Bobby Verdugo passed away at age 69 on May 1, but his powerful legacy lives on in the hearts of the approximately 500 Latino students at Eastern Kentucky University, where the famed activist and wife Yoli Rios often visited, and where a bilingual mentor and tutoring center bears their name.
Ivonne Gonzalez, now a graduate student in occupational therapy after reigning as the 2017 Homecoming queen at Eastern, learned about Verdugo through the HBO film “Walkout,” which chronicled pivotal high school walkouts in East Los Angeles that Verdugo, Rios and others organized in 1968 to protest the treatment of Latino students and bring education reform to disenfranchised schools with large populations of Hispanic students.
“I was overcome with such emotion,” she recalled. “I was mad, sad, but mostly I was empowered. I wanted to be just like them and make a difference in my community.”
Gonzalez, who grew up in Shelbyville after her family emigrated from Mexico, said she would “never forget” first meeting Verdugo at the Latino Leadership College Experience Camp, an annual event supported by institutions across the Commonwealth and sponsored by Bluegrass Community and Technical College. When Verdugo walked into the auditorium, “everyone just stood up and clapped. Hearing the gasps and seeing all those smiles was priceless. Tears were shed, and I was one of those people.”
Now, every time EKU students enter the Verdugo center, they are greeted by a large, brightly-colored mural depicting Verdugo, Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Sylvia Mendez, all icons of the Chicano civil rights movement. Verdugo was on hand when the mural was unveiled in 2018.
“The mentorship that takes place on a daily basis at the center is the embodiment of Bobby’s message to Latino youth,” said Dr. Abbey Poffenberger,” chair of the Department of Languages, Cultures and Humanities at EKU.
That message “reminded students that the work toward equity in education is not done,” added Dr. Socorro Zaragoza, associate professor of Spanish. “This is one of the reasons why Latino students at EKU are engaged in so many outreach activities on campus and in the community.”
Verdugo and Rios are also featured in the critically acclaimed PBS documentary “Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.”
Gaby Baca, associate director of Latino recruitment and retention at Eastern, where she earned a master’s degree, said Verdugo’s “message of never giving up on a dream, standing for what is just, and recognizing the strength of bringing people together to build community will continue at EKU. As the Latino student community grows (397 additional Latino students were admitted this year), the story of Bobby, Yoli and others will be passed on to future generations at EKU. Thanks to the center, students have a place where they are reminded of the sacrifices that Bobby and other historical leaders have made. They plowed the ground for many of us to be where we are today.”
At age 40, Verdugo enrolled in college to earn a degree that would allow him to become a social worker. In 1995, he co-founded Con Los Padres, an innovative program that counseled teenage Latino fathers. His commitment to service impressed Gustavo Alcantara, an EKU graduate student who grew up in Louisville after his family moved from Mexico City.
“The contributions of Mr. Verdugo have meant so much to the growth and success of EKU’s Latino community because they opened out minds, hearts and eyes to the importance of ourselves but, most importantly, our communities,” Alcantara said. “His influence motivated me to discover the career that I like and use it to help others.”
Perhaps EKU Spanish professor Dr. Jose-Juan Gomez-Becerra put it best when he introduced Verdugo and Rios at a campus event last year: “They walked out so we could walk in.”