LOS ANGELES — It was a personal tragedy that led Los Angeles Police Department tactical self-defense instructor Maurice Gomez to what he considers his life's purpose - teaching women to protect themselves, usually for free.
In the summer of 1996, Gomez received a devastating call; his girlfriend had been brutally raped and killed by a stranger who left her on the side of a road. For years, Gomez carried an overwhelming sense of guilt, often contemplating whether the outcome would have been different if he had been there to protect her.
“I put blame on myself because I should have been there,” said Gomez, owner of MG Kenpo Academy in Duarte, California. “Ever since then, it was something I carried inside of me, where I didn’t want anybody to have to feel that."
Almost a decade after the tragedy, Gomez opened the doors to MG Kenpo Academy as owner and chief instructor and in 2010, began offering free specialized self-defense classes for women.
“It was a real point in my journey where I knew this was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Equipped with a fourth degree black belt, Gomez, 38, has witnessed drastic changes and improvements as the women he trains break out of their shells and demonstrate a sense of confidence and strength they never knew existed within themselves.
It doesn’t matter whether one or 20 people show up to the workshop, Gomez says. It’s one more person that has learned what to do when a dangerous situation arises.
“Nothing is more precious than the gift of life. A phone or purse can be replaced. Life cannot,” Gomez told the women attending his last workshop of the year earlier this month.
In recent months, martial arts and self-defense studios have seen a sudden surge in the number of women, minorities, LGBT, enrolling in classes before President-Elect Donald Trump takes office, the Daily Beast reported.
Nelson Nio, owner of Shield Women’s Self Defense in Culver City, told NBC News his company has seen a spike in the number of Latinas and Muslim American women and minorities enrolling in self-defense classes since the election.
“A Latina client told me about the stuff that they went through since the election and I’ve had other minorities [who] also told me stories that they went through after the election,” said Nio.
Gomez, who is Mexican American, grew up in La Puente, California, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Growing up, he was surrounded by gangs and constantly felt it was his duty to step into a “protector role,” often shielding his friends from danger.
Gomez was first exposed to martial arts at the age of 4, a rare novelty that his family couldn’t afford. As he grew older, he begged his father to keep him enrolled in classes.
Years later, Gomez combined his expertise in martial arts with a career in law enforcement. Before entering law enforcement, Gomez worked in IT after graduating with a bachelor’s in computer sciences at UCLA in 2000.
After he was sworn into the department, he became a full-time Law Enforcement Tactical Applications Course instructor as part of the LAPD Tactics Unit, where he helps train new recruits and enhance an officer’s basic skills.
Participants in Gomez’s self-defense workshops are predominantly Latina, though Gomez has said that over the past few years, there has been a steady flow of diverse participants: African Americans and Asian Americans.
“If they remember one thing and learn something that day that they didn’t know before, then I succeeded because it’s one step closer to the empowerment that I’m trying to instill in each and every single guest who steps on that mat,” he said.
At Gomez's last workshop of the year, the women were asked to heel toe their feet, bend their knees, and position themselves in a strong stance, before creating a strong fist and staring into the eyes of an attacker.
Sandy Lopez, one of Gomez’ regular participants and a former coworker, said she began taking self-defense workshops as a way to support a friend and also learn how to defend herself in an unfortunate situation.
“I figured it couldn’t hurt to learn how to defend myself since in this day and age the possibility of being attacked is a lot higher than before. I’m happy knowing that now I’m armed with a few moves that might help me out of a scary situation,” said Lopez.
During the workshop, Gomez stressed the importance of using one’s voice as a defense mechanism to determine someone’s intentions.
“You have a voice, use it. Scream, do whatever you can to breathe through your diaphragm.”
The women were then taught how to throw a regular punch, something that many people have trouble doing because the wrist hasn’t been used in that way unless someone is actively practicing punches, Gomez explained.
As Gomez walks around the room, he asks a participant to guess how much her hand weighs. “Two-to-three pounds, roughly,” she responds. But Gomez’s answer shocks the participants when he says that her hand would weigh as much as her body weight, if not more.
Gomez continued to emphasize the importance of not underestimating the power each person possesses, regardless of size frame or body mass. It’s all about positioning, hip rotation, and throwing the most devastating blow to your attacker because your life is dependent on it, Gomez said.
“When you start realizing how strong you are...when you realize, ‘I have to fight, otherwise I’m going to be taken away,’ something changes inside of you. It was amazing to see what some of these women are capable of doing,” Gomez said.
As the father of two identical 6-month old twin girls and two sons, Gomez has often been asked whether he hopes the twins will follow in his footsteps and train in martial arts when they are older.
“I just hope they grow up to be smart and to be strong, independent women who have the confidence to know that they can take care of themselves," Gomez said. "I don’t expect them to be the next female UFC Champion — honestly, I really don’t want that life for them. But if they choose to have a ‘fighters’ life, I’ll support them in any way they want.”