In a small mini-mart tucked between a Korean night club and kitchen appliance store, 25-year-old Lenno Cruz Dominguez stands behind an elevated counter, greeting customers with a “how’s it going” and a smile.
Dressed in a t-shirt with closely shaved hair, he moves energetically from cash register to counter as he chats freely with his customers. Cheerful and laid back, his confidence and attentiveness are perhaps the only signs that there is more to this friendly store clerk than meets the eye; Dominguez, as it turns out, has a black belt in taekwondo, which is the highest belt one can earn in this form of Korean martial art.
Born in San Jose, Calif., Dominguez started learning taekwondo when he was five years old. The mini-mart he works in, J&P Mini-Market, located just north of the Olympic Boulevard and Western Avenue intersection, is owned by his uncle and cousin. Dominguez, who lives nearby, helps out whenever he can, but he spends most of his time teaching taekwondo with his father and younger brother in South Los Angeles.
As a Latino, Dominguez’s taekwondo skills are not exactly apparent or expected, and he says he would rather keep it that way.
“I don’t like to tell people that I do taekwondo, because some people try to provoke me… Why should I stoop down to your level? I try to be the bigger man and walk away, try to be a pacifist,” he said.
Dominguez says taekwondo has always been an important part of his life, and he loves it because it makes him more patient and disciplined. His 20-year-old brother Brandon Cruz Dominguez also has a black belt, and taekwondo is a passion they inherited from their father, Lucio Cruz Vasquez, who has been learning and teaching taekwondo for 32 years.
Vasquez, who is now 52 years old, moved from Oaxaca, Mexico to San Jose with his sons’ mother in 1982. Young and poor, he was being supported by his brother who lived there, and he says he was intent on learning boxing so he could raise his family out of poverty.
“I wanted to box because my family was poor in Mexico…we had no way, no chance to progress,” he says.
When he arrived in San Jose, however, the city was still small and he could not find anyone to teach him how to box. His spirits crushed, he says he cried for days, but then his brother took him to see an old Chinese martial arts movie and that was when he realized that his true passion was in martial arts. His brother helped him pay for taekwondo classes taught by a local Korean grandmaster, and Vasquez never looked back.
“I loved [martial arts], I had to do it… I had no job, no money, but I started learning and I
kept trying,” Vasquez says.
Vasquez took taekwondo classes six days a week while working at the San Jose Country
Club, and he earned his black belt 17 years later. During that time, his two sons were born, and he started teaching them taekwondo as soon as they were old enough.
After spending a few years in Oaxaca where Vasquez taught the local children taekwondo, the family moved to Los Angeles, and the two sons now live in Koreatown where their mother also lives. Vasquez lives in South Los Angeles, where he works for the City teaching children taekwondo in two neighborhood parks. Vasquez teaches the younger students, while his sons teach the older students.
Vasquez says taekwondo teaches children respect and discipline, which can transform the lives of not just the children but their families, as well. Lenno Dominguez agrees, adding that it keeps kids off of the streets and out of trouble. Perhaps the most practical of the three, Brandon Dominguez notes that teaching taekwondo is also a good source of income.
Within the next year or so, Vasquez hopes to open his own taekwondo school, or dojang, in South Los Angeles. When he retires, he plans to leave the dojang in his sons’ care and move back to Oaxaca, where he hopes to open another dojang.
For Vasquez, a lifelong passion has now turned into a source of father’s pride.
“Seeing my boys do taekwondo is my dream,” he says. “I like it, they like it, that’s why I’m so happy.”