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.