Bobby Lee Verdugo had only two biological children — daughters Maricela and Monica. Yet they, along with their mom, Yolanda Rios, proudly say that he has children all across Southern California and the United States.
They’re referring to the thousands of young Latinos whom Verdugo mentored for decades — first as a student organizer who helped lead the 1968 Chicano student walkouts in East Los Angeles, then as a social worker who focused on at-risk Latino males, and finally as an elder who spoke alongside Rios at student conferences across the country about their lives.
“To us, he was our silly dad, always a jokester,” Monica said. “But to a lot of people out there, he was their dad, too.”
“We have a big family all over,” Maricela added. “He was loved, because of what he did for people.”
Verdugo died May 1 of a heart attack. He was 69.
His childhood showed no hints of Verdugo ever dedicating himself to social justice.
Born to Chicano parents in Lincoln Heights, Verdugo lived an all-American life with his family. His father was a truck driver and coached a youth baseball team; his mother was involved in the PTA and volunteered for Bobby’s Boy Scouts troop.
But the white teachers who dominated the local schools at the time regularly mistreated Verdugo and his Latino classmates. They subjected him and others to paddlings in front of fellow students for speaking Spanish in class, incidents that he bitterly remembered decades later.
“As a young Chicano, I want to be tough, so you don’t want to complain too much, thinking … ‘I can take this,’” he told NPR in 2019. “But it hurt the spirit, you know. Little by little, they were breaking me.”
Verdugo’s grades were falling by the time he entered Lincoln High School in the mid-1960s. But everything changed when he took a social science class taught by Sal Castro, a fellow native Eastsider who urged Latino students to no longer remain quiet about their abuse. The teacher connected Verdugo and Rios — both grew up in the same neighborhood — to other students across the Eastside.
Together, they and others organized high school walkouts that drew worldwide attention. The moment was dramatized in the 2006 HBO film “Walkout,” with Verdugo portrayed by Efren Ramirez.
Despite a newfound sense of belonging, Verdugo dropped out of Lincoln High. He eventually earned a GED and enrolled at UCLA but left before graduating. He married Rios in 1979, fathered Maricela and Monica, and settled into a career that saw him work as a bus dispatcher, a labor advocate and a community organizer.
But at age 40, Verdugo decided to enroll at Cal State L.A. to earn a degree that would allow him to become a social worker. “That’s what he always wanted to do,” said Rios, a retired labor organizer. “It was a calling for him to help youth.”
Verdugo quickly noticed there were few resources for young at-risk men that weren’t punitive. So in 1995, he co-founded Con Los Padres, an innovative program that counseled teenage Latino fathers. He connected with them by organizing círculos: talking circles modeled on Mesoamerican traditions in which his young acolytes could drop their machismo and freely discuss their feelings while reconnecting with their roots.
“People were telling them, ‘Now that you’re a teen father, that’s it, your life is over, you got nothing to look forward to,’” he told the National Compadres Network, a group he belonged to, in 2018. “That’s how I felt, and I realized what Sal Castro taught me, that I could teach them how to feel good about themselves and that there are men like me who will not give up on them.”
His advocacy for young fathers earned Verdugo speaking invitations as far away as Oxford, England, and positions on federal and state councils. He also became a regular presence at Latino high school youth conferences across the country.
“He always connected to the students, because he was very honest and real about how he felt at the time [of the walkouts], which was fearful,” said Gerardo Correa, president of the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, which holds an annual gathering in Sacramento attended by hundreds of high-schoolers from across California. “He was the same age as them, and he and others made history — and Bobby would tell them they could too.”
Verdugo’s passion to mentor was such that he would spend a week a year at the Latinx Leadership and College Experience Camp, held yearly in Kentucky; a tutoring center at Eastern Kentucky University is named after him and his wife.
“What motivated him was that he realized that even today, there’s still inequalities going on in the classroom,” Rios said. “He’d always tell students, ‘It’s important to fight for your rights and what you believe in.’”
On his off-time, Verdugo loved to golf and take his family to Yosemite National Park. He also enjoyed karaoke, with Cream’s “White Room” and the Animals’ cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” his favorite torch songs.
“It’s OK to be angry,” he told NPR, “but what do you do about it, you know?”