As a young boy growing up in the Bronx, Antonio Espinal was heading in the wrong direction. He was struggling in school, and he hung out with a crowd that got him into trouble. So his mother issued an ultimatum: straighten up, or leave.
“It was a wake-up call,” Antonio, now 15, said.
Soon after, a friend recommended El Maestro — the only boxing school left in Morrisania, the Bronx. It might be considered the last chance for many young people in New York’s northernmost borough. El Maestro is where Bronx Family Court judges send some young people accused of nonviolent crimes instead of detaining them.
“If this place didn’t exist, I don’t know where I’d be — nowhere good for sure,” Antonio said. “When I began boxing, I saw a renewed future. It changed my life.”
El Maestro was founded 15 years ago by two brothers, Pedro and Fernando Laspina. Born in Puerto Rico, they came to the Bronx as teenagers.
“I was a corrupted kid,” Pedro said. “At the age of 15, I knew what drugs were about.” He said he started smoking weed and drinking to blend in with “the wrong crowd.”
Months after arriving, the brothers became members of the Savage Skulls, a Bronx gang. The brothers became presidents of different divisions of the gang and soon after that, the arrests started.
In jail, their lives were just as volatile as on the outside.
“We fought a lot of battles,” Pedro said. But the fights came with an upside. Fernando left prison with the dream of becoming a boxer and his brother followed him.
The Laspina brothers founded El Maestro as a cultural center that included boxing classes, but also music and heritage awareness. The idea behind the school was to help young men stay out of the streets. For the brothers, it was a way to rewrite their wrongs.
El Maestro is three subway stops away from the Horizon Juvenile Center. The Bronx sends the second-highest number of people to juvenile detention centers, and in the Bronx, Morrisania is one of the most economically and socially insecure neighborhoods, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, a nonprofit child advocacy organization.
“This center has been an oasis in a desert,” said Justice Fernando Tapia of Bronx Supreme Court, who used to sit in the Family Court and often sent juveniles to El Maestro.
“If that program was not in existence, most of these kids would be sent to the criminal justice system, which is no solution at all,” Justice Tapia said. “It’s a lifeline for the community.”
Joseph Torres, 11, is the youngest boxer in El Maestro. After school, he trains and does his homework there.
“I like boxing because it keeps me off the streets,” he said.
Judge Tapia said that though a solution like El Maestro might seem like “a no brainer,” officials would rather place its money on the criminal justice system than programs like El Maestro.
The citizens committee recently released a statement urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to restore a $5.6 million cut for alternatives to incarceration programs in the 2018 budget proposal.
The boxing school is struggling to keep up with rising rents. It does not receive any public funding, and some families can’t pay the fees. Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned oil company, is the only corporate sponsor of El Maestro.
Despite Citgo’s contribution and the fund-raisers the school has, El Maestro still struggles to make ends meet, the Laspina brothers said.
Each night, 30 to 40 people train at El Maestro, mostly youths toeing a delicate line between trouble and success.
“We’re last of the Mohicans,” Pedro Laspina said.