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Filipino American community in Stockton preserves history of Filipino martial arts

Escrima can be traced back decades and now a group of Filipino Americans in Stockton hope it remains a part of the city's history.

STOCKTON, Calif. — When people think of martial arts, what they know is often reflected by what they see on the big screen. Filipino Americans in Stockton are hoping to change that perception through education and preservation of Escrima, a form of martial arts from the Philippines.

"This Filipino martial arts is not just about weapons, it's about basically angles of attack," said Dexter Labonog, an Escrima guro, or instructor.

It's an important part of Stockton's prominent Filipino American community. This form of martial arts is engrained in Filipino culture and for guros like Carlito Bonjoc and Labonog, it's a piece of home in the Philippines.

"The other martial arts, you train empty hand, then you move on to weapons. With us, it's different, we trained with the weapon first,'" said Bonjoc. "Then, you start translating some of those moves to in the hand."

The way it was brought to Stockton can be traced back to the 1960s through a man they call Grandmaster Leo Giron. Giron's introduction to Escrima started at a young age back in the Philippines in the town of Bayambang where he trained with Master Benito Junio.

At the age of 15, Giron set sail to the United States to Stockton and later served in WWII. After his service and return to Stockton, Labonog said Giron felt pulled to bring Escrima to Stockton following a tragic event.

"He always refers to the nurse stories in Chicago," said Labonog.

In 1966, eight Chicago student nurses were killed, some of them Filipino. Richard Speck was convicted for the murders. It was because of this crime Giron opened up his first school of Escrima. It's a story that resonated with Michelle Joven.

"I'm 66-years-old. I'm a prime candidate," she said.

She couldn't help but wonder what would've happened if those eight nurses had some sort of martial arts training.

"If women would just learn to just fight with something like this, because you can do a lot with something on these ends, and so that's one of the things I carry around with me because I am not going to be a victim," Joven said.

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In an effort to keep the tradition alive, nonprofit Stockton Multi-Style Escrima was formed, encompassing the original teachings of Giron's style.

"He would tell us about utilizing weapons that were readily available that they use every day, which was the long bolos and knife cutting tools," said Labonog.

Giron died in 2002. Since then, the goal of the nonprofit has been to continue his legacy for generations to come.

"Young kids, the generation after, and several generations now after that, they have no connection, or the connection to our culture disappears. So this is one thing that they can grab on," said Bonjoc.

Today, Bonjoc continues to teach. He's the founder of Mata Sa Bagyo, teaching his own specific style of Escrima. It's a challenge he takes on even after losing the ability to use his legs.

"I couldn't participate in a lot of sports... but for some reason, I was able to do Escrima and it improved my balance," he said.

Escrima classes are free to this day and it's important it stays that way, especially as crime in Stockton continues to rise.

"The way Stockton is, right, and I think a lot of major cities also. There's a lot of potential to be a victim and everybody should learn some kind of self-defense," said Labonog.

While a majority of the focus of Escrima is self-defense, the most important aspect of this is the preservation of the rich Filipino culture.

"I'm proud of that because it's part of my heritage. This is my city. This is my town. I live here and I get to represent it and so we still teach good Escrima," said Bonjoc.

To make sure Escrima classes remain free, the organization hosts an annual crab feed. This year, it raised $10,000 and the money goes directly to funding classes and equipment for the year.

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