“March 6th, 1968, at 9:55 AM, we are actually early, we walked out to the sound of Walkout!”- those are the words that Bobby shared this past Monday at Sonoma State when he recalled one of the most critical decisions he has ever made in his life. Robert “Bobby” Verdugo Jr. and Yoli Rios were part of the lecture, Historic Conversation of Chicanos and Education: 50 Years after the East LA Walkout! So far this has been only talk or event regarding the East LA Walkouts or Blowouts in Northern California. Several news articles have been published regarding the walkouts, East L.A., 1968: ‘Walkout!’ The day high school students helped ignite the Chicano power movement, 50 years after the Walkouts, Los Angeles Latino students are still fighting for educational equity, highlighting upcoming events to commemorate the 50 year anniversary like the UCLA Fowler Museum will host “Seeking Educational Justice: The 1968 Chicano Student Walkouts Made History,” an exhibit, conference, and a film screening on March 10 and 11.
As an educator and someone teaching Latinxs in Education through the Chicano and Latino Studies Department at Sonoma State University, it is critical to have these voices heard. I remind my students that as future educators in predominantly Latinx schools (almost every school in California), they cannot turn an eye to the history and the contributions of the Latinx community, especially for education equity. It is imperative to be aware of the long fight for education reform inclusive of Latinx contributions and most importantly of the Latinx engagement in quality education. Many of my students did not know of Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District (1930) or Méndez et al v. Westminster School District of Orange County, even though one is a credentialed and now master’s student. My students are predominately juniors, seniors and about to graduate from college. More than half want to be educators – teachers, counselors, or professors, and a majority of my students are Latinx majoring in Chicanx and Latinx Studies. Bobby and Yoli’s visit was critical for them.
I have known Bobby for a decade. I met him at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Walkouts in Southern California where we marched from Lincoln High School to Hazard Park. I joined the celebration because I wrote my master’s thesis on the Walkouts. Unfortunately, I too, had not learned about this event until I was in graduate school, and I was 27 years old. I had been fighting for educational equity for ten years and had never heard about this historical event, where more than 15,000 students walked out their high schools demanding equality or in Bobby’s words, “humanity, we demanded our humanity.” I owed it to my students to teach them about this event. After all, it is their history.
Bobby and Yoli shared various instances of the subtle racism. For example, Yoli was the only Chicana in an advanced math class where the teacher would bring his golf putt and ball and practice in class while the students taught themselves. 50 years later, she still felt anger when she spoke about it. Bobby joked that he was a bright kid, got all As in kindergarten even up to the 6th grade, and then it all changed in 7th grade. As a way to deal with the negative comments, including that he would end up like his father, he would make jokes, he became a big jokester. Surprising everyone, Bobby shared how he dropped out of school in May, right after the Walkouts. Bobby eventually walked with the graduating class of 2008, but he did not formally get his diploma, or as he called it “PhD, Post huelga Diploma” until 2016. Bobby, in his 40s, earned a Bachelor of Social Welfare from Cal State LA and began to work with young fathers through the Compadres Network. Yoli became a community activist and part of the labor movement. In 1995, she was elected Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU Local 399 along with a slate of hospital workers and janitors, which later sparked the Justice for Janitors campaign.
Students asked if they were afraid to walk out, was walking out was worth it, and a teacher asked how can his students become more engaged in community issues. Bobby and Yoli agreed that they were afraid, they felt fear every second until they stepped out of that classroom, and never imagined what those actions would lead to or the impact that they would have on the Chicano community. Yet, Bobby and Yoli did not regret it. They were fighting for respect to their humanity, to be able to learn, and to be able to have an opportunity. They recognize that the fight is not over. The Walkouts were just the beginning. My students were overjoyed to meet Bobby and Yoli, as they stated “they are history changers.” “They do it for the next generation,” another student observed. One student added, “Bobby’s perspective on fear was impactful and how nothing worth doing comes without fear.”
My hope is that future educators and students continue to learn about the Walkouts, Sal Castro, and about the students, who although had fear in their hearts, walked out that early morning in March of 1968 to make a bold statement about their education. In Sal Castro’s words, on February 26, 2018 at Sonoma State University, “It was a beautiful day to be a Chicano!”
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