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Obituaries

George Sotelo, 78; an Advocate for Civil Rights

June 21, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Sotelo, an early crusader for Mexican American civil rights who helped launch influential advocacy groups in California, died June 12 of cancer at the USC-Norris Cancer Center in Los Angeles. He was 78.

The longtime Pasadena resident played a leading role in establishing California chapters of the American GI Forum, the nation's oldest and largest Latino veterans organization. He helped found the state's first chapter in Los Angeles in 1957 and served as the statewide executive director for several years.

He was a founding member of the Mexican American Political Assn., the advocacy group founded after World War II that helped elect Ed Roybal, the first California Latino in Congress, and was influential in obtaining appointments for Mexican Americans in the administrations of California Gov. Pat Brown and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"He was very stubborn in trying to remedy some of the injustices faced by our community," said retired Superior Court Judge Leopoldo G. Sanchez, one of the first Latinos elected to a judgeship in Los Angeles.

Sotelo belonged to a generation whose sacrifices in World War II awakened them to the rights and privileges of American citizenship.

He was born in Pasadena and raised in the Central Valley, where his parents were farm workers. After graduating from high school in Fresno, he worked briefly in a cannery, then enrolled at Pasadena City College. Then, with America about to enter World War II, he volunteered for military service and became a paratrooper trainer at Ft. Benning in Georgia.

In the South, he was "subjected to a lot of racial discrimination, something he never tasted in Los Angeles," said Eddie M. Ramirez, a pharmacist who, along with Sanchez, was an early member of the American GI Forum in Los Angeles. "He had a rude awakening, and he responded to the best of his ability. He was someone who stood up for what he thought was right."

The American GI Forum was founded in 1948 by Dr. Hector P. Garcia, who was then battling the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, to accept sick Latinos who were World War II veterans. The group earned national attention over a controversy in Three Rivers, Texas, where the town's only funeral parlor had refused to host services for a Mexican American soldier killed in the war. He ultimately was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

After completing his military duty in 1946, Sotelo got married and started a family. He operated heavy construction machinery and in the early 1950s became one of the first Mexican American members of the Operating Engineers Union, according to son-in-law Kenneth Burt, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley who is writing a history of Mexican Americans in California politics.

Sanchez recalled that Latinos in California had no major organization fighting for their rights in the years immediately after the war. Sotelo, he said, was "the moving force to start the American GI Forum in Los Angeles." About a dozen people came to a meeting in East Los Angeles in 1957 that Sotelo called to recruit members.

Sotelo, Sanchez and others established the Los Angeles chapter, then spent their spare hours drumming up support in other cities from Bakersfield to San Diego. They gave scholarships to encourage Latinos to finish high school and pursue college. They fought political gerrymandering, job and housing discrimination and unfair enforcement of curfew laws.

The Los Angeles chapter became a network for most of Los Angeles' early Latino elected officials, such as Roybal, who in 1949 had become the first Mexican American elected to the City Council.

Sotelo and other forum members helped to elect Sam Yorty mayor in 1961. Yorty later named Richard Tafoya as Los Angeles's first Mexican American deputy mayor. In 1962, Roybal was elected to Congress.

Such victories, fueled by the grass-roots energy of groups such as the forum, laid the groundwork for Mexican American community activism in the second half of the 20th century.

"Few people today appreciate how important these early struggles were," said Burt.

"It is a great untold story with numerous unsung heroes" such as Sotelo.

Although he paved the way for many key Latino appointments, Sotelo never sought one for himself.

He was proudest of his children's educational successes: All six attended college.

Sotelo is survived by his wife of 57 years, Margarita Pompo Sotelo; daughters Sally Chriss of Alamo, Calif., Brenda Bosworth of Woodinville, Wash., Sonia Burt of Sacramento, and Isila Oliver of Palo Alto; sons George, of Upland, and Mario, of Pasadena; and seven grandchildren.

His funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church, 1879 N. Lake St., Altadena. Memorial donations may be sent to St. Jude Children's Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, Tenn. 38105.

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