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Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon, Dalia “La Pantera” Gomez takes over one of the tennis courts at San Antonio Park in East Oakland to run an outdoor boxing camp for children.

“Right, uppercut! And make sure to keep your masks on!” she told her students on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

Sitting on one of the benches nearby, Angela Lima watched “Coach G” (as the kids call Gomez) train the group, which includes her daughter and two nieces. Lima found the free youth boxing classes by chance. “I was walking through the park with my sister and the girls and saw her coaching some kids,” Lima told The Oaklandside in Spanish. “I thought she didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t want to go up to her.” But Gomez spotted Lima, and walked over to ask if she wanted her kids to join the camp. 

Lima signed up her daughter and two nieces, and the boxing camp has become a much-needed activity for them during the pandemic. “The kids are learning good skills and how to defend themselves,” she said.

Gomez, originally from Oxnard, moved to Oakland eight years ago. In 2004, she launched Vertical Skillz, a nonprofit that builds young people’s physical, mental, and character strength. Physical training is a big part of Gomez’s program. At the current camp, she is mentoring 16 kids, including four formerly-incarcerated youth.

In addition to running her nonprofit, Gomez also works as a physical education teacher at Elmhurst Middle School in deep East Oakland and previously held the same position at Roots International Academy, another middle school in East Oakland that was shuttered at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. 

It was Gomez’s own trials and tribulations as a youngster that inspired her to help youth navigate the world. At the age of 21, while attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington on a basketball scholarship, Gomez was arrested for a DUI by campus police. The incident caused her to lose her scholarship and get kicked off the team.

“It was devastating. Here I was, this little girl from Oxnard who was going to be the first one in her family to graduate from college,” she said. “I remember telling my coach, ‘What if I can prove to you that I can be responsible? Because I can’t go back home.’” Gomez was given a second opportunity, and after a year of working different jobs and boxing at the local YMCA, she proved that the setback would not define her future. 

“Being able to box kept me in shape and it kept me focused,” she said. A year later, her scholarship was reinstated and she was able to rejoin the basketball team and accomplish her goal of being the first one in her family to graduate from college. 

She decided then that she wanted to work with kids, to show them the negative consequences of drinking and driving and making other bad choices. “There is only one way to go when you hit rock bottom,” she said. “And that is vertical.”

After college, she began traveling to campuses across the country to give motivational speeches to students in athletic programs, at youth conferences, and even at juvenile halls. 

Years later, Gomez found herself trying to leave a long-term relationship while she lived in Santa Rosa. One day, during a walk to help her clear her head, she found a boxing gym that was looking for a youth coach. “At that moment, I felt like I was put there for a reason,” she said. She started boxing again and mentoring kids, much like she did when she was rebuilding her life after her DUI, only this time to rebuild from the aftermath of a breakup.

The following year, in 2012, Gomez moved to Oakland to work at a boxing gym and run a youth program similar to the one in Santa Rosa. “I moved to Oakland with $50 in my pocket,” she said. At the same time, Gomez was continuing her own boxing career, winning several tournaments including the California Golden Gloves tournament, Puerto Rico vs. California championship, and the Beautiful Brawlers championship. 

Even as her own boxing career advanced, Gomez knew she wanted to continue helping youth, and hoped to one day start her own boxing camp. The opportunity presented itself at San Antonio Park.

“I was living right there on 21st Avenue and Sonoma Way, right by the park,” Gomez said. Her view of San Antonio Park—neglected by the city but a popular hangout among neighbors—gave her a vision. “I decided that I wanted to do more with Vertical Skillz, do more things for the community,” she said. “I started training kids and adults at the park and at the lake.”

In July, Gomez hosted a Black and brown “wellness gathering” at San Antonio Park for young people of color to navigate systemic racism and learn about restorative justice. The event coincided with the civil unrest that took place last summer after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. 

San Antonio Park has been an integral part of the Chicano Movement in Oakland. On July 26, 1970, the park hosted a massive rally and protest against the Vietnam War, now known as the Chicano Moratorium. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the park was popular with lowrider car owners who would cruise up and down Foothill Boulevard in their candy-colored hotrods. The park was also the hub for Oakland’s Cinco de Mayo Festival, which would begin with a parade of floats down International Boulevard, which culminated at the park. The festival grew in size so much that it was moved to Fruitvale in 2000. But an event commemorating Xicana (Chicano) Moratorium Day continues to be held at the park every summer in August. 

Despite its significance, San Antonio Park has suffered from years of neglect. Its tennis courts are cracked and the lamp posts that are supposed to illuminate it at night don’t work. The grass is overgrown with muddy potholes, and the bathrooms are rarely cleaned. 

Sean Maher, a public information officer for the city, said in an email to The Oaklandside that the city does not set aside funding for individual parks. Rather, each park is maintained under one budget, and San Antonio Park receives routine maintenance including seasonal mowing, litter pickup, and general landscape upkeep.

Gomez felt that more could be done by the community to improve the park, so in November she took over one of the tennis courts and set up a giant tent filled with boxing equipment and lights. “I bought the canopy for $1,000 and put it up on November 14,” she said. She even paid to get the chain-link fence surrounding the tennis courts repaired. 

To donate to Vertical Skillz youth camp:

Venmo: @verticalskillz

PayPal: goverticalskillz@gmail.com

Send check to:

Vertical Skillz Outreach

490 Lake Park Ave #10842

Oakland, CA 94610

Technically, her training camp in the park is against city rules. But Gomez figured it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission from the city. On Dec. 2, she had a meeting with District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas and made her case for being able to stay in the park.

“I showed her a whole PowerPoint presentation of all of the work that I’ve done with youth and how I’m improving the conditions at the park,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that she’s aware that we are doing a good thing.” 

According to Gomez, the meeting with Bas went well. Gomez said she intends to continue operating the camp from the makeshift structure. In December, Gomez’s tent served as the drop-off location for a holiday toy drive by the National Brown Berets (Oakland unit) and coordinated by the local youth development organization Homies Empowerment.

In an email to The Oaklandside, Bas wrote: “While I cannot approve city permits or authorize specific park programs as a City Councilmember, I am supportive of Vertical Skillz programs which empower our communities and offer positive experiences at our parks for young people.” Bas also said the city is drafting a master plan for the park, and that she’s eager to hear from residents in the neighborhood about programming and capital improvements there, and about other ways to better utilize outdoor space and provide recreational access during the pandemic.

But not everyone appreciates Gomez’s pop-up training camp for kids. A couple of weeks ago, she was made aware of a post on the neighborhood app, NextDoor. A neighbor wrote complaining about the tent, writing that “they are smoking, and doing whatever else in there.” Gomez reached out to the person who wrote the post and explained that no one involved with her program is smoking in the tent and that it’s actually a place for young people to learn about health and wellness. She provided the original poster with her contact information so the neighbor could follow up if they had any questions.

“Real talk, you build relationships and community by coming to ask,” said Gomez. “If the neighbor was concerned with the safety at the park, why not come ask me?’”

Gomez said she plans to continue her work with Oakland youth.

“I am not from here, but my heart has been here for many reasons,” she said. “I’ve been baptized by the youth and the community. You don’t get that gift without understanding or respecting the history of the town.”

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.