Remembering Bobby Lee Verdugo
I was excruciatingly sad to learn that Robert (Bobby Lee) Verdugo died this week. I got a call from his wife, Yoli. He had a heart attack, following other serious medical complications. He was 69, my age.
He had been my friend and co-conspirator in the joys and challenges of the Chicanada for 60 years. Sixty years! It’s hard to imagine that I’ve known anyone for that long. He and I met in the third grade at Griffin Avenue Elementary School in Lincoln Heights. It seems like that was in the Pleistocene.
We were very good friends from elementary school onward, through high school, through Chicano hippydom and through the bracing political and cultural experiences of the movimiento. At the old house on Wollam in Cypress Park we would sometimes sit blissfully, smoke a bit and play chess or poker with our college-aged homies while listening to music, cranked up loud. The Beatles, the Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Santana and Malo. The emergence of Santana seemed to change everything back then. And back then the only thing about Verdugo that perplexed me was his love of the music by the Beach Boys. (I can’t stand the Beach Boys.) He dug the Beach Boys. I couldn’t understand it then and I still don’t get it. But, we all had our contrary streaks and that was his.
But I digress.
We were homies for the longest time. As kids we played baseball in the summer. As teenagers we went to rock concerts and protest demonstrations. We railed against the War in Vietnam. We demanded justice for Chicanos. He was the best man at my wedding when we were both 21. He called me “Benny” – my family’s nickname for me; a diminutive of my middle name, Rubén.
I always called him “Robert Lee.” After high school everybody called him Bobby Lee. I never did. I suppose it goes back to the time we were in grammar school. His mother, Susie, was the kindest person you could meet. She was involved in the school, maybe it was the PTA. Anyway, I found myself around his mother a lot, especially when I went to their tiny, cozy chante. His mother always called him Robert Lee, his complete name. Somehow it stuck with me and while everybody else called him Bobby or Bobby Lee, I continued to call him Robert Lee. There were jokes on variations of that: Rubber Lee, Rubbery, but it always came back to Robert Lee.
Robert Lee was a good friend. Robert Lee was always trying to get a laugh and he often succeeded – from the days of the third grade to the last time I saw him a few months ago. Sadly, it was at a memorial service. Robert Lee was already fighting some medical problems. But he was always a fighter.
That was clear when he marched out of Lincoln High School in the spring of 1968, rallying others to join him. He was a soldier in the Eastside high school walkouts, what some have now taken to calling “The Blowouts”. A rose by any other name…
Bobby Lee, as everyone called him, played a significant role in the walkouts, under the tutelage of the inimitable Sal Castro. Bobby Lee was committed to helping the community, something he demonstrated years after high school with his work with young Chicano fathers. He nurtured a sense of responsibility and maturity in those young men. And he did it with compassion, humor and – let’s not be afraid of the word – love.
And Bobby Lee showered Yoli and Monica and Maricela with that love. Something to see. Something to be moved by. Something to emulate. Lots of people got to know of Bobby Lee because of the TV film about the Eastside high school walkouts which was produced by Moctesuma Esparza, himself a onetime student at Lincoln High. In the film – which truncates and compresses reality as films must – audiences got to see a representation of Bobby Lee by an actor. Bobby Lee was accurately portrayed as smart, devoted to his community and quick with a smile.
With his passing I think of those dynamic events of the explosive Chicano movement, which so many of us were a part of. And I think of those times we played softball on the playground of Griffin Avenue Elementary School in the hot, smoggy summers of L.A. Let’s be honest, Robert Lee was never going to make it to the L.A. Dodgers (and neither was I), but we loved the game and we loved playing on the same diamond with our homies, guys like Louie Ramirez, Perico, Louie Elizondo, Ruben Balles and Gary Antista – among many others. I’ll always remember the laughs we had. And I’ll always recall Robert Lee’s determination to be a good father, a good husband and a solid fighter for the good of the Chicanada.
It’s just now dawning on me. I’m so bummed that I can’t just pick up the phone and ask him, “Homes, how are you feeling today?” Que lástima.
I lived in New York for a couple of years when I went to graduate school at Columbia University. What a town. Among other things, the fact is that even the puertoriqueños are a bit Jewish. Everybody is in New York. The point I’m making is that I learned chunks of a whole new lexicon in New York, lots of it laced with Yiddish words and phrases. I learned the word mensch. And I learned what it meant, in a very intimate way while I lived in New York. Basically, it means a fundamentally good person, a person with a genuinely good and compassionate heart. As a politically-tinged Chicano I regard Robert Lee as a compañero, but I think it’s also fair and accurate to call him a mensch.
I miss him. I know I’m not alone.
Copyright 2020 by Luis Torres. Luis Torres is a veteran journalist and author who graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights in 1968, the year of the student walkouts. Photo of Bobby Lee Verdugo used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.