All the right moves: Filipino martial arts grandmaster shares his secrets

As Rene Latosa advanced, his quest to learn more took him back to the Philippines where both of his parents were born, in search of a grandmaster who could help - but the master, they said, was his own father.|

When Rene Latosa was a boy growing up in Stockton's Filipino community, he often watched martial arts demonstrations during special celebrations and cultural events.

He studied the old-timers at the Filipino Community Center doing sword fights with their walking sticks and putting each other in locks. So when he hit his teens and many of his friends started studying judo, he asked his father if he could take judo or karate lessons. Instead, his dad offered to teach him “jitsu.” Latosa passed on the offer. After all, what would an old man know about martial arts?

Instead, taking advice from his mother, he started taking self-defense classes taught by a family friend at the Stockton Escrima Academy.

A specialized weapon-based martial art unique to the Philippines that emphasized sticks, knives and other bladed weapons, Escrima was little known outside of the Filipino community at that time. The Escrima Academy was the first and at that time the only school teaching the otherwise underground martial art back in the 1960s, when Latosa was a teenager.

“As a young kid of 16 or 17 I thought I was great, I thought I was wonderful. So when I needed to do a demo with the school I asked my dad to help me and be a dummy,” said Latosa, now a retiree of 66 living in Santa Rosa. “It went downhill from there.”

His dad said, “Hit me.” But the teenager, hesitated, afraid of hurting his dad. Instead, he was the one who wound up on the ground. His father, Juan Latosa, was like the tribal elder and leader of the Filipino community, a organizer who made sure everyone's needs were met at a time when many were doing farm and labor work. But Rene knew little about his early life before he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s.

The older man couldn't describe or deconstruct what he did, except to explain that back in his day, it was not just a sport or art, but part of everyday survival.

As Rene Latosa advanced, his quest to learn more took him back to the Philippines where both of his parents were born, in search of a grandmaster who could help elevate and hone his fighting skills. He searched and searched, asking to be directed to the best teacher. And finally, after traveling 7,000 miles, was told to simply, “Go home.”

The master, they said, was his own father.

Now, Latosa is the grandmaster himself, one of the top 10 Escrima grandmasters in the world. For years he has traveled to Europe to teach his own special techniques, developed while boxing for the Air Force in the 1970s. In 2013 he was inducted into the Philippine Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

Latosa speaks softly and projects a gentleness, which is not without strategy.

“It takes the strain off of a very aggressive person. It brings it down,” he said.

Latosa moves slowly, with intention. Watching him work out in a boxing gym in a Railroad Square warehouse, you would never guess this graying grandfather of five is a man you don't want to mess with.

Earlier this year he was recruited for the History Channel show “Forged in Fire: Knife or Death.” He didn't make the cut past the first round, in which contestants, armed many metalsmiths with an array of bladed weapons, slice their way through an obstacle course of everything from wood and sandbags to animal carcasses. But he took on the challenge as a way to lift himself out of depression after losing his Fountaingrove home - and a lifetime collection of knives and swords - in last October's firestorm.

“I wanted to show I can go above a devastating loss,” he said over coffee after his daily workout. “I could have just taken the loss and said, ‘Forget about everything.' It was a lot of trauma and I had lost weight. I had just crashed down and needed something to motivate me back up. I thought maybe I could do this,” he said.

Although he had lost his home gym and was living with his wife, Coleen, in their daughter's converted garage until they could rebuild their home in lower Fountaingrove, he started working out, gained weight and sent away for a knife.

He figures he was the oldest to appear on a testosterone-fueled show where most of the contestants appear to be well under 50. Many contestants make their own blades and practice heavily with them. But Latosa, wanting to approximate a street experiences of facing whatever comes, went into the first round cold.

“The idea was as Filipino martial artists we should be able to do anything with anything,” he said.

Although he barely got a glint of airtime, the experience helped him break through and get back into the groove. This summer he was able to return to Europe to teach, just as he has for decades.

Escrima is also known as Arnis and Kali, as well as a multitude of other names among the 5,000 islands of the Philippines, where different islands developed their own variations.

For several hundred years it was a closely guarded secret. After colonizing the Philippines in the early 16th century, the Spanish were threatened by the natives' sharp fighting skills. Fearful of a revolt, they banned the martial arts, so the natives took it underground.

“They had to learn it in secret, so that's how it became a very secret art. They hid it in the Filipino dances,” Latosa said.

His own father lied to his parents to learn. Juan Latosa told them he was going to college in the city. Instead, he went to the mountains to train in a secret location.

He and other Filipino immigrants kept it under wraps, like a hidden arsenal, even after settling in the U.S.

“This was their ammunition if anything went wrong,” Latosa said. At the time Filipinos were segregated and subject to discrimination and abuse.

“They couldn't go anywhere without being hassled. They worked in the fields and could be tormented by the people who came from the Dust Bowl during the Depression and wanted those jobs. There were drive-by shootings, Latosa explained.

The result is that he was not taught in any conventional way.

“There never was a class. Angel, the guy who opened the school, never believed in formal classes. You can't learn that way. You have to learn one on one to make sure you understand.” Different men, few with an education beyond fifth grade, would come by, individually, and teach him what they knew.

“They all knew my dad. He was the president of the community. They were proud of the fact I was doing it. Most of them died bringing their systems to the grave,” he said, wincing.

But while serving in the Air Force in Europe he began to teach, passing on what he had learned, and serving, through classes and writing, as a pioneer in bringing Escrima finally out of the shadows.

Over the years he developed his own singular system, which brings together the disparate moves and styles from throughout the Philippines. He teaches basic common principles within the system such as balance, speed, power, focus and transition. In a real life street experience, conditions will differ, so being ingrained with these principles is the foundation to responding most effectively, he maintains.

Other martial arts teach hand combat first and then weapons. But Escrima is different, he explained, beginning first with sticks and knives.

Latosa went on to get a degree in behavioral science from the University of San Francsico. For years he was the director of procurement for the federal General Services Administration in San Francisco. He later worked as a deputy director of procurement for San Francisco's Housing Authority, where he applied the mental skills he learned in the martial arts to effectively negotiate and administrate, all while living a double life. Every vacation he traveled to Europe to teach Escrima.

He moved to Santa Rosa years ago to raise his three daughters now ranging in age from 30 t0 37.

Although he has stood up to many an opponent in the ring, last October's raging fires threatened to get the better of him. He was in Europe when the firestorm tore through Fountaingrove. His wife Coleen managed to get out. But until their home is rebuilt they have been living in their daughter's converted garage in Rincon Valley. He lost his Porsche, his in-home gym where he worked out, his stamp and coin collections and his sword and knife collection. He has slowly been replaced the latter; admirers have sent him knives at well. But it's been a slow journey back.

He teaches at local martial arts schools and in seminars and workshops all over. He feels a calling to pass on his knowledge, just as it was passed down to him. And he has been instrumental in introducing Escrima into the United States. Now he is the elder and it's his turn.

“I felt I had to do it, spreading my culture and making sure that it is passed down. The Philippines are such a small dot in the world. My desire is to make sure the marital art that I do is not exploited. I wanted to have roots and an understanding in the traditions and everything that came with the art. It's not just a peripheral art that goes with another art. There's pride in this culture. There's history.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204.

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