Little Village church a haven that keeps youths off the streets
Every few minutes in the basement of La Villita Community Church, a piercing ring interrupts the sounds of fists hitting punching bags and jump ropes whirling.
Young men and a few women trickle through the side door of the brick church after getting buzzed in.
They bound down the concrete steps and into the sweat-infused basement, where a boxing ring is as central as the altar upstairs.
Every weekday after school, the Chicago Youth Boxing Club in Little Village fills with boxers — some with little brothers in tow looking for an after-school activity, some former professionals, some Olympic hopefuls — throwing jabs at speed bags, prancing through footwork drills and sparring in the ring as ’90s hip-hop plays in the background.
By 4 p.m., the gym is full of kids shadowboxing and running laps around the red, white and blue ring.
Posters of boxing legends such as Muhammad Ali and Marvin Hagler hang on the walls. Messages such as “Si Se Puede” (“Yes, you can”) and a painting reminding the young fighters not to bottle up their emotions are plastered around the gym at South Millard and West 23rd.
The club’s mission is not so much to create champions but fulfill potential. The gym’s directors see youths from the neighborhood lured and victimized by the violence nearby. For some, the boxing club is a refuge; for others, it’s a path.
“Without coming here, I feel like I would just be in the streets,” said George Perez, 17, who won a Junior Olympics regional title last year. “It’s my second home.
“Most of my friends are in the streets, (but) I don’t want to be like that. I want to go a different route. They know where I’m at and what I’m trying to do, that I have goals.”
La Villita Community Church sits across from the playground at Shedd Park, where parents watched their small children play on a sunny day last month. Six blocks away teenagers with backpacks joked during afternoon dismissal from Farragut Career Academy High School. Popular taquerias dot the West Side neighborhood.
But a few blocks from the church is the dividing line for two rival gangs whose violence has splintered the 41/2-square-mile neighborhood and claimed the lives of hundreds through the decades.
“Little Village is one of the most overpopulated neighborhoods (and) one of the neighborhoods with the least amount of green space,” said Victor Rodriguez, the church’s pastor who lives on the fourth floor with his family and operates the boxing club.
“So where do the kids go? There is sometimes a gang issue. Some of the kids are afraid. … You come in at 12, 13, you’re beginning to (feel peer pressure). This gives them an outlet. There are other options than the streets.”
Most of the coaches and boxers grew up in Little Village and understand the tensions of the neighborhood.
The gym utilizes programs such as After School Matters, in which kids can volunteer and earn money while also working out. The CYBC directors invested in laptops so students can finish homework with the help of mentors and are raising money for five $5,000 college scholarships.
“I’d rather have a college student than a professional fighter,” said Gabriel Navarro,a CYBC coach. “I want them to get through their teen years safe and then go on to college.”
When Julie Hirales,17, first entered the gym a few years ago, “honestly,” she said, “I was a troublemaker.”
While she didn’t get into many physical fights, Hirales said she argued with and spoke disrespectfully to adults.
“There’s a lot of violence in Little Village,” she said during a break from training. “You hardly see people boxing, especially girls. It took me off the streets. It took me away from anything that was bad, (such as) drugs or alcohol.
“They gave me discipline here. It makes me think of my actions and how I should talk. I have gotten professionalism out of it. It impacted me a lot. If you want to make a change, you have an opportunity to do it.”
Part of Hirales’ training includes sparring with boys at CYBC — a challenge she eagerly welcomes.
“Some guys don’t want to think I’m superior to them,” said Hirales, the 2017 Chicago Golden Gloves champion in the 125-pound women’s novice division. “You always have to show a person who you are. That’s what they showed me here: Don’t hide who you are.”
Hirales’ story isn’t too different from many of those who check out the club, either out of curiosity or because a friend drags them along.
“When she came in, she was tough and rough and cursing everybody,” said Rodriguez, who’s known as “Pastor Vic” in the neighborhood. “You see that often. Kids come in violent. Six months later, they’re different.
“A violent kid already arrested a couple times, (I saw him) just walk away from (street) fights. He walked right by me. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘what happened?’ (He said), ‘I knew I could kick his ass, so what’s the point?’ It’s not a challenge anymore.”
It takes patience — and reminders — to teach them to box rather than fight.
“The first thing is they want to fight,” Rodriguez said. “Most gyms, they’ll put you in the ring as soon as you want to; for us, you wait two months at least. You work on footwork and cardio.
“It’s not street fighting. You’re not just brawling. There’s a technique to this.”
Some are on their way to mastering it.
Four CYBC boxers were ranked in the top 15 in the last year in the junior ranks.
Felix Gonzalez Jr., 17, who won the 2016 U.S. junior national championship at 132 pounds, is a 2020 Olympic hopeful. He and Oscar Ochoa (176 pounds) were top-ranked in their weight classes in 2016 and No. 2 in 2017. Omar Perez (114 pounds) was ranked ninth and George Perez (138 pounds) 15th last year.
But the coaches understand boxing is not an easy endeavor, even for the most promising.
“It’s not like the NBA, (where) if you’re the worst player and you’re drafted, you get a quarter of a million dollars,” said Navarro, who had a brief professional boxing career.
“I had seven or eight fights in my career and I probably made $10,000 or $12,000. You’re not going to be set for life. The worst player in boxing will get $600 a fight. How can you live off that?
“We encourage them to go to college and get at least a two-year degree. High school doesn’t cut it anymore. I don’t want to see them struggle.”
About 30 boxers train in the gym each day. They pay a $25 monthly membership fee or volunteer to clean if they can’t afford it. The nonprofit club, which trains boxers as young as 8, hosts an annual Power Gloves tournament at the gym and helps enroll its members in tournaments around the nation.
Rules include no sitting at the front of the ring because it reflects poor work ethic, no swearing and no gang representation.
“Some kids, their fathers are working 14 hours a day, their mothers are working eight to 10 hours a day and they don’t have time,” Navarro said. “We have fathers (who) were gang members and their sons are coming to us. We’re changing the way they speak, the way they talk to adults.”
CYBC has grown from its humble beginnings in 2006, when Rodriguez had to convince the church board that a boxing gym in the basement was a good idea.
“We had our first show in the sanctuary,” he said. “People were (skeptical). … I said: ‘I don’t think God cares too much. God cares more if you’re gossiping about your brother on Sunday morning.’ ”
On an afternoon last month, Rodriguez and some teenage boys assembled used treadmills the club bought from a college at a discount. A 5-year-old who frequents the gym with his older brother and cousin after school mimicked the teenage boxers, dancing around the ring and throwing jabs at the bigger boys, who pretended he delivered a knockout.
Hirales ran laps around the ring with another girl. Lean teenage boys formed a row to heave blows at heavy bags.
“I’m very proud of these kids,” Rodriguez said. “You get in the ring for three rounds and your face is getting punched, and you come back? I’m proud.
“If you ask kids what do they like about it, the majority say it feels like family.”
Visit ChicagoYouthBoxingClub.org for more information.