Jimena Romo de Vivar pulled off her taekwondo robe, put on gloves and tennis shoes, and plugged in the boombox. She had just finished teaching a taekwondo class and her kickboxing students were now trickling into the room.
This is Romo de Vivar’s routine every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evening. The 30-year-old Rio Rico resident and third-degree black belt teaches her classes in the recreation room at the Mi Casa RV Travel Park, located behind the Circle K on Grand Avenue at the north end of Nogales.
Cecilia Rivas has worked as the park’s secretary since Romo de Vivar began the classes, which are attended by residents from the park and across Nogales and Rio Rico.
“They teach the kids discipline and responsibility also, so I think it makes a lot of change on the kids,” Rivas said.
Rivas isn’t the only admirer of the classes. Over the past seven years, Romo de Vivar’s taekwondo lessons – and for the past two-and-half years, her kickboxing course – have attracted a loyal following thanks to their affordability, character-building and physical results, as well as students’ and parents’ love for the teacher.
Not a typical gym
The RV park’s recreation room does not look like a typical gym, and it especially does not resemble a “dojang,” the Korean word for a taekwondo studio. The room is carpeted and dimly lit. There are no mirrors for students to check their form in, no mats for sparring and no piles of equipment.
Yet every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 4:30 p.m., elementary, middle and high school students – as well as one adult – faithfully practice their taekwondo skills in the bare-bones facility. Many parents sit on the sidelines, occasionally recording video and snapping photos of their children.
On Tuesday, students lined up before taking turns leaping into the air, slapping the ground and then running full speed toward Romo de Vivar, throwing kicks at her hands.
Next, recent black belt recipients, brothers Ismael Villegas, 16, and Kevin Villegas, 10, led green belt students in a sequence of taekwondo movements. In the other half of the room, Romo de Vivar worked on basic moves with her beginner white belt students.
One of those white belts was Gloria Aguirre, the only adult student. The 44-year-old Nogales resident joined the class two months ago, inspired by her daughter, 9-year-old green belt Gabriela Gonzalez.
“I started from the bottom and I’ll see how far I can get,” Aguirre said.
Don’t tell ‘maestra’
Aguirre said that in the two years her daughter has participated in taekwondo, her discipline and school work have improved. She said Gabriela listens to commands at home, “or if she doesn’t, I just tell her, ‘I’m going to go tell maestra (teacher),’ and she goes right away and does it.”
Parent Tanya Beltran, a 32-year-old Rio Rico resident who works at Amado Trucking, said that after two years of instruction, her 7-year-old son Juan is more disciplined with his homework and cleaning his room.
At taekwondo class and at school, Beltran said, Juan “was a really shy boy,” but “now he has learned to communicate with other kids.”
Nogales City Magistrate Mayra Galindo recalled her 7-year-old son Lucas Pagazani’s first taekwondo class.
“The very first thing (Romo de Vivar) said was, ‘I love all of you and I know you can do anything that you set your mind to and I believe in you,’” Galindo said. “So she really emphasized love of self, and she explained, ‘I’m not teaching to fight, I’m actually teaching you to be respectful of others.’
“I’m gushing because she’s good, she’s really good,” Galindo said of Romo de Vivar.
Galindo’s husband, Pedro Pagazani, said that even though his son has only been practicing taekwondo for three weeks, he has already seen an improvement in Lucas’ sleep patterns and concentration while doing homework.
Romo de Vivar ended Tuesday’s class by having Ismael Villegas stand in the front of the room, his medals draped over his outstretched arms. It was time for a pep talk.
“The equipment, the fancy schools, is not what will make you guys better, you guys are making yourself better,” Romo de Vivar said.
She laughed as Villegas’ arms sunk under the weight of his medals.
“Ismael always has in mind that he wants to become a champion. He’s still looking for the Olympic medal,” she said.
Romo de Vivar encouraged students to aim for a black belt, because it demonstrates discipline to schools and employees.
“If you really want it, you can do it,” she said.
‘Gets me going’
At 5:30 p.m., after the taekwondo class, nine women spread out across the recreation room. Lingering from the previous class was Airam Moreno, an 8-year-old Nogalian who swapped her bare feet for shiny, silver sneakers.
She was the only youth in the kickboxing class and the only person to join Romo de Vivar for both activities.
Romo de Vivar turned on a boombox playing upbeat Latin music as she led students in stretches and then sequences of punches and kicks. Some students who wanted a greater challenge held light weights in their hands.
Later in the class, students pulled out yoga mats and practiced pushups and abdominal exercises. The evening ended with more stretches.
Nancy Ayan, a 52-year-old Rio Rico resident and coach at Wade Carpenter Middle School in Nogales, said she has taken the kickboxing class for one-and-a-half years.
“It’s competitive. I like the exercise, it gets me going, gives me energy,” she said.
Ana Duran has attended the class since it began. The 32-year-old Rio Rico resident, who works at the Holiday Inn in Nogales, said: “I come and do it right after work, it helps me just kind of destress.”
“I used to take some classes like Zumba class but this has been the best effective thing I’ve done so far,” Karla Dominguez, 37, said.
Another benefit, the Rio Rico resident said, is the class’ affordability.
“I think this class is worth the money, I think it’s worth more,” she said, adding that Romo de Vivar is a “very, very good teacher.”
Each kickboxing class costs $2, but it is free for taekwondo students. Romo de Vivar said she began the kickboxing course after a Facebook friend posted about a lack of affordable workout classes in the area.
As for the taekwondo instruction, she began that project after Gloria Smith of the children-focused Nogales Infantil nonprofit suggested she start a fitness class for residents of the RV park. Romo de Vivar estimated that around half of her 19 taekwondo students live in the park.
Many of her students, she said, “have been dealing with something.”
“If it was bullies … something at home, parents, speech problems, all kinds of stuff, ADHD,” she said, adding: “It has been really well received around the community, it has been working really good.”
In order to attend the class, students must behave at home and receive good grades at school. Romo de Vivar said she is in constant communication with her students’ parents in order to keep track of the kids’ behavior.
“We have built this trust and they can talk to me and any way I can help them, I will help them,” she said.
In class, Romo de Vivar said, her students must demonstrate discipline and principle. “It’s not just go and kick around,” she said.
“I make them learn not only the physical part, I make them learn the (theory) part, the actual martial art part,” she added.
Romo de Vivar said park owners Frank Johnson and Terry Hum let her use the recreation room free of charge. She charges park residents $20 a month, and non-park residents $40 a month. Parents with multiple students receive a discount.
The money pays for the students’ certification tests, which occur every three months and cost around $70. Students must pay for their robes but sparring equipment and gear like wooden boards and hand-punching targets are covered by fundraisers or out of Romo de Vivar’s own pocket.
Taking lessons at a dojang, Romo de Vivar said, can cost more than $50 a month. That price doesn’t account for equipment or testing fees, she said.
When asked why she donates her time, money and skills to her students, Romo de Vivar, who works part-time as a bookkeeper at Home Depot in Nogales, said: “This is my free time after work, this is my contribution to the community.”
To learn more about the taekwondo and kickboxing classes, email Romo de Vivar at email@example.com.