Teaching the Old Ladies of Puerto Rico Self-Defense (OPINION)

Dec 1, 2022
1:34 PM

An old lady stands in her window in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. (zenobia_joy/CC BY-NC 2.0)

SAN JUAN — They say the only regrets in life are the risks you don’t take.

Living without regrets will sometimes take you to places you shouldn’t go, with people you shouldn’t be with. Sometimes it finds you sitting on a couch with extreme cheddar cheese popcorn, binge-watching a TV series you’ve wanted to see for years.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky, it finds you inside a run-down gymnasium in greater San Juan, working on a show for senior citizens on Puerto Rico‘s public television channel.

The show’s producers gave me notes the night before, and I was looking forward to an exciting day of filming—not that I didn’t look forward to sitting with a banker explaining telephone scams and how to fill out forms if you became a victim of one (another of the show’s themes.) But I knew watching the segment of a martial arts expert teaching septuagenarians how to kick and punch would be exponentially more entertaining.

I had already seen a normally reserved grandmother steal the show with her jokes and life advice during a segment on healthy cooking, and I could imagine what two women prepared to kick some ass would mean for our audience.

I introduced myself to the instructor, a lean, muscular man with a strong New York accent. I wondered if he’d been flown into the island just for the segment. I never asked because when you wake up at four in the morning, you need ways to psyche yourself up for a long day of work.

The instructor had been selected among thousands of martial artists worldwide, just like I’d been chosen from millions of segment directors. The universe brought us together.

He asked if I had any special instructions for him. I told him to pretend the cameras weren’t there and teach these students just like he would any other class. That may have been a wrong directorial decision.

Thankfully, surprisingly, the film went better than I had hoped. The teacher was very passionate about his craft, and the two women selected were willing and capable students.

I knew very little about Krav Maga, but within 10 minutes I learned something I should’ve known ahead of time. More than 80 percent of the self-defense techniques for these elderly women ended with either a kick or a punch in the last place a man wants to be struck. The ladies seemed to enjoy being given carte blanche to kick and punch, and I couldn’t wait to show the producers the footage, confident they’d love it just as much as I did.

But overconfidence is a hell of a drug. After about 15 minutes, one of the producers turned off the editing machine. She wasn’t mad, but she wasn’t thrilled.

She leaned over and smiled. “This is a public television channel,” she told me.

I knew that.

“You’re gonna need to edit out all the times he says ‘balls’ and ‘dick,'” she added.

That part, I should’ve known.

She stepped away and left me with the editor, saying she’d be back in an hour. She could’ve given us a year, which wouldn’t have made a difference. We’d have no segment if we cut out all the “dicks” and “balls”—that’s how you defend yourself, plain and simple.

I never thought I’d find myself begging my bosses to keep references to genitalia and stressing just how important those would be to the senior citizens of Puerto Rico. And yet, there I was, telling them just how many lives we could save.

So what if we said those words? We needed to get over the fact that some people might be offended. We had a responsibility to educate, and sometimes we needed to use strong language to communicate properly. Testicles, tentacles—who the hell cares?

The network censors cared. I lost the fight. A voice actor was brought in to replace the offensive words with something more acceptable.

In hindsight, it doesn’t matter. The island will little note nor long remember what was said in that segment. What does matter —what I’ll never forget about that day— is that we needed to film a segment teaching senior citizens how to defend themselves from attackers.

It takes a special kind of evil to victimize our elders. I mean, it’s evil to victimize anyone, obviously. But it bothers me how the producers, the world-famous martial artist, and I didn’t stop to think about how poorly it reflects on our island that such a segment needed to air in the first place.

So it goes.


Rafael Riera is a screenwriter and producer, born and raised in Puerto Rico and currently living in Los Angeles. He is working on his first novel and is not allowed to talk politics with friends and family.