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Out Of The Shadows

You’ve got to earn Mike del Mar’s trust. A master of the Filipino martial art of escrima, a fighting form that combines the use of weapons such as sticks and knives with karate-like chops and thrusts, del Mar knows that each student is a potential lethal weapon.

So he studies each prospective pupil, gets to know them in social settings, gauges whether they are capable of loyalty, respect, discipline.

“I do it because once you give away the knowledge, you can’t take it back,” he says.

He is one of several local masters of escrima who are breaking with a long tradition of secrecy to teach a new generation of Filipinos a part of their culture in order to help preserve it.

For most martial arts, a fearful reputation is an invaluable promotional tool. But for escrima it has been something of a curse.

The Spanish colonizers of the Philippines so feared escrima, also known as kali, arnis, or by its alternate spelling eskrima, that they banned it. It went underground where it became a dark secret, notorious for the “death matches” that settled disputes between proponents of competing styles.

It came to Hawaii with the plantation workers but couldn’t shake the old reputation. A bloody 1948 public match in Honolulu between two noted masters so appalled authorities that a ban on such bouts quickly followed.

Kali, an early form of escrima, grew out of the frequent warfare between the peoples of the Philippines. Deadly attacks could descend on villages without warning, so kali largely skipped the ritual and empty-handed forms of combat characteristic of other martial arts and got right to teaching one how to wield a stick, a spear, a wooden sword or whatever else was at hand.

A chieftain named Lapulapu is said to have used kali to slay the explorer Magellan during a skirmish near Cebu in 1521.

But the later Spanish ban and the Philippines’ island geography caused the art to splinter into a confusing array of subtly different styles. A desire to protect the secrets of each “school” caused different masters to restrict instruction. Disputes over which school was best — fed by a healthy dose of Filipino machismo — were settled in bloody and often deadly duels.

This secretive legacy carried over into its introduction to Hawaii and the Mainland, primarily around Stockton, Calif., home of a large Filipino immigrant community. By the early 1970s escrima was in danger of suffocating itself in the United States, so several masters in Hawaii and California began teaching it openly in hopes of keeping it alive.

But the old ways die hard.

Much of the escrima still taught in Hawaii is passed on behind closed doors or, in keeping with tradition, in secluded outdoor areas on moonlit nights. Many oppose the new openness. As a result, escrima remains an enigma to many.

Eric Padilla, an instructor with the Hawaii Filipino Martial Arts School, conducted an informal survey of about 100 Filipinos not long ago, asking what they knew about escrima. The vast majority knew nothing.

Donald Mendoza of the Tobosa school says he searched for years for an instructor before finding late master Raymond Tobosa through a chance encounter in the 1980s. Other students tell similar stories of long, frustrating searches for a guro or master.

“It’s been dying out as many of the old masters pass away, so we’re feeling some pressure now to pass it on ourselves,” says Padilla.

“We need to get Filipinos to come together to perpetuate this art. If the Japanese and Chinese can do it for their martial arts, why can’t we?”

There are signs of hope.

A group of local schools including del Mar’s, the Tobosa school, and the Escrima Academy of Hawaii run by del Mar’s wife, Joey, have joined forces in a loose alliance in recent years to promote the art, staging a full-contact tournament each year. The next is set for July 27.

The competition is a far cry from the death matches of the past. Heavy protective gear is worn, moves such as blows to the neck or knee are outlawed and, when swords or knives are used, their edges are heavily blunted.

“We’ve had to water escrima down to keep it alive,” says Mendoza, who remembers Tobosa turning off the lights as his pupils drilled with long knives in close quarters, a tactic aimed at sharpening their senses and technique.

“You can’t do that kind of thing today. Nowadays the emphasis is on safety.”

The experience has been invaluable in providing a structured, competitive outlet for students, del Mar says. The alliance, which also has a Web site, has even taken students to California in recent years, where they have fared well against fighters up there.

Pat Amantiad, head guro of the Hawaii Filipino Martial Arts School, another member of the alliance, says a new generation of more open-minded instructors bodes well for the art. He nods at Padilla as the stout Gulf War veteran leads his class, which has several non-Filipino students, through a series of lethal-looking knife thrusts at the Beretania Community Center.

Demonstrating how an escrima-trained woman might use something as simple as a pair of keys to ward off an attacker, Amantiad also sees escrima as a potential force for good. He dreams that the cultural pride it could engender might help improve crime-bedeviled places like Kalihi and other areas where Filipinos are concentrated.

Either way, he says he and others are determined to keep escrima out in the open to ensure that this unique slice of Filipino culture gets a steady supply of nourishing sunlight.

“There are some here in Hawaii who think escrima should still be practiced only in secret, by a full moon,” he says. “I have to explain to them that this is not like the old days. “We can’t afford to hide anymore.”

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