Escrima, Arnis, and Kali are just a few names used to describe the martial art brought to the United States by Filipinos. Whatever name it goes by, the art has had a long history. Before colonization by Spain, Escrima was taught as a recreational activity, along with reading, writing, religion and Sanskrit.
After the Spaniards colonized the islands now known as the Philipines, they had a hard time imposing their rule on the inhabitants, who wielded their bolos, daggers and sticks with fierce and deadly effectiveness. Not until they brought in reinforcements and firearms could they affect any semblance of order.
In the 1700s, when Spanish rule was firmly secured, the teaching and study of Escrima was banned (similarly to how Japanese overlords banned the ownership of weapons on Okinawa). The carrying of a bolo (a long bladed weapon similar to a machete) or dagger was also forbidden. These orders were imposed in an attempt to “civilize” the spirited Filipinos.
Fortunately, Escrima did not die out, as Spanish soldiers found out every time there was a revolt. From generation to generation, the many different regional styles, collectively termed Escrima, were kept alive, handed down from father to son over the centuries.
When Spanish rule ended and the Americans took over in 1898, the ban on the art was lifted. Friendly competitions were conducted in public at fiestas, but teachers never “opened their doors,” so to speak. Escrima remained a semi-secretive activity.
During World War Two, Filipinos worked alongside Americans in guerilla units. Many of these men owed their lives, in countless close-quarter engagements, to their Escrima training. Escrima has been well and truly tested, over a long period of time, in actual combat.
After the war, many Filipinos emigrated to the USA, and Escrima went with them. Most of the immigrants went to Hawaii and California. Of those who went to California, the majority settled in Stockton. From there, Arnis/Escrima has surfaced onto the American martial arts scene.
The first person to openly teach Escrima in the United States was Angel Cabales, who opened the first Escrima school with his partners, Max Sarmiento and Leo Girion. One of the first students at the school was Rene Latosa. Originally, Rene asked his father if he could take Judo or Karate lessons. His father offered to teach his young son “jitsu.” However, Rene didn’t believe his father knew anything about martial arts, so he did not pursue that avenue. His mother recommended taking self-defense classes taught by a long-time family friend, Angel Cabales, at the Stockton Escrima Academy.
At his first visit to the Stockton Escrima Academy in 1968, Rene was greeted by Angel, holding a cigarette in one hand and a rattan stick in the other. Angel, having known Rene since he was small, told him to grab a stick and Angel proceeded to demonstrated a quick technique. From this point forward, Rene was hooked and he continued to study and eventually taught at the Academy for over five years.
At the Stockton Escrima Academy in 1968, “formal training” did not exist. Teaching was strictly on a teacher to student basis. Rene remembers the ambiance at the academy was very casual. Angel was just “Angel.” To Rene’s advantage, during his first five months of training, he was only one of three students who showed up for lessons. Rene’s initial training, with a ratio of four instructors to one student- Angel Cabales, Max Sarmiento, Leo Giron, and Dentoy Revilar- provided plenty of diversity in styles. These four individuals played a definite role in shaping the basic format of the Escrima Concepts system; however, his greatest influence was his father.
Up until this point, Rene did not know of his father’s expertise in Escrima. Rene’s enlarged ego was instrumental in his introduction to his father’s prowess in the Filipino martial arts. Rene was practicing for a demonstration when he became concerned that he did not look as flashy and impressive as he should. He asked his father, who was working in his garden, if he would care to be his practice “dummy.” The elder Latosa, noted for his quick temper, remained calm despite this arrogance. He had watched as his son practiced his techniques, smiled and said “boy, you need more training”.
He dropped his hoe and walked quietly towards his young, egotistical son and picked up a stick. Rene asked his father if he would hit him over the head, but warned him to be careful of his deadly speed and dangerous skills. Instead, the old man in a calm voice asked his son to strike at him. There was some hesitation on Rene’s part. He feared that if he went too fast, his father might get hurt. Rene directed a slow hit at the old man. Before he saw what had happened, his father’s stick hit him on the head.
“This must have been an accident,” thought Rene. He again struck at his father, but this time faster. Again, Rene’s head was the final destination for the end of his father’s stick. In a serious fury, Rene went after his father with a strike that was strong, fast, and headed toward its target. His target moved, and a stick landed between Rene’s neck and shoulder, knocking the young man to the ground.
His father walked away laughing and went back to tending his garden. Rene’s mother came out of the house, yelled at his father, and consoled her son with the bruised ego. Rene spent some time soul searching, trying to get a grip on what happened. Rene was under the impression that with his speed and technical skills he could not be beat. His father took him aside and told him about his rough and dangerous background and informed him he had much to learn. Rene’s attitude towards the Filipino arts changed. The first attribute to be disposed of was his enlarged ego. His father started to train Rene in the finer points of fighting concepts, different weapons, and his philosophy.
Learning from his father was very difficult for Rene. His father was a fighter and every reaction to a situation was combat oriented. When Rene asked to see a movement for a second time, he was shown something else. Because his father did not use techniques, no two movements were ever the same. Eventually, Rene understood that concepts were more important than technique. In other words, how you did something was more important that what you did.
The experience of training with his father ultimately led Rene to teach Escrima based on concepts instead of techniques, ensuring a high level of skill and understanding among his students as well as driving the constant refinement of the system.