WATCH: From poverty to prosperity: How a Chicago man uses his troubled past to impact young lives

Christopher Marquez and his youth students at Y.O.U. Fitness
Christopher Marquez, far left, welcomes students from the ASPIRA Business and Finance High School to physically train them in preparation for their new athletic programs. (Christopher Marquez/INSTAGRAM)

By Caleb Nixon
Medill Reports

At Y.O.U. Fitness in Humboldt Park, owner Christopher Marquez is all about family. He welcomes clients through his doors by offering memberships, individual sessions, group classes and yoga. However, that family recently expanded after hiring two new trainers and inviting a group of youth from the ASPIRA Business and Finance High School to train them for their newly founded athletic programs. Marquez uses his past experiences to motivate his community and, more significantly, mentor young individuals navigating the same neighborhood where he grew up.


Christopher Marquez: Everybody already knows my door will always be open for you guys. That will never stop. I don’t care how old you are. I hope to God that as you guys continue to walk in here, you guys keep walking in here more progressive every day than you did the opposite way. I don’t want to see any of you guys settle. That’s not what I want for anybody in here.

Caleb Nixon: Christopher Marquez is the owner and master trainer at Y.O.U. Fitness, but when you step inside his doors, those titles change.

Agustin Fantauzzi: I see Coach Chris as like a cool uncle that, like, you could stop by, you could talk to him about whatever, and he’ll be there to listen.

Marilyn Laboy: He’s a trainer, he’s a coach, he’s a mentor, he’s our to-go person when we’re feeling down, when we feel like we’re not motivated because of personal stuff.

Elijah Rivera: He’s a father figure for me, honestly.

Nixon: The unique bond inside this fitness center is one to behold: one that emphasizes openness and unity. Cinthya Deleon experienced that firsthand when she and her partner Sam were hired as the gym’s newest trainers.

Cinthya Deleon: He’s always saying, you know, like, come in, whatever you want. This is your home. He has a wall where he puts everybody’s names on there. He had us write our name there, like the second time we came.

Nixon: Y.O.U. Fitness offers one-on-one workouts, group classes, yoga and memberships. However, where Chris Marquez thrives most, where everything comes full circle for the 47-year-old, is in his work with the youth.

Fantauzzi: It amazes me that he’s been through that much and he still is the way he is, how energetic, how awesome he is.

Marquez: I am a product of the foster care system. As a child, I went through the foster care system. I’ve done a stint homeless alone in San Diego, for a small stint at a young age of 12. From the outside, you look at me and I looked like everything that wasn’t going to make it.

Nixon: Fifteen years later, that perception never changed.

Marquez: I’ve been pretty successful in my life, in my jobs and my career and what I’ve done. But that other side, that nightlife, that party life, the things I was doing, shows the toxicity of how I felt about myself because I wasn’t managing myself well. I was almost 300 pounds, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, I smoked weed, I was drinking.

Nixon: His friend and business partner Ben Vazquez witnessed this side of Marquez more than anyone else.

Ben Vazquez: So, we had a big mirror in our apartment, and we were going out one day. He walked past the mirror, and then he went back and he’s like, “Am I that big?” And I’m like, “Dude, yeah, like you haven’t noticed.” And he’s like, “no.” And that was the first time I saw the light clicked in his head. It was almost as if he realized that something is going wrong.

Nixon: The two lived together when Marquez began to change his life. Vazquez recalls his roommate starting a routine of waking up at 2 a.m. to work out, going to his job after and being in bed by 7 p.m. All of this for no improvements.

Marquez: Why are you waking up still unhappy? You lost pounds. You look great. Everybody’s giving you. What are you unhappy about? I still wasn’t, I was still blaming people. I was still in this rut where everything around me was everybody else’s fault. And I think that a lot of us suffer from that identity crisis, right? That we’re not sure who we are. We’re too busy blaming everybody and everything when the solution is always right in front of us. Control the controllable, and I wanted to start to do that. So as Y.O.U. Fitness started to become Y.O.U. Fitness, it really was me. It was me against me.

Vazquez: He took the word “motivation” out, and he put “determination” into his vocabulary. So he was determined to transform his life.

Nixon: Their business has been up and running for about a year-and-a-half, but within the last nine weeks, that business has become a second home for students at the ASPIRA School of Business and Finance, located in Humboldt Park, the neighborhood that both Vazquez and Marquez grew up in.

Fantauzzi: Coming from outside of school, like if you got a bad environment at home or somewhere, you come here, it’s like a fresh breath of air. You come in here, nobody’s judging you, we’re all like family, we talk to each other, chat with each other, listen to music, work out, it’s cool. It’s a whole different environment from outside.

Vazquez: So, I remember when we started looking back into this community, we wanted to put our flag on this community and say we’re going to be a positive space that we could take young people and give them a whole different experience.

Nixon: Marquez trains the students for sports programs that were just recently created at their high school, but his favorite part of the interaction stems from outside the weight room.

Marquez: We’re losing communication in our youth. We’re losing the ability to communicate with them, and that’s a problem. Whenever I get a chance to give them one of my experiences or, even better yet, take one their experiences of theirs and shuffle it and break it down to a point where they’re like, “Ahh, that makes a lot of sense,” I laugh. I’m like, “Good, so are we going to do it again?” “No, sir.” And that’s the beauty of it, is to watch the potential grow. Watching the seed that you plant slowly start to grow, that’s the best feeling I get when I work with youth.

Nixon: The partnership has also motivated the kids to follow in Marquez’ footsteps.

Rivera: The new program that he’s going to open up, the nonprofit organization, I want to work there. I want to be incorporated in it.

Nixon: Opening a nonprofit organization is just one goal Marquez has for Y.O.U. Fitness, something that will continue allowing him to impact the lives of the youth in a way he never experienced.

Marquez: I don’t know who I would be if my mom didn’t burn me with an iron that day when I was 5. I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t go through foster care and fight so many kids. I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t meet my foster father and who I would be if I wasn’t homeless, with all of those different cultures. Those definitely define me. My ability of self-adaptation and to adapt in any environment is because I went through all of those different spots at a young age with nobody to hold my hand. I love the fact that I have that in me. It’s the one thing I think these kids see in me is that I don’t know how to say something that I don’t feel or think.

Nixon: Another goal includes expanding facilities into the remaining open areas in the building, both for educational and physical development — an expensive aspiration, but one that continues developing the purpose that Marquez found not so long ago.

Marquez: I have never made so little money in my life. I never, the moment I became an entrepreneur, I became broke. I’ve never been happier in my life.

Nixon: His happiness and energy has transformed Y.O.U. Fitness into more than just a gym, a place that his trainers, clients and students call home.

Nixon: For Medill Reports in Humboldt Park, I’m Caleb Nixon.

Caleb Nixon is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on X, Instagram and TikTok @calebnixonmedia.