Back to top

Gomez-Bethke, Irene (1935–2021)

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Irene Gomez-Bethke

Irene Gomez-Bethke, ca. 1990s. Used with the permission of Jesse Bethke Gomez.

“We are one race—the Human Race.” These are the words of Irene Gomez-Bethke, a daughter of Mexican parents who immigrated to Minnesota. Throughout her life, she played a leadership role in bending the arc of history toward social justice, serving as Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights, guiding boards and commissions as a volunteer, and co-founding both Centro Cultural Chicano and Instituto de Arte y Cultura.

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 KMart, then as food service director at Homeward Bound, and then as an administrative aide to Minneapolis Mayor Donald M. Fraser. At the City of Minneapolis she organized two national conferences: the US 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 Donald M. 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.

In 1982, Perpich appointed Gomez-Bethke as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Rights. Commissioner 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 twenty-one great grandchildren.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Bjorhus, Jennifer. “Irene Gomez-Bethke, Chicana Activist and Former Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner, Dies at 86.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 25, 2021.
https://www.startribune.com/irene-gomez-bethke-chicana-activist-and-former-minnesota-human-rights-commissioner-dies-at-86/600038620

College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota. Chicano & Latino Studies.
https://cla.umn.edu/chicano-latino

Irene Gomez-Bethke papers, 1970–2001
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers of a Minneapolis-born, Mexican American woman who was a leader in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Hispanic communities. The papers document her work with and involvement in several Hispanic cultural, legal, and human service organizations in the Twin Cities, the Hispanic ministries of the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, and her service in state and local government.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00039.xml

Reyes, Peter M, Judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals. “Memoriam of Irene Gomez-Bethke.” Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association, 2021.
https://minnhba.org/in-memoriam-of-irene-gomez-bethke

Roethke, Leigh. Latino Minnesota. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Press, 2007.

US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. Field Sanitation Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/agriculture/field-sanitation

Related Images

Irene Gomez-Bethke
Irene Gomez-Bethke
Irene Marie Gomez with family
Irene Marie Gomez with family
Irene Marie Gomez in high school
Irene Marie Gomez in high school
Irene Marie Gomez with a high school friend
Irene Marie Gomez with a high school friend
Jack Bethke and Irene Gomez-Bethke
Jack Bethke and Irene Gomez-Bethke
Jack Bethke and Irene Gomez-Bethke with their children, 1960s
Jack Bethke and Irene Gomez-Bethke with their children, 1960s
Jack Bethke and Irene Gomez-Bethke with their children, 1970s
Jack Bethke and Irene Gomez-Bethke with their children, 1970s
Irene Gomez-Bethke, 1970s
Irene Gomez-Bethke, 1970s
Irene Gomez-Bethke in Oklahoma City
Irene Gomez-Bethke in Oklahoma City
Irene Gomez of the Police and Community Relations Task Force. Photograph by Erickson Studio, ca. 1983.
Irene Gomez of the Police and Community Relations Task Force. Photograph by Erickson Studio, ca. 1983.
Irene Gomez-Bethke and Ronn Vargas with Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser
Irene Gomez-Bethke and Ronn Vargas with Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser
Irene Gomez-Bethke at her college graduation
Irene Gomez-Bethke at her college graduation
Irene Gomez-Bethke at a community event
Irene Gomez-Bethke at a community event
Irene Gomez-Bethke with Rudy and Lola Perpich
Irene Gomez-Bethke with Rudy and Lola Perpich
Irene Gomez-Bethke and Jack Bethke with Walter Mondale
Irene Gomez-Bethke and Jack Bethke with Walter Mondale
Irene Gomez-Bethke and Jack Bethke with one of their great grandchildren
Irene Gomez-Bethke and Jack Bethke with one of their great grandchildren
Irene Gomez-Bethke with her husband and children
Irene Gomez-Bethke with her husband and children
Irene Gomez-Bethke with her lifetime achievement award
Irene Gomez-Bethke with her lifetime achievement award

Turning Point

In 1982, Governor Rudy Perpich appoints Irene Gomez-Bethke the Human Rights Commissioner of the state of Minnesota’s Human Rights Department. The Minnesota State Legislature confirms her appointment.

Chronology

1923

Jesse and Maria Gomez, along with the related Ceballos and Martinez families, move from Cisco, Texas, to Hector, Minnesota, to work in the sugar beet fields. After finding unjust and inhumane labor conditions there, they move to North Minneapolis.

1970

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is enacted to improve working conditions for laborers. It establishes standards of sanitation in some agricultural settings, requiring employers to provide toilets, drinking water, and hand-washing facilities.

1983

Congress passes the Migrant and Seasonal Agriculture Protection Act, replacing a similar and weak 1964 Act. The 1983 act protects migrant and seasonal workers by establishing standards related to wages, housing, transportation, and record keeping.

1935

Irene Marie Gomez is the second of six children born to Jesse and Maria Gomez in North Minneapolis.

1945

Maria asks eleven-year-old Irene to translate for a neighbor in Hennepin County District Court—a role she continues through 1947. It wasn’t until 1969 that a state statute ensured interpretation services for disabled and non-English-speaking defendants.

1953

Irene marries Jack Arthur Bethke at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in North Minneapolis. They have six children: Jack, Mary, Julia, Patricia, Anita, and Jesse. The family moves from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park and then to New Hope.

1974

Gomez-Bethke helps found Centro Cultural Chicano.

1982

Governor Rudy Perpich appoints Gomez-Bethke Commissioner of Human Rights for the state of Minnesota. She is confirmed by the Minnesota State Legislature.

1983

As Human Rights Commissioner, Gomez-Bethke establishes Minnesota Human Rights Day on December 10.

1980s

Gomez-Bethke earns her BA in arts administration from Metro State University, completes a leadership program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, and attends a conference at the University of St. Thomas’s Hispanic Theological Institute.

1990s

With Gomez-Bethke as its executive director, Instituto de Arte y Cultura (IAC) expands Hispanic Heritage Month events throughout the Twin Cities Metro area.

late 1990s

Gomez-Bethke leaves IAC to pursue work in government.

1998

Gomez-Bethke becomes interim executive director of the Spanish-Speaking Affairs Council for the State of Minnesota.

1999

Having finished her work for the Spanish-Speaking Affairs Council, Gomez-Bethke works for the US Department of Commerce. She travels throughout the state encouraging Minnesotans to participate in the 2000 federal census.

2001

Gomez-Bethke retires from public life and donates her papers to the Minnesota Historical Society.

2016

On April 5, Gomez-Bethke receives a lifetime achievement award from the Latino Law Student Association of Mitchell Hamline Law School for her lifelong dedication to advancing justice, human rights, equality, and social justice.

2021

Gomez-Bethke passes away on March 21.