Places that Matter

El Maestro Inc., and Boxing Gym

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Practicing in the ring at El Maestro, Inc., 2015
Practicing in the ring at El Maestro, Inc., 2015
Concert during El Maestro's annual BBQ, 2015
Concert during El Maestro's annual BBQ, 2015
El Maestro mural, photo by Elena Martinez
Plenero group, Cinco en Plena, 2015, photo by Elena Martinez
"El Maestro," Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, portrayed on the club's door, 2015, photo by Elena Martinez
Not-for-profit boxing and cultural center
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“Well, my full name is Fernando Laspina, and of course everyone knows I’m ‘Ponce’ because I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. But this is my community because this is where I really grew up. I went to school here. I graduated from here. I live and work here, and this is where my kids and grandchildren grew up.” Fernando "Ponce" Laspina migrated to New York at the age of 15, and has been a devoted resident of the Morrisania section of the South Bronx for forty-five years. He also proudly bears the name of his native city, and has long found strength in his Puerto Rican heritage. Laspina is the founding director of El Maestro Boxing Gym, a South Bronx boxing and educational center where local youth build physical and mental fortitude by stregthening muscles and cultural ties.

Laspina knows a thing or two about strength. In 1970, his parents settled their 18 children on Aldus Street, just four blocks from El Maestro’s current Morrisania storefront gym. Laspina was a straight-A student at James Monroe High School, but at age 17 he was recruited into an area-based fighting gang by fellow ponceño, Gerson "Franko" Vasquez. “Being in the Savage Skulls, it taught me how to defend myself better. There was a lot of fighting in school and in the neighborhood; there was a lot of beating up on guys like me who were from Puerto Rico. We didn’t know the language, we didn’t know the local rules.” The gang’s prime leader, Felipe “Blackie” Mercado, was also from Ponce. Under Blackie and Franko’s tutelage, Laspina was quickly promoted to president of the Savage Skulls, 5th Division, and he paid the hometown pride forward by networking with and recruiting other young men from Ponce. Laspina’s brother, Pete, became president of the division's Young Savage Skulls, whose members ranged from 11 to 15 years old. The Baby Skulls, for boys 7 to 9 years old, was led by his youngest brother, Javier. 
 
Seven months into Laspina’s membership, Blackie, Franko, and other senior Skulls were arrested. Ponce assumed responsibility for monitoring the neighborhood, but soon took the fall for an extortion racket organized by older gang members still operating in the streets. Laspina and four others were convicted of stealing money from a local jewelry store and were sentenced to a year on Riker’s Island. Ponce considers himself lucky. “Of the four who were with me on Riker's, Luis Roman, who was the oldest, escaped. He was 24 years old, and an army veteran. They said that he drowned. We basically said that he got killed. It was very difficult on Riker's Island, especially during that period."
 
Two weeks prior to his arrest, Laspina had completed paperwork to participate in the Police Athletic League’s (PAL) boxing program on 156th and Fox Streets. One of Laspina’s current El Maestro partners was a PAL member and Golden Gloves Competitor, and he suggested that Ponce, a gifted street brawler, should join as well. Unfortunately, PAL never called, and Laspina found himself fighting in a very different arena. “I was always into a lot of fights. Either defending my brothers and sisters, or defending my friends in school. Or defending my friends in the gangs, in the street. So when I got arrested in ’73, I decided that I was gonna do a different kind of battling, which was fighting for inmates’ rights to better food, to better bilingual education, and better services.” During his year on the island, Laspina co-founded a movement called “The Family,” a prison reform coalition comprised of inmates representing different gangs. Laspina recalls, “the idea was to spread the word out to the street that we were in there working together. We wanted the guys outside to stop fighting and collaborate instead." The Family soon extended other New York State correctional facilities.
 
Upon returning to Morrisania in October 1974, Laspina enrolled at Monroe High School’s night program and got a job as superintendant’s assistant. He also cared for his infant son, Bruce, who was born the day before Ponce’s arrest. In 1975, Laspina's second trial ended in a hung jury, and he went upstate to the Elmira Correctional Facility. Elmira offered a more meditative atmosphere than had Riker’s. Ponce found the majority of the inmates to be intensely serious. “There were a lot of people there doing 10, 15, 20, 25 years. They didn’t have no time for B.S. They just wanted to get busy and get their hands on whatever they could.” Laspina taught in the Latin Dialogue Program, as well as a social justice initiative centered on history courses and films from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. He facilitated a drug prevention and rehabilitation program, got a carpentry job, and joined the high school equivalency program to earn his GED, wherein he also volunteered as a translator.
 
Laspina remembers that although Elmira’s inmates were disciplined, they also found ample opportunities to celebrate. “I helped to organize all different kinds of festivals that we had there, like Puerto Rican Discovery Day and St. John The Baptist Day, which is also an event that we celebrate in Puerto Rico. Most of the people in Elmira were minorities at that time, and all the different nationalities had their own day, like Black Solidarity Day, which was celebrated mainly by black Muslims. But everyone came together to honor being part of the struggle.” There was always music, as inmates formed and performed as salsa, Motown, and doo-wop groups. Musical guests from the outside were also invited in to hold concerts.
 
After a year in Elmira, Ponce returned home and found work in the South Bronx's factories. He also founded Caribe Village Latin Dialogue Program, a support organization for the friends he left behind in Elmira. For ten years, Caribe Village facilitated communication between inmates and their families, and coordinated block parties and educational opportunities for South Bronx youth. The message was to stay away from gangs. Ponce often visited correctional facilities as a Caribe Village representative. “I went to different institutions, and a lot of the guys knew me. I wanted to show them how I was doing, how I came home and changed my life.”
 
