Centro Legal De La Raza

Historical Essay

by Ariel Gomez, 2015

Inspired by the 1960s Chicano movement, Centro Legal de la Raza – a comprehensive legal services agency located in Oakland’s Fruitvale District - has educated, organized, and served marginalized Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost fifty years.

Early History

Emerging out of the wave of radical social justice movements and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, Centro Legal de La Raza was founded in the spring of 1969 by eight Chicano law students at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School. The organization’s history, however, predates its initial founding. Before the creation of Centro Legal, the burgeoning Chicano Movement was one of the many social justice movements that tried to foment change in the United States. Oakland, CA, famous as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, was a regional hotspot for such political activity. In particular, the East Oakland Fruitvale community, known for its marginalized Latino and African American populations and lacking many basic social services, became a geographical center for communities raising challenges to the social and political infrastructure.(1)

One of the cornerstone’s of the Chicano Movement was an outrage for the inaccessibility of higher learning institutions to Latino people. Many colleges and universities did not include Chicano students either because of outright discrimination or broader structural barriers to accessibility. Albert Moreno, a fist year law student at Boalt in 1967, sought to create a Chicano law student organization to address such issues as they pertained to UC Berkeley. There was one major problem: at the time, there were only three Chicano students at the law school. Moreno was determined to open the law school to more students of color, so he met several times with the administration to change the admission process and diversify the student body. His efforts paid off; the following year, nineteen Chicano students were admitted, allowing for the creation of the La Raza Students Association and the Boalt Hall Community Assistance Program (BHCA). The BHCA, according to Moreno, “was a clearinghouse for student organizations that sponsored community projects,” and both organizations provided crucial funding to such programs.(2)

As law students, the members of the La Raza Student’s Association and the BHCA saw a need for a legal aid center in their community. At the time, only the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County provided free and low-cost legal services in the area, but none of the staff spoke Spanish nor did they have sufficient cultural understanding of the issues facing the Latino community. Moreno, who headed the BHCA, and three other Chicano law students submitted a budget proposal for what would become Centro Legal de La Raza to the BHCA. Given Moreno’s good reputation, the proposal had little difficulty being accepted. The founders decided to establish the organization in Oakland’s Fruitvale district to be more accessible to the communities Latino community, and in the spring of 1969, Centro Legal opened its doors.(3)

Though Centro was founded primarily as a legal services organization, its staff recognized that, given the charged political climate of the time and the vast social problems facing the Chicano community at the time, the organization had the responsibility to push for social change in Oakland. It could not just be client service oriented. The organization began to mandate “political training” to generate a greater social awareness and consciousness, as well as a greater understanding of the community’s primary concerns. Centro began to organizecommunity members through a series of initiatives, including helping Chicano draftees file for “Conscientious Objector” status. With funds from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the organization was also able to hire staff from the local community and prepared them for jobs as paralegals and clerks.

In 1976, Centro began to organize against police brutality when 27 year-old Jose Barlow Benavides was shot at close range by a rookie officer with a shotgun. The initial investigation by the police department did not satisfy the community, and many were angry that there was no disciplinary action for the officer. The Benavides Defense Committee was formed by local organizers who sought justice for Jose. Centro appointed Edward Roybal Jr. to represent them within the committee, and, with the support of local leaders like Ronald Dellums, Bill Lockyer, and Mayor Lionel Wilson, they were successful in pushing the District Attorney to convene a grand jury. Nevertheless, the officer who shot Jose was not indicted.

