The Legacy of Bobby Lee Verdugo, A Leader Of East LA Walkouts
At his Lincoln Heights high school in the late 1960s, Bobby Lee Verdugo was a popular football player and gentle jokester, with teasing eyes peeking out from under bushy brows. His playfulness got him in trouble, especially when he spoke Spanish. The teacher would march him to the front of the class to get paddled.
"As a young Chicano, I want to be tough, so you don't want to complain too much," Verdugo recounted to Latino USA in 2018. "But it hurt the spirit, you know. Little by little, they were breaking me."
It wasn't just the corporal punishment that was building up anger in Verdugo and other Latino students at Lincoln High School. It was also the disregard of their culture and language, being tracked into vocational classes, being treated like their futures were dead-ends.
Verdugo decided to do something about it. On March 6, 1968, he was among the students who led a walkout in protest of unequal education.
"I remember being in the hallways yelling, 'Walk out!' and being confronted by the vice principal telling me to go back to my class," Verdugo told Latino USA.
Verdugo, who became one of the founders of the Chicano student movement that day and then spent much of his life mentoring youth, died Friday following a heart attack and a years-long struggle with diabetes. He was 69.
The Lincoln High protest was part of walkouts that week that saw thousands of mostly Latino students across Los Angeles leaving in the middle of the school day. Fortunately, the Lincoln walkout was peaceful. At other schools, police clashed with students, bringing national attention to the students' cause.
After the tumult died down, the school board met with students, who called for incorporating bilingual education and an end to corporal punishment.
It was the first time Latino students in Los Angeles had so forcefully and collectively used their voices to demand change.
"It's a legacy of struggle, a legacy of standing up, a legacy that continues to inspire," said Moctesuma Esparza, who also helped lead the walkouts.
After high school Verdugo studied at UCLA, but left after two years to work various jobs, including as a bus driver and organizer for the Service Employees International Union.
But, when he was 40, Verdugo returned to school to become a social worker. While working for Bienvenidos Family Services in East L.A., he co-founded the Con Los Padres program that counseled teen dads, many of whom had grown up without father figures.
"Some of them were like gangsters, hardcore cholos," said his younger daughter, Maricela Verdugo, who sometimes babysat children during her father's sessions. "And they looked up to him. He was there to support them and get them to focus on their kids because they didn't know how to be fathers."
Verdugo said in a 2018 interview with the National Compadres Network that the walkouts had shaped his life path.
"That defined me as a person, as a Chicano, wanting to give back to the community," Verdugo said. "Somebody did not give up on me and I am not going to give up on them."
Verdugo married his high school sweetheart and fellow student leader, Yoli Rios. Their daughters, Monica and Maricela, grew up attending rallies and were raised to be socially-conscious. Monica joked she didn't know what a grape tasted like until she was 10.
"My mom and dad boycotted grapes because of the treatment of the farmworkers and the chemicals being used that were harming them," she said.
Taking the lead from his mentor and Lincoln High teacher, Sal Castro, who had inspired the student walkouts, Verdugo began speaking to groups of students about his experience. Sometimes his wife would accompany him around the country to attend youth leadership conferences.
For the past decade, he had been attending annual conferences at the Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp at Eastern Kentucky University. Verdugo and his wife were such fixtures that a tutoring center was named after them.
"Many of the students up there were DACA, so it was an important, important group for him," said Yoli Rios, who was a union organizer.
One of the young people Verdugo mentored was Irene Monica Sanchez, who now teaches Latino Studies in the Azusa public schools. She often attended the same youth and academic conferences around the country, and watched him connect with teens through his joyous personality and contagious laugh.
"When they can tell someone is being real, they respect that and they listen to that," Sanchez said.
Esparza, who became a film producer, helped to immortalize his friend in the 2006 HBO film, "Walkout," in which Verdugo is portrayed by Efren Ramirez.
"He took a stand for everyone, that we should all have the opportunity to have a quality education and be encouraged to reach our potential and be able to go to college," Esparza said.
Esparza sees Verdugo's legacy in the young Latino activists today who are fighting for immigrant rights and against income inequality.
"There is a continuity," Esparza said. "And there is much more to be done."
Because of the pandemic, Verdugo's service will only be attended by close family. But his wife and daughters hope they can have a public celebration of his life exactly one year from the day he died -- on International Workers Day.
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