July 18, 2009

Ricardo Aguirre

By Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

Chicano activist Ricardo Aguirre fought for social change. Ricardo Aguirre had many identities: A poor kid from a California border town. A die-hard Husky. A businessman. But every time he spoke before an audience — which was often — he began with this one: “My name is Ricardo Aguirre and I am a Chicano.”

Ricardo Aguirre had many identities: A poor kid from a California border town. A die-hard Husky. A businessman. But every time he spoke before an audience — which was often — he began with this one:

“My name is Ricardo Aguirre and I am a Chicano.”

It was a phrase that came to define the last 40 years of Aguirre’s life, as he embraced a social movement and at the same time celebrated his humble roots.

Aguirre, a community leader involved in Latino issues, died July 3, at age 72, after an illness.

Born in San Ysidro, Calif., Aguirre lost his mother to tuberculosis at age 7. His father was called off to war and the young boy bounced across the border between relatives.

“Flat-out poor” is how his son, also named Ricardo, described it.

Tall and strong, however, he excelled at athletics, winning a football scholarship to community college and then the University of Washington, where he played end.

In 1960, the Huskies went to the Rose Bowl under coach Jim Owens and clobbered Wisconsin, a stunning upset. The next year, the team went back and beat Minnesota.

Aguirre played on both teams, opening a path for later life.

“That was his identity: a football player,” his longtime friend Roberto Maestas said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art, he coached football at the University of Hawaii. He returned to Seattle in the late 1960s and became an insurance agent.

At the same time, he began to see the world through a different lens. When Aguirre started at the UW there were few Latino students.

“It was extremely isolating,” fellow UW student Maestas recalled. In the larger culture, Latinos were largely invisible, he said, their identities all but erased with Anglicized names: “Ricardo,” for instance, became “Dick.”

“I remember him telling his circle of athletic friends, ‘Dick Aguirre is dead. Ricardo Aguirre has resuscitated,’ ” Maestas said. Some were taken aback. Yet once Aguirre went down that road, he did not turn back.

He began identifying as “Chicano.” The word, Maestas said, refers to Americans of Mexican descent. But it was also tinged with politics, a term that became entwined with social-justice causes.

Aguirre, Maestas and others protested minority-recruiting policies at the UW and elsewhere. They pushed for bilingual-education programs and services for underprivileged people. Even as he was trying to grow his insurance business, Aguirre wound up getting arrested at protests.

In 1972, Chicano activists, including Aguirre, occupied an abandoned school on Beacon Hill after cuts to programs that served Latinos. After months of protest, officials agreed to turn the building into a community center and El Centro de la Raza was born. Aguirre was a founding member of the nonprofit, and served there for four decades. He was well-known for his regular talks at local schools.

He was just as devoted to family. He and his wife, Marlinda, raised their three children on wooded acreage in Issaquah — the type of life he wasn’t able to have as a child. His daughter Julia Aguirre, an assistant professor at the University of Washington in Tacoma, said he never missed one of their games. His daughter Debora Aguirre now runs the family insurance business.

Ricardo, an anesthesiologist in California, said his father’s time as a Husky became a blueprint for everything else in life. “He wouldn’t talk about the individual games as much as how hard the team worked, the principle of being a teammate,” Ricardo said.

One of Aguirre’s favorite stories was about the day he first arrived in Seattle “with five bucks and a dream.”

C’mon, his kids would say. Five bucks?

“I think that was a pretty close estimate,” Ricardo now realizes. “He didn’t know anyone here. He got where he was today from that five bucks and a dream.”

In addition to his wife, his three children and their spouses, he is survived by four grandchildren.

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