Struggles for Survival

By this time, community support for Centro and the Oakland movement against police brutality had waned. After a campaign conducted through word of mouth and posters by local artist Malaquias Montoya, Centro once again mobilized the community, this time to push for a federal indictment through the U.S. Department of Justice. Once again progressive local politicians appealed to the federal government for legal action. After a year and a half long investigation, however, the Department of Justice did not press charges, declaring the incident an accident. After investing so much into the campaign to seek justice for Jose Benavides, the organization was dealt a major blow. This challenge foreshadowed bigger challenges for the organization in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

In 1978, Proposition 13, a complete overhaul of the state’s property tax system, was passed with the support of right-wing groups and conservative homeowners. Property tax cuts led to significant budget cuts and Centro Legal, with a reputation for radical politics, was targeted, losing nearly half of its budget as a result. Centro’s funding problems worsened with the election of President Ronald Reagan. First, in his effort to gut federally funded social programs and services, Reagan eliminated the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), the main source of Centro’s funding. Additionally, though the President was not able to gut federal funds to legal service organizations, he was able to pass a measure that would prevent government money from going to organizations working with undocumented immigrants.(4) Centro refused to stop serving immigrants and this combined with the elimination of CETA resulted in a 100% cut to the organization’s budget.

Centro Legal’s staff was reduced to four people: staff attorney Victor Ochoa, Guillermo Suarez, who had yet to pass the bar exam, paralegal Carmen Acosta, and Executive Director Martha Lueta, who decided to go off salary. After being charged with tax evasion by the IRS, Centro was in additional trouble. Ochoa, who was able to secure a position in the Alameda County court, also went off salary and helped the organization to pay off its debt to the IRS in two years. Despite a successful fundraising event held by Edward Roybal Sr., Ronald Dellums, and Barbara Lee, Centro Legal barely held onto survival. It was proving difficult to organize the community politically so it focused on legal services, becoming one of the few organizations at the time that worked with an influx of Central and South American immigrants to apply for citizenship. After the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, most of these immigrants were given amnesty and Centro was able to focus on other activities, including the operation of a senior center that otherwise would have closed.

By 1986, Centro had amassed a large debt and once again struggled to stay open. Edward Roybal Jr., who was appointed the Executive Director until 1992, was able to get funding from the city government and began pushing for private funding from foundations. Erlinda Castro, a former staff member, became the new Executive Director, and with a new, stable source of funding, was able to develop programs to defend Latino students who were unjustly disciplined. Centro tenants who lived in deplorable conditions. However, in 1994, funding did not come through and Centro was once again in dire straits. Victor Ochoa then assumed the position of Executive Director. In the next couple of years, there was a resurgence of student volunteers and Ochoa saw this as an opportunity to transition leadership to Juan Lopez and Evelyn Cruz, recent law graduates. Despite their efforts, they did not have sufficient experience and Ochoa once again resumed the position of Executive Director in 1996.(5)

Under Ochoa’s second time at the head of Centro, the Tenant’s Rights Project continued and a recent law school graduate, Josephina Alvarez, began the Latino Student Rights Project. At the time, many Latino and Chicano students had been unfairly treated and disciplined by public school administrations. These schools had an internal procedure to redress these issues, but they often required legal representation. Thus, Centro Legal, with Alvarez’s leadership, was able to advocate for students, keep them in school, and seek alternatives to suspension and expulsion. Ochoa recalled one instance in which a student had been placed in the same math course for two years in spite of having passed it. He could not find help within the administration and began acting out, leading to disciplinary measures. Centro Legal stepped in and was able to place the student into the proper math course.(6)

Despite Alvarez’s strong leadership and potential in the organization, her tenure at Centro was cut short. She was attacked and robbed one day in front of the organization’s office, an event that nearly cost her life and badly rocked the organization. It took time for her and the organization to recover from the attack, and though Alvarez came back for a while, she eventually moved on.(7) In 2000, Ochoa also decided it was time for him to move on, and Rocio Fierro, an attorney from the District Attorney’s office, became the interim director for about six months. In October of that year, Fierro contacted Patricia Loya, who had worked with her sister Anamaria Loya in La Raza Centro Legal, an independent legal service organization in San Francisco. She was offered the position of Executive Director and accepted the job.(8)

