After a tearful night spent reflecting on his sacrifices, Alvaro Tautiva faced the fact that he had to close his martial arts academy.
It was July of 2020. Only two years earlier, he had finally realized his dream of opening AT JiuJitsuNYC in Jackson Heights, right on Northern Boulevard, where he grew up and still lives. His father, wife, and two young daughters had helped paint and plaster the studio before it opened, and friends had helped with plumbing and electrical work. In what he calls “the beautiful grind” to support his family and his fledgling business, he worked nights as a doorman on the Upper East Side, his lost sleep taking a harder toll on his body than any blows he endured in jiu-jitsu matches. His hard work began paying off in 2019: his school had 120 members, and business was good enough that he made plans to quit his night job the following year.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the city and Governor Cuomo ordered non-essential businesses to close, Alvaro could no longer hold classes in his studio. While some loyal members kept paying fees, membership – his main source of income – dropped more than 70%. “We had loans and credit cards to pay off. We were hemorrhaging money,” he said. By July, the academy had only 25 members, his annual $30,000 real estate taxes payment was overdue, and he saw no way to keep his business afloat. "Thinking of all the work not just me, but my friends and family put into the place - it was despair."
Alvaro told his landlord that he had to give up the studio. “Fine,” his landlord replied. “Can I paint over your sign?” The following morning, a fresh coat of paint covered the “AT JiuJitsuNYC” sign and the storefront listing appeared on Craigslist.
That night, Alvaro’s father had a dream. “The dream was a vision. I saw a dark picture, him losing his place and the people who support him here.” Alvaro Tautiva Senior told his son, “You have to stay here.”
In the interview excerpt below, Alvaro explains why this was just what he needed to hear:
Bridget: So then, what did you think when your dad told you about that?
Alvaro: I believe anything my dad says. My dad is, uh, almost been right, kinda scary style. You know, I fight, I’m like, “No, you can’t be right!” Then he’s right. So [laughs]. He’s right! He was right. I needed to stay. He goes, “No, you need to stay here.” And once he gave me the confidence—it sounds kind of corny, like, I needed my daddy to give me the confidence [laughs]. But my dad gave me the confidence, and I just, I believed. I had it in my brain, and he kind of put it into the ether, so I just ran with that.
Alvaro borrowed money from his brother and launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign. He paid half of his real estate taxes, joined a payment plan for the rest, and repainted his sign. Then he started holding outdoor classes one block south of Northern Boulevard, on 34th Avenue.
"We were blessed to be a block away from 34th," said Alvaro. "Doing the classes on Open Streets was the biggest turning point. That has been major."
Since he began outdoor classes in August 2020, passersby took notice and more students joined, bringing him more income. One new student, Oliverio Bosi, 15, who started kickboxing classes in October, said he joined after his parents saw kids practicing while they were out for a walk. “They came home and said, ‘It looks cool, you should try it out.’”
By the fall of 2020, membership climbed to 60 students, and the bulk of Alvaro’s income came from the group classes that met beneath a street lamp on 34th Avenue near 82nd Street. One November evening, students gathered at the median for a kickboxing class. The brick wall of an apartment building rose behind them, lights glowing in the windows. When the instructor, Rocco Giambrone, set up a speaker and started blasting music for the class, a figure appeared at one window, closed it, and receded. Residents and users of 34th Avenue are constantly negotiating the shared space.
With Alvaro assisting, Rocco started the warmups, leading students through squats, lunges, and jumping jacks. "Lift through your heels, keep your back straight! Good!" The students wore sweatpants, hoodies, and leggings, but one student was wearing slippers. Alvaro motioned him over. "What shoe size are you?" He took off his sneakers and gave them to the student, joking, "We better not spread COVID on our feet!"
Even as early winter darkened the days earlier and chilled the air, Alvaro continued holding four outdoor classes a week, and offered free lessons for children. AT JiuJitsuNYC took a break over the winter and resumed outdoor classes in May 2021.
“July was awful! Scary! Depressing!” Alvaro said, remembering 2020. “Thinking, if I can’t make it here in Jackson Heights, when I’m from here, who's gonna make it here? Amazon’s gonna buy everything?”
Alvaro's father and stepmother also own businesses on Northern Boulevard. Here, he reflects on his family's connection to the neighborhood, and his frustration with the challenges small business owners face:
My family has owned a business over here for, I want to say, the better part of twenty years. My father’s business is a block away. And I always wanted to do it on Northern Boulevard. If you’re from Jackson Heights, you know the importance of Northern Boulevard. Northern Boulevard is just kind of like the heart and soul of Jackson Heights residents, I think.
People are really starting to see the importance of supporting local businesses. Like, if every place was a Starbucks and every place was a Target, I think that it takes a lot of the charm from neighborhoods, right? And then, money in the neighborhood stays in the neighborhood, right? Like, I live seven blocks away from the school. You know, and everyone that works there lives in Queens and lives around the neighborhood. That definitely adds value, one to the business, and two, to the community.
And I’m from the community, so I have a good sense of the people, of values of all of us over here. I’m a kid from here. So, if a kid from here can’t succeed in Jackson Heights, then there is a big problem. If somebody from the neighborhood can’t run a successful business in the neighborhood, then what’s the American Dream? The American Dream is to be able to start from your community and eventually grow. Yeah.
Alvaro is making enough to cover rent for the studio, where he teaches private lessons, but has to keep up his night job to cover his own rent. He hopes to hang on like this until the pandemic subsides, and someday make AT JiuJitsuNYC into the kind of community institution he longed for when he was growing up in Jackson Heights.
Published July 2021