Frances Calderon is 4'11'' and has a mean punch. She's had to unlearn the street fighting skills of her teenage years and learn the rules of boxing. She's good. Just ask the gray-haired man sparring with her in a backyard boxing ring on Virgil Avenue just north of the 101 freeway.
This is the way Frances wipes away the stress. She's tired, she tells me. Not because of the one hour warm-up and sparring. She's been in the ring of college education for 12 years, struggling it out, getting knocked down and getting back up again and asking for more. On Saturday she'll get her B.A. degree, walking to "Pomp and Circumstance" with thousands of others at California State University, Los Angeles.
Frances is one of the tens of thousands of graduates in Southern California. I can tell you she has a punch stronger than most and has had to fight more than most. That doesn't make her better but it sure does make you want to root for her.
Frances is 31 years-old and has a 15 year-old daughter. Yes, she got pregnant as a teenager. Her mother's been there to help raise her daughter. She's worked in real estate and works in human resources for L.A. Unified now.
She has a smile that opens up in slow motion. It's complemented by a sort of Lucha Villa laugh, you know a little bit deeper than most women and roughened around the edges by the knocks of life and some tequila. I'm just saying that's what it sounds like.
She broke up with her daughter's father. Her current boyfriend forced her to stare down that East L.A. College class catalog and sign up for classes. She got her Associates' Degree and enrolled at CSULA. She couldn't pass the college math classes and so she was forced to leave CSULA and take math classes back at ELAC. Statistics class kicked her ass several times but Frances got back up again. She brought out the six pack of whoop-ass. Frances finally won by using her strengths, being social. She turned what used to be a painful math study time into fun social studying sessions with friends.
She kept working to pay the bills and raise her daughter. And she kept up her social life. She's tired, she tells me.
She found Fred Gaspar's backyard boxing gym seven years ago. Gaspar's father trained champs at the legendary Main Street Gym in downtown L.A. He was going to run this gym with his father, but he passed away before they could carry out their father-son enterprise. It's a homemade gym. There's a beautiful, faded, fly-poop dotted poster of Paul Gonzales next to one of the doors. Next to it is an old fight poster, maybe 35 years-old, for a match between a Filipino and Mexican at the Olympic Auditorium. There's lots of duct tape holding the gym and Gaspar's memories together.
Gaspar's helping Frances Calderon let out her steam. The ring isn't far from Belmont High School where Frances went to school, not far from where she reluctantly learned how to scrap. She was a cheerleader, and someone who didn't tell her mother of the trouble she was getting into after hours.
One of Gaspar's first drills for Frances was the backyard trampoline test. Get on and jump until you see the Hollywood sign. What? Frances thought.
Fred Muller's sparred with her for several years. He's a gray haired engineer who's entering the slouch of life. He can block plenty of punches and has good footwork. She's gotten better, more technical, he said. After a one hour warm up on rusty machines and punch-practice with Fred they both go at it with head gear and mouth guards on. The rat-tat-tat of three punches to Ted Muller's head gear. Ted's straight ahead punch to her head.
A mentor sat Frances down a few years ago and forced her to reconsider whether she really wanted to major in business. Frances switched to liberal studies with an emphasis in women and gender studies. She's studying female graffiti culture. By the time you read this Frances Calderon will have finished her last, three-hour Monday night final, all essay, no multiple choice. She'll probably do all right. A 12 round/year fight is not the end, she wants back into the ring and is hoping a graduate program somewhere will take a chance on her.