Upon assuming the organization’s leadership, she found it was in severe financial trouble. The staff was composed of little more than a receptionist, and the organization’s bank account had less than $10,000. There was not enough money for her own salary. The only grant that Centro had was for housing work so she sought contracts with the city and donors. But she found the organization had no contracts with anyone, beyond a community project with the East Bay Law Center, which was still in the works. Loya said that “I knew we needed money NOW.” She decided to hold a fundraising event and reached out to the community that had supported the organization so much in the past. There was no donor database, so Loya and what little staff she had went through boxes, looking for past checks and information on previous donors. In this fundraising drive, she was able to raise $37,000, a significant sum for an organization with practically no staff.(9)

Patricia Loya then began to reach out to private donor foundations, encountering a good amount of hostility at first. Nobody wanted to donate money to what appeared to be a sinking ship. Loya says, “We were a skinny chicken that needed to puff up its feathers to look like a fat chicken.” Essentially, Centro Legal had to think like a bog organization and have faith in itself, or else no one would have faith in them. Loya began looking into smaller grants aimed at legal services organizations. She then began holding annual and biannual events, where people could donate, mingle, and create a greater presence for Centro Legal. In one instance, about thirty judges attended a fundraising dinner, which inadvertently attracted a large number of lawyers (and potential donor) seeking to gain good favor with these judges. Loya also began looking into corporate funding and other sources of money. Her aim was to diversify the organization’s funding to reduce Centro’s dependency on government funding, and thus its vulnerability.(10)

It was then that Loya realized that if the organization did not have enough programs, what were the donors going to fund? She began to envision a program aimed at educating youth on the law and their rights, hopefully guiding them to a career in the legal field. This was both an attempt to help underprivileged Latino youth in Oakland, and it was also a strategic move: youth services were popular and could serve as an attraction for funding.(11) What would eventually become the Youth Law Academy (YLA) was Loya’s brainchild, but it was staff member Mara Chavez who ultimately put together the program. Chavez reached out to prominent members of the legal and educational community to create an advisory board, which would advise Centro on what the organization should look like, potential challenges, and how to secure funding. The YLA finally came into existence in 2005, and continues to be one of Centro Legal’s signature programs.(12)

However, until 2004, when Centro was able to secure a $400,000 annual budget, funding was insecure, making it difficult to offer even basic legal services. Thus, Patricia Loya reached out to La Raza Centro Legal, where she had previously worked with her sister. Although Centro (in Fruitvale) could not afford to have a staff attorney at the time, attorneys from the San Francisco organization volunteered their time at Centro, holding legal clinics and providing community members with legal advice. In particular, Paul Chavez, an attorney, held clinics on housing law, continuing Centro’s tradition of protecting tenants from insidious slum lords.(13) In 2005, Centro was finally able to hire its first staff attorney in many years, Timothy Griffiths. Griffiths began taking on housing cases and was soon also working on wage claim matters for employment. This was a turning point for the organization, as it finally had enough money to begin offering full legal services.(14) Around this time another attorney, Alan Weiss, began holding clinics for consumer protection and soon after, Alison Davenport was hired as an immigration staff attorney.(15) Though Centro could only offer low salaries, Loya said they nonetheless hired the best attorneys, people who were “very soulful, smart, and good.”(16)

Rise of the Day Laborers Movement & Centro's Reemergence

Of course, the world did not stand still as Centro fought to secure funding and expand its services. In the early 2000s, the question of illegal immigration once again took center stage in national politics.(17) Moreover, jornaleros, or day laborers, began to receive negative attention. Many business owners argued that they were driving away customers by standing in front of their businesses. Others said they were dirty, lewd, and considered them as (illegal) urban blight. None of this hype recognized that most of these people were simply looking for work and often suffered abuses from their employers, who sometimes did not pay them. There was also a great amount of persecution by police and a general sense of racial prejudice directed at jornaleros. Many cities, including Oakland, sought to create “day labor centers,” where jornaleros could go to look for work without blocking streets or businesses. These centers would also ideally provide workshops on English, rights, etc., and sometimes food.(18)

