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Long-time civil rights activist “Uncle” Bob Santos, who was also known as the unofficial mayor of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (ID), died Saturday at the age of 82, according to NBC affiliate KING5.
“Bob Santos touched countless lives across every race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and age in Seattle,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray in a statement. “He was everyone’s 'uncle' because of his universal and unwavering friendship, and he was a hero to many marginalized Seattlites who he tirelessly advocated for.”
According to an oral history in the University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, Santos was born in Seattle in 1934 to a Filipino father and a Native American and Filipina mother. He grew up in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District and joined the Marines after high school in the 1950s.
He became involved in civil rights activism in the 1960s through the Catholic Church and was instrumental in preserving the ID's low income, elderly, and family housing as founding executive director of the International District Improvement Association (InterIm CDA) as well as later overseeing the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation Authority.
"Bob Santos led the successful fight to preserve the cultural and historic heart and vitality of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District neighborhood, at a time when Chinatowns were disappearing to gentrification throughout the country," Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service, told NBC News. "His life’s work significantly defined the character of Seattle’s Asian American community; key community organizations comprising its backbone owe their origins to Bob. He fought for the rights of its most vulnerable residents and joined with leaders of the Native American, Latino, and African American communities to advance civil rights and social justice for disadvantaged communities locally and nationally. He was everyone’s uncle, a mentor to generations of community organizers and leaders, and a hero to us all."
Santos was also known for forging multiracial alliances as one of the “Gang of Four” or “Four Amigos” with Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett, leaders of color who worked together for social justice for their communities.
Recalling how each of the “Gang of Four” would bring their community to each others’ protests and take turns getting arrested, Santos told NBC affiliate KING5 in an earlier interview, “The media was picking up on that, saying there were thousands and thousands of people out there. It was the same group of us that was moving from demonstration to demonstration. But we got a lot done.”
“By uniting not only the Asian American community in Washington, but many people of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, Bob proved that lasting change comes from a united front,” state Sen. Bob Hasegawa said in a statement on behalf of the the Washington Democrats. “There are children and families who received health care because of him, who got housing or were able to buy their first home because of him — not many people can say they had such a direct impact on the lives of their neighbors. His legacy will live on in their memories and ours. Like many of my colleagues, I am proud to have called Bob a friend. He was a mentor and moral anchor for our entire community.”
A memorial is being planned for Sept. 23.