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Irene Gomez-Bethke bent the arc of history toward social justice

Gomez-Bethke served as Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights, guided boards and commissions as a volunteer, and co-founded both Centro Cultural Chicano and Instituto de Arte y Cultura.

Irene Gomez-Bethke
Collection of Jesse Bethke Gomez
Irene Gomez-Bethke
Irene Gomez-Bethke was born in Minneapolis in 1935. Her parents, Jesse Gomez and Maria Gomez, had immigrated from Mexico to Minnesota in 1923. Irene recalled her family’s journey in a speech she gave in 2016: “My parents came from Mexico to Texas, where they met, and both their families were enticed by the sugar beet industry to allegedly what was said to be good paying jobs in Minnesota. They came to Hector, Minnesota, in 1923. What they found was inequity of pay, substandard living conditions, and the experience of working from sun up to sun down. There was no water, and no bathroom facilities in the fields. The housing was deplorable.”

Irene’s commitment to social justice began at an early age. At her mother’s request, between 1945 and 1947 she accompanied neighbors to court dates and acted as a translator. “I remember growing up in Minneapolis and my mother asked me to translate for a neighbor who had to go to court. I quickly learned that it was not enough to know Spanish and English, one also needed to know the legal terminology. Because of the differences in Mexico, one is guilty until proven innocent, and here, you are innocent until proven guilty. I remember sharing this with our neighbor as their translator in court, so that they would be treated fairly, and to only answer the question before them. By today’s standards, it seems unreal that a child would be the only means for translation for a defendant.”

Irene married Jack Arthur Bethke at St. Joseph’s Church in Minneapolis in 1953. They had six children (Jack, Mary, Julia, Patricia, Anita, and Jesse) and lived in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, and New Hope. Gomez-Bethke’s career took off in the 1970s when she worked first as a manager at a K-Mart, then as food service director at Homeward Bound, and then as an administrative aide to Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser. At the City of Minneapolis she organized two national conferences: the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the same decade she also helped found Centro Cultural Chicano and then Instituto de Arte y Cultura (IAC), of which she was executive director. During her tenure at IAC, she introduced Hispanic Heritage month to Minnesota.

Gomez-Bethke served as the chair of the Hispanic Advisory Committee to the mayor and city council of Minneapolis two times: first under Albert Hofstede (mayor 1974–1975) and then Fraser (mayor 1980–1994). Minnesota Governor Al Que appointed her to the state’s Spanish Speaking Affairs Council during his term in office (1979–1983), and his successor, Rudy Perpich, did the same.

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In 1982, Perpich appointed Gomez-Bethke as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Rights. Gomez-Bethke then developed a plan that eliminated a 3,000-case backlog in the Human Rights Department that preceded her appointment. She also recruited and advocated for other state employees of color. In part because of her influence, Perpich appointed the first diverse group of judges in the state’s history, including Judge Alberto Miera (1983) and Judge Isabel Gomez (1984).

Gomez-Bethke joined committees and boards of directors representing a variety of local and national organizations, including the United Way of Minneapolis, Centro Legal, the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis, the National Association of Human Rights Workers, the National Board of Directors, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. She was board president of Centro Legal in the mid-1980s. She was guided by her faith, and in particular by her devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Archbishop John Roach appointed her to the Deanery Council of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis in the mid-1980s.

In 2016, the Latino Law Students Association of Mitchell Hamline Law School held a ceremony honoring Gomez-Bethke with a lifetime achievement award. Thinking back over her career, she recalled, “When Governor Rudy Perpich offered to appoint me to the position of the Human Rights Commissioner for the State of Minnesota, I was very grateful for the opportunity to not only serve the people of Minnesota but also to be a part of his cabinet. I knew of the governor’s interest to create a more diverse government, and I quickly spoke to the governor about the lack of diverse judges. He was very open to this and he asked me to help recruit diverse candidates, which I did.”

Gomez-Bethke passed away on March 21, 2021, survived by her four siblings, her six children, fourteen grandchildren, and 21 great grandchildren.

Jesse Bethke Gomez is the son of Irene Gomez-Bethke. For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.