The Oakland Day Labor Center was strongly supported by Ignacio de la Fuente, a prominent and powerful city councilmember, but there were many questions over its efficacy and the quality of its services and the building it was held in.(19) This day labor center also came with a compromise: the police could surveil other locations and remove jornaleros not seeking work at the center. Carlos Mares, a jornalero himself, began organizing day workers in Oakland and eventually reached out to Centro Legal.(20) In addition to persecution by police and lost wages, jornaleros would also be taken to jail, where federal agencies like ICE would check if they were undocumented. If so, they would be sent to “immigration jail,” where they would be held before being deported. Mares knew that they needed to know their rights and though Centro could help them out.(21)

In 2001, as Patricia Loya sought funds for the organization, she was approached by a group of jornaleros seeking help. Loya set up a future meeting with them and reached out to Renee Saucedo of La Raza Centro Legal, a champion of the day labor cause. On the day of the meeting, both women waited at Centro, but no one came. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a large group of people came around the corner, filling Centro Legal beyond capacity, with many more waiting outside. Loya knew at this point that this was a cause that the organization needed to pursue. She approached the issue from the point of view that people have the right to seek work in public spaces like sidewalks. She said day labor centers were fine, but that people have the right to search for work elsewhere. The Oakland Day Labor Center would not work if people were not using it, and people would not use it unless it truly served the jornaleros.(22)

It was this meeting that helped spark the Day Labor Movement in Oakland, as Centro helped jornaleros organize and the organization Lucha Unida de los Jornaleros was formed, headed by Carlos Mares, who would eventually marry Patricia Loya. This organization not only created a community where jornaleros could find support, but also allowed police to communicate with them and demonstrate that they could be called for help when they get robbed or denied wages. Moreover, through Centro, Lucha connected with the National Day Labor Network, which allowed them to attend several conferences throughout California and the nation.(23) They were able to go to day labor conferences in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Marin, and even Oregon. In 2002, they went to Maryland and Washington D.C., where they spoke in front of congress.(24)

Centro Legal and Lucha’s most important moment in the Day Worker Movement was a cross-country race in 2006. In 2005, the House of Representatives passed what would become known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, which would have led to a harsh immigration reform that would have criminalized undocumented status and the people helping illegal immigrants.(25) During this time, the federal government was cracking down on immigrants through redadas, or raids to find and deport undocumented workers. Centro Legal, with Alison Davenport as their only immigration attorney, was overwhelmed with immigration cases and could only help out a fraction of those that needed it.(26) To generate public opposition to the bill, Centro and Lucha organized a cross-country run from Santa Monica, through the mid-West, to D.C., and finally to the United Nations Headquarters in New York. With an indigenous group from Arizona, Carlos Mares and others embarked on a two-month run to defeat the Sensenbrenner Bill.(27) As they advanced, they would call Centro, where they had set up a map with pins to show their progress.(28)

Along the way, they had many notable experiences. While in Texas, they stayed in a church, where an officer entered yelling and demanding that one of the runners tell him where he was from. The runner refused to answer and was arrested. Centro had a lawyer on call and with the aid of the ACLU, they were able to release him and continue the run.(29) They also stopped in New Orleans, where jornaleros and African Americans fought over work on the streets. Though many jornaleros had been brought in to help rebuild the city after its destruction by Hurricane Katrina. But there was a great amount of anti-jornalero sentiment, with a denial of services and explicit signs that said they were not welcome. Working with a local chapter of the Black Panthers, however, Lucha was able to create some kind of bridge between the jornaleros and the African Americans in the few days they were there. Finally, on May 5th, the runners arrived in New York, where they were flown back home. Mares says that this publicity stunt helped in the eventual defeat of the Sensenbrenner Bill in the Senate.(30)

Soon after the run, Centro, with a number of other community organizations, joined together to (literally) build their own Oakland Worker Center. Once it was completed, Centro moved from the second floor of the Gualadajara restaurant to the center, along with the organizations involved. In 2007, Lucha made itself independent from Centro, but continued working in the Worker Center. In 2008, Patricia Loya, after reviving the organization from the ashes and reestablishing its presence in the community, finally stepped down as Executive Director.(31) Centro then moved to a new location with a new director, attorney Bianca Sierra.(32)

