There is a reward system at Guardian Baltimore, a nonprofit jujitsu gym in Remington. If students come three times in a row, they get a burrito.
The gym’s founder, Clavel co-owner and head chef Carlos Raba, hopes the incentive from his popular taqueria around the corner will teach students the value of consistency. He also wants them to fall in love with the Brazilian martial art.
Raba, who started training in his 20s, says jujitsu is like therapy. A competitive wrestler and football player in high school, Raba funneled his energy after graduation into jujitsu. It’s been his passion for over a decade.
At Guardian, adult classes and memberships fund free classes for youth ages 6 to 17.
Guardian reopened this spring after its grand opening in March 2020 was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, instructors are teaching two days a week with about 80 young students. Uniforms, or gis, which cost between $80 and $120, have been donated to each child.
At the gym, there’s a list of 10 commandments on a wall, telling readers to show heart and not give up when in a tough spot.
“We have kids that came in with headphones at the beginning, did not want to participate, looking down, no eye contact, and not participating in the class,” Raba said. “And now, after three months, they come in with a smile, want to help teach, and want to be the first one on the mat.”
Raba is a black belt, an accomplishment that took 13 years. He is preparing for the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Tournament in October.
Raba says jujitsu and cooking go hand-in-hand.
“Whatever the plate, it has a method, and if you skip the procedures, you’re going to have a sloppy product,” said Raba. “The same thing when I do a submission.”
Submissions are the techniques used to defeat an opponent. There are hundreds of options and learning submissions is one of the most difficult aspects of the sport.
“One of the things they teach is self discipline, so being able to handle yourself in those moments where you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re feeling like you’re losing,” said Tiaira Robinson, program director for I AM MENtality. The nonprofit hosts classes like financial literacy, anger management and health and wellness for young men in Baltimore.
Fifteen youth from I AM MENtality are taking the free jujitsu classes; most are from the Irvington neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore. Since beginning the partnership with Guardian in March, Robinson says jujitsu has taught the young men responsibility and leadership, among other life lessons.
“We’ve seen them grow from not understanding the skill to being able to put combinations and moves together.”
Other families and children have been recruited through word-of-mouth and local schools. At Guardian, it’s commonplace for siblings to take class together, like 13-year-old twins Jahni and Jahniya Faye.
“[Jujitsu] taught me patience,” said Jahni Faye. “It takes a lot of technique and focus. And we made new friendships, and it’s just a vibe.”
Barbara Anaya, 11, competed in her first tournament recently. Her favorite move is a sweep, a takedown that primarily uses the legs to attack an opponent. Anaya has grown to love sparring since starting at Guardian in May with her brothers, ages 6 and 13.
“I thought I wasn’t going to talk, because I’m a very shy person,” she recalled. “Now, I feel a little bit more confident about myself, because I know what to do in the situation.”
The driving force behind Guardian are the values and legacy from Raba’s hometown of Culiacán, Mexico, where he was raised by five women and lived until he was 17. Serving the Baltimore community is a way to pay it forward to those who helped his family members when they were refugees.
His mother founded magazines and wrote for Mexican national newspapers like Reforma. His grandfather was a doctor, who would give free consultations. After Raba’s father was murdered during a home invasion, Raba, his older brother and mother were offered political asylum in America. They experienced homelessness in Detroit and Washington, D.C., before an immigration lawyer took them in.
Raba’s goal is to get enough donations to offer youth classes Monday through Friday. He envisions the gym outgrowing its current warehouse space and teaching as many as 200 kids weekly.
A driving question for Raba is, “How can I honor my ancestors by doing what they did better?”
Baltimore Sun reporter Clara Longo de Freitas contributed to this article.
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Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.