The sound of the speed bag echoed through the gym.
It was 1964 in Los Angeles, and a then 10-year-old Richard Lopez wandered into the gym on his way home from school to watch boxers train. The bullies at school had been relentless, beating him up every day in the school yard and stealing his lunch cash.
“I just started coming to watch,” said Lopez, now 64. “One day a coach saw me sitting there and started to show me some moves.”
Soon his new coach wanted to put him in the boxing ring. He entered the ring, nervous. When he turned around, he discovered his opponent to be the same ringleader of the bullies at school. Lopez was beaten — again.
“The coach felt sorry for me, but after more coaching he put me back in the ring with the same guy,” said Lopez. “As soon as the bell rang, I ran up and started punching. The coach had to pull me off him and that guy never bothered me again — but I was sure to never use my boxing skills to be a bully.”
Years passed. At 15, Lopez became a father. At 17, he started to run with local gangs and was shipped off to live with an aunt in Geyserville to stay out of trouble.
“I came here with the idea I could get my own (gang) turf,” said Lopez. Instead, he found a place where he didn’t have to look over his shoulder.
“I felt free and I didn’t have to keep looking behind my back,” said Lopez. “I had freedom to walk around, enjoy the country, go downtown and didn’t have to worry.”
He went back and forth between L.A. and Sonoma County for a while. After he came out of a Safeway with his toddler daughter one day and a man swung a machete in front of them, he decided it was time to move his family north for good.
“I looked at Sonoma County as a safe zone for me, so I came back,” said Lopez.
He got a job with the city of Santa Rosa, working first for the Water Utilities department and then for Parks and Recreation. He married his wife, Maria Lopez, in 1984.
He still loved boxing and did it on the side. Around 1990, a drive-by gang shooting occurred in Roseland and disturbed Lopez.
“I said to the city — ‘you guys have to do something,’” said Lopez. “A friend of mine from the Chamber of Commerce told me: ‘You do something.’ That’s when I started getting a heart to make a difference.”
Lopez didn’t think he had the vision or talent to be a catalyst for change. But he could box. He only had a single-car garage, but he decided to start inviting kids to come box in it.
“He used to have a single-car garage and this dead minivan in it,” said Alex Ventura, a former student of Lopez’s. “Every time we’d push his dead minivan out of the garage and just had two speed bags and two punching bags.”
Kids kept coming to the garage. Eventually, it became a two-car garage. Neighbors complained and so they were able to get a small space on Dutton Avenue. In 2005, Lopez spoke at a Rotary Club meeting and a Salvation Army captain chased him out the door to chat.
In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.