Under Sierra’s tenure, Centro Legal has continued to grow. Funding has continued to diversify, the staff has expanded significantly, and the YLA has evolved and serves even more students. As of now, Centro has a total of eight staff attorneys, covering a wide range of issues, including immigration, housing, and employment. Immigration has continued to be a primary focus for Centro Legal. With President Obama’s deferred action program, DACA, many undocumented immigrants have sought help filling out applications for them and their children to avoid deportation.(33) The recent surge of accompanied minors crossing the border, undocumented and without guardians, have also been a top priority for Centro.(34)

Moreover, Juan Vera, who joined Centro in 2010, he has been the Project Director of the Youth Law Academy. Now in its tenth year, the diversity pipeline program has expanded some of its activities which focus on giving youth of color the support and guidance to enter college and law school. YLA now provides SAT preparation for high school juniors, and college application support for seniors. This includes help with financial aid applications as well as help connecting student with other programs, summer internships, and legal internships. Vera has also introduced an ethnic studies and law and justice curriculum, in the same vein of the Chicano Movement that inspired the foundation of Centro. To date, none of YLA’s alumni have applied for law school, but all students in the YLA have graduated high school and there is a 80% college and retention rate. In all, the Centro’s program currently serves a total of 73 students, 36 undergraduates and 37 high school students. In the next five years, YLA will focus on a Diversity Legal Pipeline Program, which will teach YLA alumni in college what it takes to be a first year college student.(35)

Although Centro Legal de la Raza has gone through many phases and difficulties, its three-fold goals continue to guide the organization: the provision of legal services for Oakland’s marginalized Spanish-speaking community; community organizing and empowerment; and the education of the community, especially the youth.(36) Moreover, the leaders and members of the organization, who have sacrificed significant parts of their lives to keeping Centro alive, have stuck to their values and as Victor Ochoa said, they have stubbornly refused to ever sell out.(37)

1. Solona, Anthony. Centro Legal de la Raza:Defending a Community from 1969-1999. 1999.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ochoa, Victor. Interview with the author. 14 May 2015.
5. Solana, Centro Legal.
6. Ochoa.
7. Ibid.
8. Loya, Patrcia. Interviewed by the author. 11 May 2015.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Griffiths, Timothy. Interviewed by author. 31 March 2015.
13. Loya.
14. Griffiths.
15. Izarra, Esmeralda. Interviewed by author. 19 May 2015.
16. Loya.
17. Romero, Francisco. “Raza Media within the Belly of the Beast: Counter-Insurgency in the Barrio.” Perspectives on Global Development & Technology 9, no. 1/2 (March 2010): 205–10.
18. Skerry, Peter. “Day Laborers and Dock Workers: Casual Labor Markets and Immigration Policy.” Society 45, no. 1 (February 1, 2008): 46–52.
19. O'Brien, Matt. "Ten years later, Oakland day labor center still debated." Contra Costa Times (California). August 27, 2009 Thursday. Date Accessed: 2015/04/11.
20. Griffiths.
21. Mares, Carlos. Interviewed by author. 11 May 2015.
22. Loya.
23. Ibid.
24. Mares.
25. O’Rourke, Allen Thomas. “Good Samaritans, Beware: The Sensenbrenner-King Bill and Assistance to Undocumented Migrants.” Harvard Latino Law Review 9 (Spring 2006): 195–208.
26. Izarra.
27. Mares.
28. Loya.
29. Ibid.
30. Mares.
31. Loya.
32. Izarra.
33. Ibid. See also: “The President’s Immigration Actions.” Congressional Digest 94, no. 3 (March 2015): 5–6.
34. Izarra. See also: “Unaccompanied Child Immigrants Fare Better with Attorneys.” Los Angeles Times.
35. Vera, Juan. Interviewed by the author. 13 March 2015.
36. Loya.
37. Ochoa.