Juan Cardona, 33, is a park police officer. His jurisdiction doesn’t extend beyond downtown, but starting this fall, his influence will reach the West Side through boxing.
In April, Cardona and his family were kicked out of his son Julian’s former boxing gym. Cardona coached Julian on the side because he felt his son wasn’t receiving proper training, which led to a fallout between the family and gym.
“I told my son’s old trainer, ‘You know what? I’m going to open up my own gym and train my fighters the right way,’” Cardona said in reference the former gym, which he did not want to mention by name. “After I told him that, he said, ‘Yeah right. Good luck with that.’”
Last week, he opened the doors to Cardona’s Boxing Gym.
Cardona, a father of two, worked extra shifts and held chicken plate sales to help launch the gym. He hopes to get commitments from at least 20 participants to cover the rent, but Cardona will pay out of pocket if necessary.
The dark green gym sits on the corner of Morales and North Colorado streets, on the near West Side, a 9-minute walk from the Bexar County Adult Detention Center and a 10-minute walk to Dress for Success. Cardona loves the location because it generates traffic from Tafolla Middle School and Lanier High School students. Moreover, it’s in the West Side, Cardona’s childhood home.
“I grew up on on Martin and 19th Street,” Cardona said. “We didn’t have an AC, we would use the stove as a heater, but I still had a fun childhood.”
Inside Cardona’s Boxing Gym, six heavy bags dangle from a gold rack; against the wall to the left sits a photo of Muhammad Ali and a framed certificate of occupancy. Yellow double-end bags hang in front of the red, white and blue roped ring. The loud speed bags — thappita, thappita, thappita, thappita — and flags decorate the walls surrounding the ring.
Some of this equipment was sold to Cardonas at a discount from Alcoser and Gonzalez Boxing Gym on South Flores Street. The gym learned about Cardona through mutual friends; they gave him mirrors and sold him the ring.
“I’ve been patient, and God blessed me with a gym and equipment,” Cardona said, standing by the heavy bags. “It’s amazing how everything has fallen into place for my whole family.”
Cardona’s wife, Chelsy Cardona, 31, is acting as his business coach. She is the owner of Chelsy’s Nails in Leon Valley and the sole family member with business experience.
“I never graduated from college. All I know how to do is arrest people,” Cardona said, smiling at Chelsy, “but my wife is the smart one.”
She chimed in, “I help him in any way that I can because I know how tough it was when I started my business.”
Cardona says the East Side and West Side were the only choices of locations for the gym. In neighborhoods like these, boxing gyms can become vital institutions — vital not because of sports so much as the culture of mentoring sports can provide. Sociologists like Jeffrey O. Sacha have argued that at-risk children benefit more from mentorships than their privileged peers, and that boxing gyms are sites of mentorship.
“Being a mentor is going to be tough, because it’s going to be my first time doing this, but I’m hopeful,” said Cardona, who didn’t have a mentor growing up.
Since Cardona wears a badge, he says he might be viewed in a negative light by people neighboring the gym. Growing up, he disliked law enforcement after he was harassed by a policeman — and because a police officer killed his grandfather, he said.
More than 50,000 Hispanics reside in the 78207 zip code where Cardona’s Boxing Gym sits. In a 2017 Pew Research survey, nearly half of Hispanics gave law enforcement a neutral or less favorable rating.
“With social media and everything that’s going on, cops are viewed as bad,” Cardona said. “I want the people who come to my gym to say, ‘Hey, not all cops are bad. My coach is a cop, and he’s always helping me out.’”
Alongside Juan Cardona is Alex Anzures, 37, who has been around boxing for 30 years. Anzures, who also grew up on the West Side, agrees that boxing’s relationship with lower income neighborhoods is strong. Anzures plans to train at Cardona’s gym for the rest of his days.
“If Juan doesn’t kick me out, I plan to stay here,” Anzures said, laughing. “This is a perfect spot for the gym, and we plan to get some kids off the streets.”
Anzures was working on mitts combinations with Megan Martinez, 18. Boom, boom, bap. Boom, boom, bap. Martinez grew up on the Northside, but boxed for 10 years at Zarzamora Street Gym and San Fernando Gym. Martinez, who competed in the USA Boxing Junior Olympic tournament, says boxing made her want to be something in life.
“Boxing builds confidence. (Because of boxing), things like gangs, drugs or trouble don’t even call for your attention,” said Martinez, who plans to attend Northwest Vista College in the spring. “It’s helped me a lot and helped many others who don’t have much. It’s a way out.”
Eight boxers trained at Cardona’s Gym during its opening last Wednesday. The youngest — and lightest — were Cardona’s son, Julian, 11, and Eli Medrano, 9. Both have fights scheduled for Nov. 11 at Traders Village, a flea market crossed with a shopping center on the Southside. The 60-pound fighters hit every station in the gym, their shirts drenched in sweat.
Throughout the night, curious people peaked their heads into the gym to speak to Cardona.
“It’s starting to feel like a gym now,” Cardona said, looking at others train. “I’m really excited for more people to come to our gym.”