AAPI Heritage Month: Bob Santos

In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we are hosting a series of profiles and stories to amplify and honor people, businesses, organizations, and projects connected to the history of Seattle’s AAPI community.

Born and raised in Seattle, Bob Santos always had a deep allegiance to the Chinatown International District. The son of a Filipino immigrant father and a Native American and Filipino mother, he dedicated most of his life to protecting and defending the people, businesses, and culture of his childhood neighborhood.  

Santos became involved with the civil rights movement in the 1960s through his involvement in Seattle’s Catholic Interracial Council. While working at the St. Peter Claver Center, he provided free meeting space to a variety of civil rights groups in the area which helped facilitate a multiracial civil rights sensibility among Seattle activists. 

This type of unified thinking and organizing led him to a friendship and alliance with Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, and Roberto Maestas. The four activists, known as the Gang of Four, joined forces to advocate for common goals and resources for Latino, Black, and Native American communities.  Together, they helped bring communities of color together in one unified voice to fight for equal rights.  

He was quite well known for his innate mediation skills and ability to both excite the masses and calmly negotiate with government officials. In 1972, Santos became Executive Director of the International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im). He served as a pivotal liaison between community activists, private businesses, and government agencies regarding the preservation of the International Chinatown District. As development interests increased in the area, Santos fought to increase affordable housing, preserve family-owned small businesses, and establish culturally appropriate social services.  

“We had to be alert to the kind of development that would have destroyed the community,” Santos said in a 2005 interview with The Seattle Times. “You don’t see a prison, a work-release center, an energy-treatment plan. We were able to build housing for seniors and working families.” 

His leadership helped mentor a generation of young Asian activists in Seattle which gave him the nickname “Uncle Bob.” Santos passed away in August 2016 at the age of 82, but the value of his work and legacy will forever live on in the Chinatown International District. In March 2021, construction began on Uncle Bob’s Place, an affordable housing building that will provide 126 units designated for family households that have incomes less than or equal to 50 percent of the Area Median Income in the area.  

Bob Santos leads a protest in 1972 after the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kingdome.
Bob Santos speaks to a group of protesters through a megaphone
Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, and Roberto Maestas, known as the Gang of Four were lifelong friends and activists who fought for civil rights