I was eleven years old when I began learning karate from a man who had moved in next door. (I can still remember the day he arrived, carrying trophy after trophy into his apartment.) But before I ever attended a class, my soon-to-be instructor took me to a local karate tournament where he would be competing. Joaquin was a veteran competitor at the time and easily took first place in both empty-hand and weapons kata (individual routines). His movements were crisp and powerful, and his kiai (the yell) shook the room like no one else’s.
After the black belts finished competing, the kyu ranks (those under black belt) took the floor. They competed in empty-hand and weapons kata as the black belts did, but they also competed in kumite or sparring. In the kumite competition, the competitors faced each other and attempted to score points on their opponents by punching or kicking to the head or body. They all wore pads on their hands and feet, but the contact needed to be light or the competitor would be penalized or disqualified.
This didn’t look much like a real fight as they jumped at each other, trying to be the first to score the three points needed to win. But I watched patiently, waiting for the black belts to compete. Surely, the black belts would fight more like the people I had seen in the movies.
Joaquin was up first. He stood with his left side to his opponent in a kiba dachi (horseback stance) with his hands down by his waist. He looked rather plain in his faded black uniform compared to his opponent who bounced around in an orange top. The center judge bowed them in and yelled “hajime!” The orange top continued bouncing on his toes while Joaquin looked at him without any expression.
Then, in one smooth motion, Joaquin kicked the orange top’s legs out from underneath him, leapt in the air, and came down on his prone body with his foot. The room fell silent except for the sound of his opponent’s head hitting the gymnasium floor. Without a word from anyone, Joaquin turned away from his fallen opponent and sat in seiza (the typical procedure when one competitor injures another).
Fortunately, his opponent was wearing headgear. So although shaken up from the impact, he was able to regain his feet fairly quickly. Joaquin was promptly disqualified, and we left the tournament.
Although the match didn’t look like a movie fight to me, I began training with Joaquin (eventually earning a black belt myself). During that time, many people came to train with him, but few stuck around. His life seemed to always be in a state of constant combat, just like my first experience with him at the tournament. He would get into verbal confrontations with strangers for unknown reasons, and his closest friends would become his worst enemies seemingly overnight.
Joaquin would say it was because he was black or because of martial arts politics. While these were likely factors, they were complicated by his sexual orientation. Although he never openly acknowledged it, it was known in the martial arts community that he was gay.
As a teenager growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 80s, I knew nothing about the LGBT community, except what was expressed in the media or by (assumed) heterosexual neighbors, family members, and peers. And all of these groups held similar views; gay men were to be laughed at, ridiculed, or even abused. But they weren’t to be respected or feared.
My experience with Joaquin, however, was much different. He was respected by his students and friends, and his enemies were cautious. On one occasion, we attended a local tournament (I was 12 or 13 at the time), and as I was warming up, six or seven black belts approached and surrounded Joaquin. As he stood with his arms folded, they lectured him that they didn’t want any trouble that day. (Apparently, he had grabbed someone by the throat at another event earlier in the year.) Although each of the men wore a black belt, none of them wished to confront him individually.
Despite events like these and the people who would take me aside to explain that Joaquin was crazy, violent, or gay (or all three), I continued to train with him for the next six years. Eventually, however, even our relationship fell apart. I had become one of his only students and one of his few close friends. But when he tried to express his feelings for me one day, I stopped training and didn’t speak to him again. At the time, I was unprepared and not mature enough to have that type of conversation.
Years later, in the mid-90s, I took a bus trip to a karate tournament with a group of martial artists from another dojo. I quickly grabbed a seat and found myself sitting next to “orange top” from that first tournament years ago. We had never met, so he asked me who I had trained with. Hearing Joaquin’s name, he immediately began expressing his regret that he and his friends used to tease Joaquin for being gay. It was as if he had been carrying around this guilt for all these years and had finally found someone to share it with.
A few years ago, I heard that Joaquin had died, but I never learned how. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. But I would like to know if he ever found peace in life, if he ever found a space where he could be his true self, a space where he didn’t always need to be prepared for battle.
And though he may not be around to experience it, I hope that space is coming soon.