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Photos by Art Torres
Blue and gray tumbling mats are spread across the gym floor, and loud stomping echoes throughout the gymnasium. On the uneven bars, one student is swinging from the low bar up to the high bar. A line of small boys waits to use a springboard for their handstands, while the older girls flip across the narrow wooden balance beam.
Gymnastics classes like the ones offered at Aliso Pico Recreation Center are not typically found in low-income communities such as Boyle Heights. The classes, for youth ranging from 4 to 17, require experienced and knowledgeable instructors as well as expensive equipment, such as the balance beam, uneven bars, vault and mats for floor exercises.
Joyce Nishimuro, 67, started the gymnastics program at Aliso Pico in 1989 for the city of Los Angeles, which then ran the recreation center. A former dancer and teacher, Nishimuro worked 16-hour days to get the center up and running.
At the time, the gymnasium had no equipment and no bathrooms, and the area had a lot of gang activity. Nishimuro’s goal was to create a safe haven. “I was given that center, and it was a total wreck. I wanted it to be a vibrant place for children to come,” said Nishimuro.
Nishimuro, who had no personal connection to Boyle Heights, wrote letters to organizations and applied for grants to get funding for the equipment and to make improvements to the recreation center. She also taught gymnastics at the center until she retired seven years ago.
When the program first began, students of all levels were placed in one large class and got just one day a week to practice. Today, classes are held on Wednesday, Thursdays and Saturdays and serve four different levels of students, from beginners through experienced.
While weekly gymnastics classes at other centers in Los Angeles can run as high as $740 a month, the cost for classes at Aliso Pico is $10 every three months.
From student to coach
Dalila Díaz, 29, began taking gymnastics classes at Aliso Pico when she was 8. Nishimuro trained Diaz to coach when she was 15, and Díaz is in her 14th year of coaching.
When she was training, she said her coach would have to close the gymnasium doors because of gang shootings in the area. With its bulletproof windows, the facility served as an escape from the violence in the community.
Seventeen-year-old Julio Medrano has been taking gymnastics classes for the past two years, along with his two younger siblings. “I like gymnastics because it is a way of having a healthy lifestyle,” he said.
Díaz says opportunities like gymnastics classes are beneficial for Boyle Heights. “It’s good to open up skills for everyone in the community,” Diaz said. Residents know that Aliso Pico offers “really good classes they can afford with good instructors who are committed.”
The gymnastics program has been run since August by Proyecto Pastoral, a local non-profit organization that recently took over the Recreation Center from the city. It is the only gymnastics class in Boyle Heights.
Mind and body enrichment
Ara Arzumanian, director of the center’s after school programs, says the goal is “to enrich the lives of the youth through the mind and body and teach them to do things they didn’t think they could ever do.”
While the classes teach discipline and skill, they also are fun. Twelve-year-old Miguel Medrano says he likes spending time there with his brothers. His favorite apparatus is the uneven bars. “I like swinging on the bars a lot because it reminds me of monkeys,” he says.
In the program, students use the bars, the beam and the vault, as well as the floor. Diaz says it takes a lot of commitment to become a gymnast. “It is hard to become stronger, to become more resistant, to do more sets, to stand on your hands longer, to learn how to roll or to stand up on the beam,” she says. “But you learn to carry your own weight.”
Nishimuro is no longer involved with the program, but agrees that being a gymnast takes a lot of work and devotion. “It’s all about being disciplined. You have to work and it and not give up until to reach it,” she said.
The Aliso Pico Recreation Center is located at 370 South Clarence St. For more information about classes, call (323) 264-5261.