From farm fields in Texas to the halls of power in Olympia, Estela Ortega is honored for a lifetime of work championing the poor.

Share story

From the time she was 8, picking cotton in the Texas fields, hard work has defined Estela Ortega.

As executive director of El Centro de la Raza community center on Beacon Hill, Ortega never glamorizes those “embarrassingly poor” years. But she does acknowledge that early hardship imparted a tenacity that has served her well.

Her “whatever-it-takes” attitude would vault the onetime farmworker into community organizing in the Lone Star state when she was barely out of her teens. Latino advocacy in Seattle followed until, eventually, Ortega became a familiar presence in Olympia, where she is well known as a champion for education funding.

On Sunday, Ortega was honored as a defender of human and civil rights by the National Education Association (NEA), which presented her with its George I. Sanchez Memorial Award.

Farm work led Ortega, by age 22, to the United Farm Workers effort to improve conditions in the fields. There, she met organizer Roberto Maestas, who invited her to leave Texas and join him in the occupation of an abandoned school building on Beacon Hill in Seattle.

There was no heat or hot water. But Ortega spent three months with a few dozen activists — current county Councilman Larry Gossett among them — who had commandeered the old school, asking that it be rehabilitated as a community college.

“When I saw all this unity, it felt like the right thing,” she said Sunday, thinking back to what became a defining moment in her career. “We were a multiracial group, and there was power in that unity.”

The city and school district finally acquiesced, and today the building houses El Centro de la Raza (The Center for People of All Races), a community stronghold offering child care, job training, a food bank and hot-meal delivery for seniors.

Among El Centro’s most ambitious projects: 112 units of low-income housing now being built near the site so that, as Ortega puts it: “low-income people of color can stay in our city. We need to make sure that people who work in this city can live in this city.”

Also honored at the NEA dinner in Washington, D.C., were radio broadcaster Christopher Bennett, chairman of the Seattle Medium Newspaper, who often speaks on issues of interest to blacks in Seattle. And Dr. Juana R. Royster, whose research addresses the connection between poverty and poor health particularly for working mothers.

Now in her mid-60s, Ortega has hardly slowed. Pondering the fast-approaching deadline for resolution of the state’s McCleary school-funding lawsuit, the lifelong activist is ready for one more fight.

Legislators have an obligation to adequately fund Washington’s public schools, she said. “And we will be there, organizing, to make sure they need to live up to it.”