It's appropriate that the phoenix should be considered as a mascot for Shaolin U.S.A. because of what the studio has been through. A little more than a year ago it burned to the ground in the fire that destroyed the old Fox Theater in downtown El Centro.
"We lost everything," said Jesus Nuñez, owner of Shaolin U.S.A. and a fifth-degree black-belt instructor. "A lot of the kids were crying. They had tears in their eyes."
Slowly, though, like the legendary phoenix, Shaolin U.S.A. has risen from the ashes.
"Little by little we've put it back together again," Nuñez said.
Thanks to a lot of hard work from Nuñez, students, parents and local businesses, the martial arts studio is thriving. Today there are more than 80 students learning kung fu or tai chi chuan.
More than three dozen gathered Saturday night, along with friends and family, for exams to see if they learned enough over the preceding months to advance to the next level, or colored belt.
"He has done a lot for the students here," Regina Villanueva said of Nuñez before getting ready to take her exam. "You sure can see a lot of happy faces."
It's taken a while to get those faces smiling again.
Shaolin U.S.A. was a modest martial arts studio when it was formed about three and a half years ago. It was near the intersection of State and Seventh streets in El Centro and boasted around 20 students.
About a year and a half ago it moved to a new location next to the Fox Theater. Shortly after the move the fire destroyed the studio.
"We didn't have classes for a month or two after that," Nuñez said.
During the hiatus Nuñez met with the parents of his students, who were more than willing to help him find a new location.
Nuñez received offers from local businesses to use their places as a studio. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization in El Centro offered use of its facilities. Another Valley martial arts instructor, Nabil Noujaim, offered his studio to Nuñez.
"He was the only one," Nuñez said, noting no other martial arts instructor offered to help. "For that I am forever grateful to (Noujaim)."
As it turned out Nuñez didn't need Noujaim's offer. He and his students' parents found a vacant building on Broadway where the studio is now located.
"It took a lot of hard work to get it ready," Nunez said.
Nuñez and his supporters painted the inside and outside, installed new carpet and set up areas where parents could visit while watching their children learn kung fu.
"It was really neat to see," Nunez said. "The parents all came together and helped."
Neat perhaps, but not totally unexpected. That's because Nuñez takes pride in promoting family involvement.
Recently Nuñez began offering a special family program. When one student from a family pays for lessons, the rest of the family gets to come to class and learn for free.
"We're the only studio in the Valley offering this," Nuñez said.
It doesn't matter if there are two children or 10 in the family, only one pays, he said.
And it's not just the children encouraged to take lessons. Mom and Dad also are invited.
"We have quite a few parents taking lessons," Nuñez said, Villanueva, a green belt, being one.
When Shaolin U.S.A. began offering its family plan, its student list more than tripled, Nuñez said, to its current 80. The age of the students ranges from 4 to over 50.
Nuñez teaches Shaolin kung fu, which in a Chinese form of karate.
"It's very different from most other forms of karate," Nuñez said.
The basic moves are the same, he said, but it stresses more self-defense.
Most karate stresses power moves. Shaolin kung fu is more graceful.
"It has more ballet-type moves," Nuñez said.
There are not many studios in the area that offer kung fu like Shaolin U.S.A., Nuñez said. There is one in Calexico and another in Mexicali.
Nuñez offers martial arts classes from 3-9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays.
He also offers tai chi chuan at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 a.m. Saturdays. He has 18 young adults taking the classes, designed "to bring harmony to our internal organs."
His family classes at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays are his favorites.
"It's really beautiful to see everyone coming together," he said. "We have quite a mix, Korean, Mexican, American families.
"We truly are one great big happy family," he added.
In keeping with the theme of promoting family spirit, Shaolin U.S.A. will host a picnic this weekend for everyone involved in its martial arts and tai chi chuan programs.
Nuñez would like to see more martial arts studios in the Valley offer some type of program for families. He noted years ago martial arts used to be a big hit but gradually interest waned.
"My vision is to help other studios in the Valley get started in family programs," he said. "When the time is right I will approach them with my idea. We need to grow together."
Just like the legendary phoenix Nuñez would like to see martial arts prosper.
For more information about Shaolin U.S.A. call 353-4141.