Hundreds gathered at the WaMu Theater at Century Link Field on September 23 to remember legendary civil rights activist and Chinatown International District community leader Bob Santos, and celebrate his legacy.
Santos, who passed away in August at the age of 82, is survived by his wife, Washington State Representative for the 37th District Sharon Tomiko Santos, six children, 19 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones served as Emcee for the ceremony, which traced Santos’ life and activism from the beginning.
A video presentation during the ceremony featured an interview with Santos in which he talked about his early life and activism. Growing up in what’s now Seattle’s International District and Central District, Santos remembered a more diverse, segregated era of Seattle history.
Raised by his father in the International District, Santos would show his school friends the gambling halls and nightclubs where African Americans and Filipinos played music, and where he and the other kids could earn a dime performing the traditional Filipino Tinikling bamboo dance during intermissions between jazz players.
Santos got his start in activism during the civil rights era, when the African American, Chicano, Native American fishing rights, and other movements flourished. At this time, Asian American activists were focused on preserving the ID for the people who built it, hoping to avoid the fate of Manilatown in San Francisco, which was torn down for development and Little Tokyo, whose residential population was displaced by gentrification in the years following the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. At the time, Santos said, some people didn’t understand why the activists were fighting to preserve the neighborhood.
“We were fighting to preserve the housing for the people who built it, and that was our parents, our grandparents, and great grandparents,” Santos said in the video. “We didn’t want them displaced out of the neighborhood that they built.”
Preserving the International District for the residents who built it was a lifelong struggle for Santos.
“I’m sitting there with all this power and all this influence and I’m thinking, how do you use it?” he recalled in the video. “How will I make my presence here felt in the community?”
These words were the cue for a slideshow of photos from throughout Santos’ life, played over Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” one of Santos’ favorite karaoke songs.
Santos was a member of the famed Gang of Four, a group of four community leaders from the Asian American, African American, Native American, and Hispanic communities who worked together in solidarity with each other and to achieve common goals. Author Lawney Reyes spoke on behalf of the late Native American leader Bernie Whitebear, and Estele Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, on behalf of the late Roberto Maestas, who founded the community organization.
The last surviving member of the Gang of Four, Larry Gosset, spoke about the social justice movements the four were involved in, not just locally but nationally and internationally, from South Africa to Nicaragua to Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
“It is very important to me as the last one standing of the Four Amigos that you realize the tremendous impact that Bob had on our lives—on Roberto, Bernie, and my life, but most importantly the leadership role he played amongst leaders,” Gosset said. “He was a leader of leaders. … We know that cross-cultural and community solidarity works. No one taught us better than Bob.”
Attendees of the ceremony remembered Santos’ ability to bridge divides and unite diverse groups of people.
“When I think of Bob I think of only one word, and that’s leadership,” said Jesse Wineberry, who served as state representative for the 43rd and 37th districts. Wineberry said he never forgot that when he first ran for office as a relatively unknown law student against an incumbent, Santos was one of the first to endorse him.
“Though most of his leadership was for the ID, it really went beyond that. We in the African American community consider him a leader with and for us. People in the Native American community consider him a leader with and for them, and of course the Hispanic community as you saw. So that’s why you see here at his celebration of life such a rich, diverse fabric of this community.”
Tagoipah Mathno, a member of the Seattle chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum co-founded by Santos’ wife Sharon, said Santos’ life was a reminder of the power of solidarity among people.
“The communities of color, it all connects—it was a great reminder we have to be unified in solidarity,” she said. “That’s why you see so many different people here today across backgrounds and ages.”
Santos’ tireless spirit was also an inspiration, she said.
“No matter how tired or how old you get, you can still go on to do something that you really love for your community.”
For Art Wong, former state representative for the 27th district, Santos was a figure he looked up to throughout his political career. “He was always an inspiration because he blended the political and the community. He was close with political leaders but he was also close with the community and was a person who just loved to have a sense of fun in the community.”
Many speakers at the ceremony remembered ways Santos had touched them on a personal level.
“I’m sure it doesn’t surprise anybody here that we regarded him as our Uncle Bob,” said Anitra Freeman, a poet and member of the homeless organization the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), her voice giving way with emotion. “I know that we share that with a lot more people that are here today. But when you’ve been pushed to the margins, thrown away, treated as invisible, to be greeted by the kind of love that glowed from Uncle Bob is life-giving. Uncle Bob treated everybody as equals. Nobody was less and nobody was more. That gave us a lot of strength.”
Joel Ing, a lifelong friend of the Santos family, shared personal anecdotes and reflected on Santos’ lifelong work in preserving the International District.
“He guided us to places that we didn’t think we could obtain. He oversaw us. He opened up himself in a way that very, very few people did. He did it to all ages, to all colors, to all persuasions. It did not matter.”
Ing noted that Santos was never elected to public office, though he unsuccessfully ran for the 35th District state Senate seat in 1973.
“None of us could see him up in front of a dais like this following some prepared remarks, saying why he should be elected,” Ing said. “He spoke from the heart. And he spoke with so much conviction and so much passion that there was no pretense about it. So as we know, he was truly our politician. He was our public person, and he will always be that.”
Ing ended by thanking Santos for doing so much for the International District.
“Uncle Bob left us with a community that survived the ’70s. He left us with a community that revitalized in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. He’s left us with a community today that continues to grow. … Uncle Bob saved a neighborhood, he saved a community, and he saved us.”