LITTLE VILLAGE — Eleven-year-old Felix Gonzalez laced his shoes and wrapped his wrists at the Chicago Youth Boxing Club as he dished dirt on his most recent opponent.
“I beat him,” Gonzalez said as he sat in the West Side gym's boxing ring. “I know I did. But the judges didn't see it that way."
Gonzalez is one of the 150 to 180 participants who come to the gym at La Villita Community Church. About 20 train to fight competitively; others participate for fun or as an alternative to the rough streets surrounding them.
The CYBC opened in 2006 as an alternative to gang violence and drug activity for kids growing up in inner-city Chicago. Each year it provides more than 6,500 hours of boxing instruction and education to youth ages 8 and up.
Richard Serrano, 21, said he trains to relieve stress and clear his head.
"I can come here and let it all out," he said. "When something's bugging me, I don't go home and stay in my room and let it eat me up. I come here and exercise and talk about it. There are people here who are always willing to talk to me. There are reinforcements here."
Fernando Macias, 19, has been an assistant boxing coach at the gym for about five years. He started boxing about eight years ago and said he had learned a great deal from the sport.
"It teaches you so much about life," he said. "Inside the ring, it's you and someone else. It's basically you against the world. And that's what life is. ... You make your own decisions and you control your own life. And those decisions influence the future and everything else that you do."
In addition to its boxing programs, the CYBC is currently working with documentary photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz on his Too Young to Die project, a collaborative art project aimed at addressing the effects of youth violence on victims, their families and society.
"Look how beautiful and quiet it is out there," Ortiz said while looking down at the sunset-lit streets from a large square of steel grating outside. "But then you go two blocks over, or one block over — even on these blocks right here there are people being killed."
The CYBCs youth development coordinator, Ana Patricia Juarez, said the goal of the gym was to nurture youth development, not to "save kids from themselves."
"Our kids are at risk," Juarez said. "But they aren't a bunch of hooligans. They just need a place where they can harbor their natural inclinations … This isn’t just a boxing gym. We're creating an atmosphere of awareness and knowledge, of who you are and of what the world around you is."