Roberto Maestas, co-founder and executive director of El Centro de la Raza, received the 2006 Thomas C. Wales Award for Passionate Citizenship Nov. 18 at the Thomas C. Wales Foundation's Night Among Heroes dinner gala.
Named after the late federal prosecutor Tom Wales, who was gunned down and killed in the basement of his Queen Anne home in 2001, the foundation is "dedicated to the promise of ordinary citizens actively helping to create a more livable and fair society."
But picking the winner of the annual award wasn't easy, said John Hoffman, a longtime friend of Wales, a foundation director and chairman of the award-selection committee. "It is personal, emotional and, in the end, humbling work," he said.
Those up for consideration included a University of Washington student who works in homeless shelters, a major-league baseball player who sets up camps for children, a woman who brings street kids back to education, and a mother and daughter who are a doctor and nurse who treated rape victims in the Congo, Hoffman said.
Still, four finalists were also honored at the dinner. They included Grover Haynes, who served on the desegregation committee of the Seattle School District. He was also described in testimonials as having "a quiet listening style" that has peacefully resolved many conflicts, Hoffman said.
And as a past president of the SE Seattle Crime Prevention Council, Haynes has been on the front line of police and community relations, Hoffman added.
Also honored as a finalist was Lonnie Lusardo, who describes himself as a "recovering racist" and who holds diversity-training seminars. Lusardo is assertive when needed, said Hoffman, who added, "He has little patience for Seattle nice."
Another finalist was Minh Duc Nguyen, a Vietnam War refugee who "has become a tireless force in the Vietnamese community," Hoffman said. She also founded Helping Link to assist other Vietnamese refugees and immigrants.
The fourth finalist honored was Dr. Tom Preston, who has championed the rights of the terminally ill to face death on their own terms, not their doctor's. "Tom's support for self-determination at the end of life was courageous," Hoffman said.
Maestas' award has to be looked at in the context of civil rights in Seattle, according to Hoffman. "This is a story of the four amigos," he said of a coalition made up of the late United Indians of All Tribes Foundation founder Bernie Whitebear, Bob Santos, who champions Asian rights, King County Councilman Larry Gossett, who fought for African-American rights and Maestas, who made sure the Latino community had a voice. Gossett-who nominated Maestas for the award-and Santos were both at the dinner and offered congratulations to their old friend.
"Each of them individually confronted bias," Hoffman said. But the four men also supported each other's efforts on many issues, from Indian fishing rights to desegregation to Latino farm workers' rights, he added. "They changed the world."
Maestas, who spoke first in Spanish, also took a good-natured dig at Hoffman. "You would never know such an eloquent introduction would come from a Cougar," he said on a night that the Huskies beat the Cougars in the annual Apple Cup college football match.
The honoree's activism goes back more than three decades, and he has dedicated his life to serving the people, according to the Wales Foundation. Maestas has also gone to jail on more than one occasion for supporting civil-rights causes for all minorities.
Maestas said that Wales' death should not be in vain, "and may the coward who pulled the trigger be caught soon." He also said the award really belongs not to him, but to the children, the elders and especially the women in King County.
And he had high praise for King County Executive Ron Sims, who he said helped lead the charge to change the namesake of the county from a slave owner to Martin Luther King Jr. "King County can be an example for the rest of the country and the world," Maestas said.
He concluded his short acceptance speech by asking the audience to help him out by saying "viva" after each time he used the Spanish word for live.
He said, "Viva Martin Luther King, viva the Tom Wales Foundation, viva El Centro de la Raza, viva our beloved community." The audience shouted out the word each time.[[In-content Ad]]