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EASTSIDE : Karate: Learning by Listening, Example

October 11, 1992|MARY ANNE PEREZ

The karate instructor, dressed in white, baggy pants shouts, "Otagai ni!" The students obey and bow to each other. A moment later, he asks, "Adonde vas? " to a student retreating from a sparring partner. Then he tells the class, "OK, let's go line up."

It's just another karate class at Hollenbeck Youth Center in Boyle Heights, one of several classes under the direction of sensei (teacher) Juan Larios at five city parks and two YMCAs. Most of the casual conversation is in Spanish but the karate terms are in Japanese--with the occasional English commands.

"Little by little, they get familiar with the (Japanese) words," Larios said. "They learn by listening and they learn by example."

Most of the students understand Spanish better than English, Larios said, so instructors accommodate when possible.

"We try to mix everything," said the 47-year-old Larios, who grew up in Boyle Heights. "If we say, 'Move forward,' then we have to repeat it, ' Muevense .' But most of our terminology is in Japanese so our students can compete on an international level, and if they go on to other programs, all the terminology is in Japanese."

The city-run program enrolls about 700 students, Larios said, and many of his instructors learned karate from him in the 17 years he has run the program.

When Larios was a teen-ager growing up near Brooklyn Avenue and Chicago Street, he became interested in karate after a friend was stabbed in an encounter with neighborhood troublemakers. Although the friend survived, Larios said he was forced to think about his own welfare. So he enrolled in karate classes at Stevenson Junior High School.

"Either you had to be from Flats or another gang," he said, referring to a local gang. "They asked, 'Where are you from?' We were (just) learning English and I said I was from Tijuana. They didn't want to hear that."

Today, his students face the same troubles on the streets. Larios helps prepare them for those occasions by putting them through sparring exercises, "so they can fight here, and not out there." Showing off outside class is forbidden; violators face a minimum six-month suspension.

The students who have completed the program seem to stay out of trouble for the most part, said Daniel Hernandez, Hollenbeck Youth Center executive director for 13 years.

"I think they're being pushed a lot by their parents because of things going on in the neighborhoods," Hernandez said. "It gives them discipline and they develop coordination in the body and it gives them a lot of confidence, but the most important thing is it's not used as a vehicle for violence."

A sweaty, green-belted Olivia Iniguez, 15, said she has stayed in the sport for three years for the workout it offers: "I like the exercise and I like the discipline. Everybody here has respect for everyone else."

Indeed, students line up to bow and shake Larios' hand before their exercises. They diligently follow the directions of teacher Enrique Mares, who has taught under Larios for 15 years. "A student can only say 'hai '--that means 'yes.' We don't want them to argue. That's the discipline of karate," Larios said.

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