El Centro de la Raza going across generations.

"We have people who walk through these doors who were in the child development center and are now are adults," Ortega said.

One of those adults is Veronica Galardo, El Centro de la Raza's facilities manager. Her parents came to El Centro years ago for ESL classes in the 70s. Her family has been tied to this community ever since.

"I have a daughter, I have nieces, and we all work hard to make sure that they all have a safe space to come in the future," Galardo said.

El Centro de la Raza is the product of one little girl's dream for change. The hope is they've paved the path for the next.

RELATED: 'I wanted to be the best teammate'; First woman appointed as fire chief in King County

Get breaking news alerts in the FREE FOX 13 Seattle app. Download for Apple iOS or Android. And sign up for BREAKING NEWS emails delivered straight to your inbox.

"We expect our people to be creating businesses, and be doctors, and be lawyers, and work in government," Ortega said. "But, always come back, because that is where you are going to be really grounded."