Kajukenbo Senior Grand Master Emil Bautista illustrates a technique to his students George Higgins, right, and Gabriel Tomboc at Bautista’s Kajukenbo Self-Defense Institute of Vallejo. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)
FAIRFIELD — While attending Armijo High school in the 1950s, Emil Bautista was one of the Pizzarino Boys, a group of standout athletes who loved to pull pranks. No one, least of all Bautista himself, could predict he would one day go from being a high school prankster to a kajukenbo grandmaster.
His transformation came about because of two chance meetings.
In 1961, Bautista was working at Travis Air Force Base, filling vending machines. While refilling one in the gymnasium, he heard hollering and, tracing the sources of the sounds, discovered an instructor, Aleju Reyes, and two airmen, Don Nahoolewa and Richard Peralta, practicing kajukenbo. They invited Bautista to try it out and he accepted.
Bautista trained for months on the base but then the company he was working for lost its contract and getting on base was not such an easy task. Bautista found another job in Vallejo for which he rode the bus from Fairfield. When walking by the old Greyhound bus station on Jefferson Street, he heard the same type of yelling he’d heard on base. It was coming from the kajukenbo school of Tony Ramos. Bautista began to train under Ramos’s tutelage, and in 1966 was promoted to student black belt.
“Kajukenbo was something that no one else around here knew how to do, it was different,” Bautista said.”We all played baseball, basketball and football, but this was not a major activity. At that time there were no kids in it, it was all adults.”
One of the things that initially drove Bautista in his early training was that a member of the Hay Buckers, a group of Future Farmer of America guys who were rivals/friends of the Pizzarino Boys, was in training. Bautista figured since he had played major sports, he could definitely outdo the local hayseed. He watched him and mimicked all his movements.
“Afterward, I died. He had been doing it for six months, but my body was not used to it and I overestimated my abilities,” Bautista said. “I had to brush my teeth by moving my head and not my arm for a while. I learned the lesson that it takes time to build on what you learn.”
Kajukenbo was founded in 1947 when five masters of different styles of martial arts got together in Oahu, Hawaii, to develop a system to deal with the local criminal element. When the Korean War broke out, four of the five martial arts masters were drafted, leaving only Adriano Directo Emperado to carry on the art. He established a school in 1950. Emperado, who died in 2009, is called by the title Sijo, which means founder.
“You’ve heard the term mixed martial arts? Kajukenbo has been a mixed martial art since 1947,” Bautista said. “You have your Korean karate (ka), which is like taekwondo, you’ve got your judo/jujitsu (ju), which is Japanese, you got your kenpo (ken), which is Okinawan, and you’ve got your bo (bo), which is Chinese and American boxing. I teach a variation of everything, but our base is kenpo.”
The technical title for the martial art Bautista teaches is the Kajukenbo system, Emperado method, Ramos style, Bautista influence.
After working out with students in garages or in parks, Bautista opened his school, the Kajukenbo Self-Defense Institute of Vallejo, in 1968 on Benicia Road in a building where an old five-and-dime store had been. It helped him indirectly in his night job years ago.
“I used to tend bar at a jumping night club called the Coronado Inn in Vallejo,” Bautista said. “Sometimes, guys would get drunk and belligerent and I had to settle a lot of disputes. Someone else would point at me and say ‘karate instructor’ and that would be enough.”
As the school’s name states, the instruction is for teaching self-defense, not building bullies.
“We are trying to teach students to protect themselves in case they need to. We teach survival for themselves and their families,” Bautista said. “At tournaments, if students win, I am a good teacher. If they lose, I’m still a good teacher because they lose gracefully. I want them to be better people.”
As he became more proficient in his craft, Bautista was awarded higher levels of belts and titles and became a ninth-degree Grandmaster in 1999.
“There are 10 degrees in kajukenbo; Sijo Emperado is the 10th degree and so if I went to 10th, then I am equal to him, and I’m not,” Bautista said. “He’s the one who started this system, so why should I claim to be equal to him? At one time, he was a sixth and seventh degree, but as he progressed, we progressed.”
In kajukenbo, respect, loyalty and humility are as important as learning blocks and kicks. On June 29 in San Diego, enthusiasts will meet to compete in a tournament, fellowship and pay tribute to their founder.
Before he died, Emperado set up a board of directors, of which Bautista is a member, and in 1993 Emperado awarded a certificate to Bautista, stating that his school was the Northern California Headquarters of the Kajukenbo Self Defense Institute Inc.
Now in his 44th year at the same spot in Vallejo, Bautista uses handshakes and his word instead of now-standard business practices.
“I do not have contracts — there are some places that you sign a contract and if you don’t come there six months later they will come after you for the money, but that is not true at my place,” Bautista said.
Students range in age from preteen to early 60s. Over the years they have done demonstrations at the Solano County Fair, Dixon May Fair, California State Fair, San Quentin State Prison and other locations. One thing that Bautista finds distasteful is the current fascination with mixed martial arts.
“It’s like the Roman gladiators, audiences go because they want to see blood,” Bautista said. “In kajukenbo, we bow, our execution of moment is more controlled and we wear protective gear. Is all that blood good for our kids to look at? What’s missing is the culture of respect.”
Bautista’s calm, humble demeanor is the antithesis of a preening Ultimate Fighting Champion. He related recently seeing a student, who just became a black belt, performing a certain technique which he realized he had analyzed wrong and by watching her obtained the right perspective on it.
“To me, all being a grandmaster means is that I have more time than you,” Bautista said. “My knowledge is limited like everyone else. I am still learning.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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