Bobby Lee Verdugo came to fame as a leader of the historic 1968 high school walkouts of East Los Angeles, a student-led effort to bring education reform to disenfranchised schools with large populations of Latino students.
On Wednesday, Oct. 18, he walked into McCreary Hall at Eastern Kentucky University and into the lives of dozens of Latino students who had already been inspired by his life story and tireless advocacy for equal rights and educational attainment.
The Chicano civil rights activist, now 66, was on the Richmond campus for the dedication of a bilingual peer mentoring and tutoring center named in his honor. Dozens of students and University officials, including President Michael Benson, packed the newly established Bobby Verdugo Bilingual Peer Mentoring and Tutoring Center for a celebratory afternoon ceremony and to pose for photos afterward with Verdugo, a hero to many in the room.
Ivonne Gonzalez had seen the HBO docudrama “Walkout” so many times that its message had been absorbed into her “everyday college life.
“Bobby’s legacy will always be in this room,” said Gonzalez, who last year received the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Student Leadership Award for her initiatives within the Hispanic community. “EKU students will now get to live his story.”
The center provides tutoring in languages offered by the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Humanities, including Spanish, French, German and Japanese, and celebrates Latino heritage and culture, providing tutoring and peer mentorship to current and prospective EKU students. Student tutor-mentors are also engaged in community outreach by assisting Latino students and their families with achieving access to higher education.
The facility is graced on one wall by a brightly colored mural painted by Dr. Javier Alvarez-Jaimes, a professor in the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Humanities, with the assistance of the Latino Student Association. The artwork depicts Verdugo flanked by Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Sylvia Mendez, all icons of Chicano civil rights movement.
“The mural sets the tone for the center,” Alvarez-Jaimes said, “and for what we’re trying to do here: create a family.”
That family now encompasses more than 250 Latino students at Eastern, several faculty members and even two Latino members of its Board of Regents – Juan Castro and Lewis Diaz. Castro, whose family emigrated from Ecuador when he was a child, was among those in attendance. The pair’s presence on the University’s governing board is “emblematic of the sea change happening around the country,” Benson said.
The change is reminiscent of what Verdugo’s leadership in Los Angeles helped trigger a half century ago, when Chicano enrollment at UCLA exploded from only 40 students in 1967 to 1,200 students in 1969. His efforts in Kentucky with the Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp, supported by EKU and directed by Bluegrass Community and Technical College, are having a similar effect in the Bluegrass State and at Eastern.
EKU student and Center Coordinator Martha Valencia, who had met Verdugo at one of the camps, said she was “truly impacted” by his story. “It’s an honor to work here in the center, and to have you here today. We’re grateful for your mentorship and leadership.”
After several others had spoken at the ceremony, it was Verdugo’s turn.
“To say I’m overwhelmed would be an understatement,” he said. “I could never explain how much this means to me and my family. I dropped out of high school, and I dropped out of college before I went back and got a degree in social work at age 44. My road through life has been a winding one.”
And it will bring him back to Richmond next year, when Verdugo is slated to bring a Chautauqua lecture during Latino Heritage Month.