Bobby Verdugo: The Legacy is Now Ours
By Irene Sanchez
Before I write anything else I need to tell you about one of the most important lessons I learned from Robert “Bobby” Lee Verdugo. Over the years I had learned Bobby was many things, but above everything he was proud of his family. He was Yoli’s husband, a father to Monica and Maricela, a brother, a friend, a student leader in the 1968 East LA walkouts, and loved one to many people. He passed away May 1, 2020 on International Workers Day. I had just wrapped up virtual teaching of my morning classes as a Chicano/Latino Studies High School teacher when I found out he had suffered a heart attack and then shortly after passed away. I was devastated. I remembered all the things he had shared with me over the course of the nearly 13 years I knew him from our meals shared back in LA to conferences traveled to/presented at and the phone calls. That moment I found out he passed, I was filled with regret at what still needs to be done and all the reasons why in the past year I had not been able to do much or see him as often as I wanted to.
Grief works in mysterious ways, especially during a pandemic and with life challenges. I had been in survival mode for a long time and shortly after Bobby’s passing, I moved back home. The world has felt more empty and isolating for many reasons. This past week though it became a little less thanks to Bobby. I was asked to participate in a virtual panel for the Latinx Leadership and College Experience Camp in Kentucky. This is a program Bobby would speak for in person and in later years virtually as well due to his health. They had him come speak following the screening of the movie Walkout. Over the years Bobby would talk about Kentucky and the people he met there with much excitement. That day I was on a panel with people who I knew because of Bobby. I was nervous prior to it and sad because I wished Bobby was there to talk to the students, but after seeing familiar faces, I felt a wave of happiness wash over me. Bobby was very much with us that day as we talked about things we learned because of Bobby. I held the necklace he gave me of a butterfly close by. We were in awe when remembering how Bobby would be honored to meet people, whoever they were, and how that is one way he welcomed them to be a part of the legacy. He did this even when it was obvious people were honored to see him in person after seeing him on the screen whether it was like the first time I saw him on Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement documentary that aired on PBS in the mid-90s or if it was in the mid-2000s after the HBO movie Walkout. We saw him as a leader, but he saw us as leaders and people who would be able to make a difference in this world whether we believed it in that moment or not.
“The legacy is now ours”.
This was the title of the panel and similar to what I had called this piece back in May. We remembered how to Bobby it didn’t matter if a person had degrees or not, and it doesn’t matter so much where a person is geographically, we all have a responsibility if we say we are a part of this legacy. It is our duty to teach the younger generation, not just about the history and the movement, but we need to teach them that they are a part of this legacy too, and therefore they have a responsibility to keep improving and healing the conditions of their own lives, their families, and their communities. That is the work. That is the work both personal and in community with others if we truly want social justice to permeate every aspect of our lives.
Bobby may not be here physically, but the fact that work still needs to be done is clear. In these last months life has felt heavier and some days it is impossible to get up and feel like what I’m doing is making a difference. It has taken me a couple months to come back to this after leaving it unedited in my documents since that day in early May for many reasons, but I know Bobby would want me to keep pushing forward.
As an Ethnic Studies teacher, but specifically a Chicanx/Latinx studies teacher, I teach my students that our history is U.S. history, but unfortunately and deliberately U.S. history has often been written/told in ways that privileges white supremacy and is often told through an East Coast lens. None of this is an accident. There is a void in this country where our history is not acknowledged and because of that our existence is never acknowledged with honesty. How can we address the conditions that face our communities’ lives when people don’t see us as belonging or having rights?
I have seen people make attempts to erase the sacrifices that came before us. I have seen people walk through doors of the ivory tower thinking that if they put down an entire field of study or diminish it that somehow that will make us go away. It doesn’t. The movement wasn’t born in the ivory tower. It came about in many ways, but in a large part it was due to the bravery of the students of the East LA blowouts in March 1968. Students who walked out like Bobby and Yoli, my own father who was at Griffith Junior High School at the time, and so many others we may never hear the names of. There were so many young students that risked their lives and walked out. There were many people that risked their lives so that we could have a better today as Chicana/o/x people and we need to do that for the next generation. Now as we continue to fight for Ethnic Studies as a high school graduation requirement or for it to be required in the CSU system here in California or anywhere else, don’t forget that young people can and have made a difference and it is our responsibility to tell that history honestly so that young people today realize they too have the capacity to change the world right now.
Bobby taught us that the movement is not about any one leader. Any movement needs community and in order to align ourselves with that vision of a better tomorrow, we need to treat people like Bobby did, that we all are important and have a place to do work that needs to be done.
I know today more than ever before that the legacy of the movement is still very much alive as it is within the stories that Bobby Verdugo passed to us. It is up to us to remember them and keep fighting for a better tomorrow as Chicana/o/x people still have some of the lowest educational attainment rates and highest poverty rates in the United States. Our communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 as more members of our larger community can not work from home. Members of our communities are still subjected to violence and discrimination. The list of inequalities our communities face goes on and on, but so does the legacy of the movement and to find your place in it you don’t have to look far.
Look in the mirror.
The legacy lives on with me.
The legacy lives on with you.
The legacy lives on with all of us.
Thank you Bobby.
Bobby Lee Verdugo, presente!
Special thank you to Erin, Mariana, & Armando for the reminders.