Saving Alhambra's youth with hard knocks
It began as a parental obligation for Rudy Tellez, whose daughter was at Alhambra High School at a time of vicious gang violence.
“We had a lot of problems back in the 80s with Brick City and the Asian gang...Wah Ching,” said Tellez, 63. When he witnessed a young person get shot, Tellez decided to take action: “I said no more, no more violence, we got to take care of this.”
Tellez, a former amateur boxer, took to what he knew best to curb aggression: he arranged a boxing tournament between two rival gangs. Nothing fancy, just a few boys and some boxing gloves to work out their frustrations. Today, the gangs are mostly gone, but the kids keep coming to his gym, Alhambra Youth Boxing Club. They come to work out, but also to see friends in a safe space. On any given day about 35 members, ages 7 to 25 and older, fill the gym with the sound of punches and chatter.
“We need more people like him, because he provides a real place for kids to grow and learn,” said Councilwoman Barbara Messina, who was on the city council when Tellez first approached the city about opening a boxing gym. “His heart is in the right place.”
Providing a vehicle to curb anger and support youth that goes beyond sport has been the intention since Tellez founded the gym in 1991. The retired dentist from East Los Angeles and his wife Antonia even provided a toastmasters program at their gym where teens practiced their speaking skills as well as an outreach or counseling sessions.
“That was one of our most proud accomplishments. Something that we did that helped so many kids, it really was new for the area,” said Tellez.
On a recent afternoon, the gym swelled with bodies after school. They came from Alhambra but also nearby El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, and other parts of East Los Angeles. Inside the club beat a pulse, one that all the trainers and athletes seem to understand. The young fighters, some under the age of 10, some girls, pummeled each other, but always exchanged thanks at the end.
“You get a lot of discipline here, something that a lot of these kids need in today’s society,” said Tellez, who has the abrasive swagger of a coach, but can also seem like an uncle who understands life can challenge a teenager. “If it’s boxing or with their mind, we let them work it out,”
Tellez suggests a monthly donation for membership, but he does not force anyone out for not paying. Instead, he relies on donations from parents, help from volunteers and students who clean up after themselves. In more than two decades, the gym moved three times, until finally settling in its current location on Main Street sandwiched between an auto shop and a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. The gym shows the ware that comes with finances stretched thin: the rings’ ropes are frayed, posters on the walls have faded into yellows, some of the speed bag frames are made from chipped wood.
But despite the gym's worn facade, the youth appear excited, some thrilled even, to be part of the group.
“Now that I’ve discovered it, I have to box like at least once a day,” said Tiffany Lemus, 19, from Alhambra. She knocks a speed bag and in the same breath talks with her friends, other girls who train at the gym. “It’s a great workout and it’s a relief – it keeps your mind off a lot of things.”
Tellez, who spends less time in the ring, still keeps a watchful eye over the scene. “We’re here for everyone, just so long as they have a good time and make it count.” And, as for the gang violence that drove him initially, he’s noticed the difference as well: “You don’t hear about it any more here in Alhambra.”