George Ortiz, Sonoma County civil rights leader and patron of Latino community, dies at 85
George Ortiz, the farmworker turned social worker widely regarded as the patron of Latino empowerment and community pride in Sonoma County, died Wednesday morning.
Ortiz, a relentless civic titan who co-founded both the vast California Human Development anti-poverty agency and the Latinos Unidos scholarship and cultural organization, was 85.
For more than 50 years, he was at the forefront of efforts to organize and bring equal opportunity and treatment to Mexican-Americans living in the North Bay and beyond.
His advocacy resulted in countless Latinos going to college, pursuing positions of influence, seeing improvement to their pay, professional prospects and access to health care, and openly celebrating a culture that had previously been marginalized.
“We’re much more literate,” Ortiz told The Press Democrat in 2001, speaking about the change he helped spur. “We’re much more enlightened. We’re much more ambitious.”
And yet his message always to members of Sonoma County’s deep-rooted and burgeoning Latino community was that they were capable and deserving of far more.
“As much as things have changed, they haven’t,” the son of Mexican immigrants told a Press Democrat reporter last September, as he dealt with advancing cancer. “We’re the grunts of this community. We’re not the CPAs or the attorneys.”
Still, many more Latinos are in such professional roles now, including local elected office.
Admirers credit Ortiz with inspiring and improving the lives not only of Latinos but of seniors and people with disabilities and others in need of advocacy, affordable housing, addiction treatment and job training.
“There are very few people who walk this Earth who have done as much as George Ortiz,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire of Healdsburg.
“He was so successful in life because he led with his heart,” said McGuire, whose projects with Ortiz date back to the creation of a day labor center when McGuire served on the Healdsburg City Council. “He was a force to be reckoned with, and he was the epitome of the American Dream.”
Upon learning of Ortiz’s death early Wednesday morning, longtime friend and comrade Alicia Sanchez was ever more grateful that she attended a celebration of his life and his mission last August in Windsor.
“George’s spirit moves us,” Zeke Guzman, current president of Latinos Unidos, told those present at the party at the Mary Agatha Furth Center.
When the ailing but beaming Ortiz addressed the grateful crowd, he said, “I never expected this honor in my life and it’s very important to me. It brings me a great deal of happiness and tranquility.”
Unable to resist the opportunity for activism, he declared, “We need to resist the White House people, we need to push back, we need to organize and we need to vote.”
Sanchez was 17 when she met Ortiz, and for a time she worked for him in Santa Rosa at what is now California Human Development. Sanchez, who today is 68 and a community organizer and leader of bilingual radio station KBBF, could never bring herself to call her mentor “George.”
“He was Señor Ortiz to me,” Sanchez said. She credits him with drawing Latinos together and rallying them to claim power, to embrace their culture and to be “proud of who we are.”
Ortiz was regarded as an ally, friend, brother and mentor by another well-known Sonoma County leader, Herman J. Hernandez, founder of the leadership group Los Cien.
“George had a golden heart,” Hernandez said. “I learned a lot from him.”
He said Ortiz was a master at forging collaborative relationships among people and organizations committed to helping Latinos lift up their lives.
Received many honors
Even as Ortiz was being weakened by the prostate cancer that had spread to other parts of his body, “He was there at Los Cien. He was on the phone, he was making comments,” Hernandez said. “The community was his passion.”
Ortiz received many honors for all that he did for farmworkers, Latino children aspiring to higher education and others. Among those tributes, California Human Development named a Larkfield residential complex for farmworkers the Ortiz Family Plaza.
In 1999, The Press Democrat named Ortiz one of the 50 people most responsible for shaping Sonoma County through the 20th century.
In 2017, the North Bay Business Journal bestowed on Ortiz its Latino Business Leadership Award.
In 2018, Sonoma State University conferred upon Ortiz the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters.
That same year, the Mexican government presented him one of its highest honors, the Ohtli Award, for his efforts on behalf of Mexican nationals in the U.S.