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John Ortega, Latino labor activist in Marin, dies at 93


Jul 30, 2023

John Ortega, an activist and community organizer in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael for decades, died at a hospital in Fresno. He was 93.

John Ortega, an activist and community organizer in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael for decades, died at a hospital in Fresno. He was 93.

Maria Rodriguez Ortega, Mr. Ortega’s widow, said he suffered complications from a bone spur in his throat.

“Jack was inspirational. He was a leader, he was an activist, he was a light,” she said. “He helped people learn, develop and create their lives to better their situation. He was a leader for the people who were downtrodden, who didn’t speak the language, who didn’t know the policies. He gave them the tools to help themselves.”

Mr. Ortega was a figure in state Latino politics since the 1960s. Though his formative years were spent in the Central Valley, and later at the state border, he dedicated many decades of his organizing work to the Canal area, historically a Latino hub of the county.

Patrick Goggins, 87, of Mill Valley met Mr. Ortega in the 1960s just as Mr. Ortega was beginning to get involved in community activities. Goggins introduced Mr. Ortega to Marin County and explained the plight of Latino migrants coming into the area seeking work, housing and services.

“He was a genuine, grassroots American and that’s what he gave to Marin,” Goggins said. “He had good abilities to relate with the diverse peoples in our community.”

Goggins said Mr. Ortega was in the mold of an organizer from John Steinbeck’s book “In Dubious Battle,” which focuses on the rising up of agricultural laborers in California.

“He would come into the community and he would find out who the decision makers were, who the people in power are,” Goggins said. “He would go to the people on the lower strata of society and see what their needs were. And he would find out how to connect the two.”

In an Independent Journal article in 1997, Mr. Ortega expressed optimism about the influence the Canal activists were beginning to have on the local government.

“I feel energized,” Mr. Ortega said, then a six-year resident of the neighborhood. “I’m delighted to see this new social consciousness of the city. … We’d been trying for five to six years to get into the city loop where decisions are made. Now it’s finally starting to happen.”

Mr. Ortega was born in Los Angeles in 1929. He served in the Korean War, his widow said.

Mr. Ortega began his activism in the 1960s alongside Latino labor activists such as Bert Corona and Oscar Zeta Acosta. He became known as one of the central Latino organizers in the Fresno area and helped organize thousands of Latinos to support Robert Kennedy in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary.

Mr. Ortega’s wife said he later led economic development efforts in Calexico and Mexicali, near the California border, for immigrants and residents.

The couple lived in the Bay Area for approximately 40 years, more than 25 of them in San Rafael. Maria Rodriguez Ortega said her husband organized Latino workers in the Canal area, registering many of them to vote.

Placido Salazar, a Latino activist from Forest Knolls, described Mr. Ortega as a consummate activist during a formative era in Marin.

“He pretty much dedicated his life to helping minorities and the downtrodden. He was very generous in his time in that way,” Salazar said.

The Ortegas returned to Fresno in 2017. Mr. Ortega remained active through the rest of his life, despite his declining health.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Ortega is survived by a nephew and three nieces. The family plans a private service in Fresno.

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