A photo in the 2010 book "Latino Minnesota" shows a smiling dark-haired woman gazing upward at something off camera. Something in the distance, perhaps. A better day.
The caption says: "Chicana activist. Irene Gomez-Bethke in 1982."
Gomez-Bethke was commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights from 1982-83, just one of the public roles the tireless community leader played promoting Hispanic culture and immigrant rights. Her life's work, according to "Latino Minnesota," a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2009, was fighting the discrimination and injustice her parents experienced as Mexican migrants in this country.
"She's very well known in the Latino community, particularly in the Mexican American community," said Rosa Tock, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs. "She was a foundational figure and role model for Mexican Americans."
Gomez-Bethke was executive director of the council when it was called the Chicano Latino Affairs Council.
She died March 21 after being hospitalized for a non-COVID infection, her family said. She was 86.
Gomez-Bethke was born in 1935 in north Minneapolis, the only girl in a family of six children. Her parents moved to Minnesota from Texas in 1923 after they were recruited to work in the sugar beet fields in Hector, Minn.
They endured very harsh working conditions, said her son Jesse Bethke Gomez, executive director for the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living in St. Paul. They rejected it and moved to north Minneapolis where her father worked for the railroad. Her mother was politically active.
At her mother's request, Gomez-Bethke translated for a Spanish-speaking neighbor who had to go to court, and she began interpreting for defendants, said son Jesse. The experience had a profound, lifelong impact on her.
"She was horrified by the treatment of defendants who didn't understand English," he said. "It's why my mom worked so hard to promote diverse judges."
She married Jack Bethke, a friend of her brother, who she met at North High School. He was a saxophone-playing Lutheran and had to tread carefully, Jesse said, because his mother's family was Catholic, and strict. Bethke converted to Catholicism.
The couple eventually moved to New Hope, where Jack worked various jobs for plastics companies. Irene earned her high school degree midlife, and then graduated from Metropolitan State University with a degree in arts administration. The couple raised six children and were lifelong members of St. Joseph Catholic Church in New Hope.
Among her many roles, Gomez-Bethke served as the executive director of the Instituto de Arte y Cultura, cofounded Centro Cultural Chicano in Minneapolis (now called Centro Tyrone Guzman), and served on the Hispanic Advisory Committee advising former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser.
As human rights commissioner, she helped Gov. Rudy Perpich recruit and appoint several Hispanic judges, including the state's first Latina judge, Isabel Gomez.
Jesse said his favorite memory of his mother was seeing her receive a lifetime achievement award in 2016 from the Latino Law Student Association at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Gomez-Bethke is survived by her brothers Roman, Robert, Richard and Eugene; her children Jack, Mary, Julia, Patty, Anita and Jesse; 14 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
A private service will be recorded Saturday and available to view on the Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapels Inc. website after 5 p.m. that day.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-210-8580