Every day 16-year-old Luis packs his sports bag, leaves his home in Burzaco, and travels to Constitución. He walks round the side of the station and makes his familiar journey underground. But Luis isn’t heading for the subte. He will pass through a ‘No Entry’ sign and jog down a rickety staircase, hit by an aroma of sweat and the rhythmic sounds of fists hitting fabric, before reaching his final destination: the underground boxing gym in Constitución station.
Luis wants to be a boxing champion. He is one of 20 young men who travel kilometres along the Ferrocarriles railway every day to arrive in the clandestine Ferrobaires Gimnasio. This is no sleek Palermo gym and Constitución is no Palermo. Above ground, crowds of people shove through the grimy station plaza, heading in to the city centre or out to the provinces while beneath their feet, men and boys jab, punch and sweat to the rhythm of the trains.
This is no ordinary boxing gym. While some come here just to exercise, for others it is a place of refuge. The Ferrobaires Gimnasio is a workshop where men become boxers, turning themselves into something – and someone – different. Under the paternal gaze of trainers Alberto Santoro and Emilio Castillo, boxers submit themselves to gruelling routines, feinting, jabbing, and punching until it is time to head back above ground and start the long journey home again.
“We have a lot of boys coming from La Plata, they travel about 70km by train. Every day boys come here on the train to Constitución, every day,” says Alberto Santoro.
Santoro is the founder of this gym. The greying former boxer watches quietly as young men clatter down the stairs, hugging and kissing each other on the cheek before slinging down their sports bags and assuming their daily positions. There is no pattern to the group that come here to train, and no single motivation bringing them back every day to this subterranean gym.
“There are kids that come from the street to practise,” he says. “We have one boy who came from the streets, and because of us including him here, he is retaking school. They like to come here every day because they can wash. They’ve learnt that they need to wash every day, stay clean, eat, and go to school. You can imagine that this makes us very proud.”
Luis is not from a shantytown. Some of his friends go to school, others don’t, but Luis wants to be different. On Sunday he will fight for the Buenos Aires junior cup in Flores, and today he will continue his daily routine to take him one step closer to his dream.
“I want to be a champion, I train everyday to get somewhere,” he says, slowly winding a reel of white tape around his hands. “I’m in love with boxing.
“I’ve changed a lot since I started. You can’t imagine what I was like before. Before I didn’t know what to do, I’d sit in my house all day. Now I train.”
Training in this gym is about more than just learning to box. From the history professor who trains here, to the boys from the streets, all are part of something more important than exercise, something documentary maker Jakob Weingartner knows a lot about.
Weingartner directed the 2010 documentary ‘Boxeo Constitución’, filmed in the first incarnation of the Ferrobaires Gimnasio in another area of the station. He knows better than most the daily rituals, hopes, and triumphs of Constitución’s underground boxers.
“Many times, when I went down there I felt that either it was like a monastery or like an assembly line,” he says. “Just look at the different stations a boxer has to go through during his training; you reassemble your whole body, and by re-assembling your body, you also re-assemble your identity.”
New boxer, Mariano, is beginning his own re-assembly process next to a faded punch bag. As the three-minute bell rings through the small space, he starts a rhythmic dance, feinting and dodging imaginary opponents. Around him other boxers skip feverishly, staring fiercely into the middle distance while others jab at the punch bags swinging from the low ceiling. After three minutes, the bell will ring again and everyone will move to the next routine.
“Everyone here has a routine,” says 35-year-old Jorge. “Everyone has their own but we all start and finish with the same things.”
Routine and discipline are the most important elements of this gym. This is no basement fight club, full of savage violence. Before a boxer can enter the ring, he must first learn his own body.
“The first thing I teach them is to stop and to walk in a rhythm,” says trainer Emilio Castillo. “I take away their hands, after that, well all the kids are different.”
Castillo is the brother of champion Mario Castillo, whose photos adorn the walls. Like Santoro, he is a former boxer and Ferrobaires rail employee. Both men spend their afternoons in the gym and their mornings above ground, working for the railways, which carry thousands of Argentines to and from the outskirts of the city every day.
The ‘Fraternidad’ union and Ferrobaires train company are central to this gym, and the power structure behind it. It lies in the middle of a darker culture of union politics and political struggles, in which the fighting below ground mirrors a deeper political struggle going on overhead. The original gimnasio featured in Weingartner’s documentary closed following the deadly 2010 Unión Ferroviaria protests and the death of protestor Mariano Ferreyra, leaving Santoro to establish the gym in another part of the underground warren beneath the train tracks. It is hard to escape the feeling that bigger currents of power swirl above this place.
For Santoro, Castillo, and their group of young disciples, however, this gym is a sanctuary from the world above ground. The two trainers are both father figures and friends to their boxers. They know that their chances of making it are slim and that the men in their gym need lives and dreams outside of the world of boxing.
“For the kids that come here, it’s important that they work or they study, apart from boxing. These boys have to have an occupation, though they come here to box.
“Boxing is a sport with a very short life span. If they aren’t prepared for anything else, what are they going to do?” says Santoro.
Weingartner agrees. “Boxers are not stupid, they know that it’s a one in a million shot that you’re going to make it out of the villa just with your fists. They know that Rocky is just a movie.”
Despite this, the men and boys at this gym keep coming back. Maybe because they learn more here than just how to punch. Castillo can’t be sure, but thinking about their future he shrugs and smiles, “I think considering where we are, in this gym, in this area at this time, we’re doing pretty well.”