Raise 'em up with Dignity
By Raul Esparza Photos by Tu Media Group and Juan Albert
It’s easy to quit when, seemingly, there’s nothing left to fight for. That’s the scenario Sammy Burke found himself in at the age of 14. He was essentially on his own when Mrs. Carter and a few other caring teachers took him in. They made sure Sammy had a place to call home. They’re also the reason a retired armory located at 700 N. Solano, is called the Sammy Burke Youth Boxing Center. It’s a sanctuary wrought from the struggles Sammy overcame. It’s a building devoted to forging the determination and courage of our impoverished teens; beleaguered young spirits destined for dejection.
My father sold burritos in that old armory over thirty-five years ago. I was his sidekick, ever ready to work and attentive to his teachings. As a teen, I disregarded his wisdom and drowned myself with eighteen years of memories inside of a cage. I was shelved in the thriving prison industry where they took exceptional care of intern’s bodies, while wreaking havoc on their spirit. More than three hundred and fifty thousand dollars were spent to “fix” me, in the New Mexico Department of Corrections. Had it not been for the people in my corner, I’d still be greasing the scales of our judicial system.
Not everyone has someone coaching them from a corner. Louie Burke recounts the palpable determination his father shared with him. That determination is what drives Louie to give of his life daily, working to serve his community and empower anyone willing to walk into his gym. In mid-November of 2016, I was free and able to walk into that old armory once again. Besides my festering memories from the past, I had my children with me. I’d been invited to an amateur night of boxing where I met Louie Burke and some of the young boxers that have funneled into his gym from the streets of Las Cruces. I got to sit on the ringside in wonder, blessed to imbibe from the stream of hope flowing through each fighter that night. There was one fighter that stood out most to me. He has a losing record with no wins yet, but he managed to nourish the core of my dried-out, weathered soul.
Marcos Moreno was born a fighter. He was born prematurely and weighed just two pounds and six ounces at birth. Consequently, he was kept in an incubator for the first nine and a half weeks of his life. Marcos survived that challenge only to become a target for bullies in grade school. That’s what led his mother Angie Moreno to deliver him once more. This time it wasn’t in a hospital though; she brought him to Ben and Joe’s Youth Gym in El Paso, Texas. Angie was determined to give her baby a fighting chance.
Marcos didn’t fare well that night in November. Despite his training and the masters in his corner, he took in more punches than he was able to deliver. In mid-second round, Marcos hit the canvas and his emotions burst; tears flowed down his face and they stained me with reverence. I watched him nod courageously to the referee, then lunge back into the leathery beating with more resolve than ever.
Sammy Burke dedicated his life to helping others find their courage. I asked Louie about plans they had for a future and I was surprised to see him look down for a split second. Apparently, a technicality surfaced on the city’s desk somewhere and the Sammy Burke Youth Boxing Center lost its fourteen thousand dollar a year funding. I was angry and hurt, ready to fight this evil; a system that pays millions of dollars to cage and break spirits, while undermining an elite group of champions determined to make would-be victims, fighters for a better future.
Louie didn’t look down for long. He looked up and countered that they’ve managed to make ends meet. It turns out Austin Trout, our Cross Town champion, paid more than six hundred dollars for the kid’s uniforms that November night. Jennifer Han, the reigning IBF World feather weight champion and her brother Abie Han also chipped in to buy equipment for the gym. Louie’s colleagues at the Professional Firefighters Union donated $1,500.00 dollars worth of gym equipment. When I asked him what I could do, he requested that I talk to a young fighter familiar with our beloved corrections system; a would-be casualty that Louie believes will flourish like “No Doubt” Trout.
Sammy taught Louie to believe and respect every member of our community, regardless of their social standing. So, Louie challenged others to come and meet the kids. Michael Graham, Gary Sanchez and James Horcasitas are Louie’s colleagues at the Las Cruces Fire Department. They’re paid to mitigate tragedies and rescue people from disaster. Like Louie, they volunteer their free time coaching kids that walk through the doors at the Sammy Burke Youth Boxing Center. Then there are our neighbors like Ivan Corral, Rigo Calderon, Henry Cabrera, Hugo Salinas and Chris Barela. They’re members of our community focused on sharing some of that boundless source of courage they've been blessed with.
I asked about Austin and Louie smiled, proud of the fierce competitor whose eyes and smile glowed with peaceful splendor. “He was ten years old when he walked into that armory,” he said. Louie mentioned Joe Escamilla, a mutual acquaintance and fighter Sammy Burke coached. Joe was a role model to me, the source for my pursuits in engineering. Our community has doctors, engineers and countless professionals that advocate for the forgotten in our community.
Marcos, that eight year-old little boy crying in the boxing ring, never quit swinging. He became a role model for me that night. He was also there to rescue me several weeks later while I drove from one challenge to another in the shuffle of traffic. I came close to losing my meaning again. Tears pooled in my eyes and as resignation threatened to consume me, the memory of Marcos flowed through my neurons like a fresh spring. I gripped on to reality, envisioned a focus and accelerated through traffic with a smile—knowing that win or lose, I was going to follow his lead and jump right back into my struggle.
Louie hopes Las Cruces will once more fund the PAL gym. If you’re interested in sponsoring a child or making a donation, visit the PAL website (www.lascrucespalboxing.com) and let these world class people know that they have a community in their corner.