In 1977, Laspina matriculated at Hostos Community College, and the following year became president of the college's student government. Upon graduating with an Associate Degree, he created Patriotas Sports Club, a non-profit softball team that engaged at-risk teens in athletics and volunteerism. Now called The Patriotas, the organization continues to play for fun, and for fundraising on behalf of communities in New York and around the Caribbean. In 1983, Ponce received a Bachelor’s degree from Lehman College, where he concentrated in Art and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, in hopes of becoming a professor. He paid for his studies by working as a doorman, and in his spare time formed another still-extant athletic club, the Roberto Clemente Softball League, named for the humanitarian baseball player. The main mission of these programs has been to keep young people out of gangs by fostering strong community connetions. 
 
In 1985, Ponce received a Master’s Degree from Buffalo State University, and two years later became an adjunct bilingual lecturer in Latin American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican migration studies at Hostos, where he would continue to teach for ten years. While pursuing his academic career, Laspina worked for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) as an afterschool program coordinator. “Before that time I wasn't thinking about boxing," he says. "I was focused on baseball and music, and the bilingual programs, and on social justice. Then in 1978/79, I started meeting a lot of ex-boxing champions. I used to go to the different gyms, where I had friends who introduced me to the different fighteres. I became very familiar with them, and I watched as they trained. I watched as they competed. And I saw the sweat, and how serious they had to be for these competitions.” NYCHA launched a boxing initiative in 1997, just as Ponce was hired. Their gym accommodated up to 200 boxers, and was located at St. Ann’s Avenue Betances Community Center, where Ponce was the director. Within the first two years, the NYCHA coaches turned out three champions and two sub-champions. Ponce was inspired by the coaches’ and fighters’ intense commitment to the sport.
 
After NYCHA rejected his request to host a benefit boxing match for families of 9/11 victims, Laspina decided to create his own program. In 2003, he opened El Maestro at 700 Elton Avenue and 156thStreet. The space was huge, but rent increases over four years forced Ponce to shift to successively smaller venues. The club is now located in a former commercial building at 1300 Southern Boulevard, near the Freeman Street subway station. Its regulation boxing ring has been with Laspina for 14 years, and many of the coaches have been with him for longer, having followed him from NYCHA to El Maestro. All are volunteers, and although morale is high, money is tight. “Sometimes we do fundraisers on the weekends,” Ponce says, “ like raffles, or we hold a dance or concert, any type of event where we can raise funds. Most of the donations are in-kind, and my family does the cooking.”
 
Financial strain aside, El Maestro has been highly successful on all fronts. With a negotiable $40 annual membership fee, boxing director Jose "Coto" Talavera typically works with between 25 and 30 boxers at a time. The club has sent fighters to the Golden and Silver Gloves. And they have sent others to college and careers in the fire and police departments. “Boxing is a sport where you really have to be focused,” Ponce explains. “You have to be very disciplined. You have to learn how to defend yourself and not get hurt. But it’s an art, so you want to win without really hurting the other guy.” Members typically work half-day shifts for their employers during the week, and spend the rest of the day and weekends in training.
 
Some of the club's boxers migrated from the NYCHA program, and the majority are neighborhood residents. Many come seeking guidance beyond the ring, as Ponce notes, “they know about the things I went through, that I had to fight in school, for myself or for other kids, and. They know that I was still fighting in jail -- for the T.V., for when we wanted a bilingual program, and when we needed a bilingual teacher. I tell them about the things that I went through so they don’t make the same mistakes. I’m very straight with them about that. I don’t hide my past. I explain and give them an alternative.” A Bronx civil court judge also sends juvenile defendants to El Maestro. “It’s a high recommendation,” Laspina says.
 
El Maestro is named in honor of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Ponce native and leading figure in the development of Puerto Rican identity and consciousness. "He is also a main source of inspiration for all Puerto Ricans who work for the progress of our identity," Laspina notes. Beyond the boxing, El Maestro, Inc. provides a significant service as a cultural center for the neighborhood, which is home to a mix of Puerto Rican, Honduran, Dominican, Mexican, African American, Indian, and Chinese communities. Various local ensembles practice in the space after hours and on the weekends. Most play Latin American music ranging from salsa to bomba and plena to other traditional forms. Several groups are lead by Luis Cruz, the center’s cultural director, and all play concerts or volunteer at the club in lieu of paying rent. For Ponce, the club’s cultural work is just as important as the athletics. “It’s part of the stuff that I believe in - to get the message to the kids through the chords of music, so that they know that this is part of their roots. Try to get them involved in their heritage and to find community through it.” El Maestro also hosts poetry salons, and a lecture series helps to keep area residents connected to social, political, and economic developments around the US and Caribbean. 
 
“I know that there’s still gangs out there, and of course we don't allow them here. We’ve learned how to fight them - by training body and mind. And now we have a lot of professionals in this community, and people get involved. They speak out about the gangs, about the crime, the prostitution, the abuse against children and senior citizens." According to Ponce, the neighborhood has changed a lot. "There are more businesses and activities, so the momentum is building. People have different names for the area now – Morrisania, Crotona Park East, Freeman Street. I just call it home. I’ve been here since 1976, and I want us to continue to be a big part of that change. As long as we’re here, we will be."