What Seniesa felt was more than good: It was unforgettable. She walked over to her father and hugged him.
'Mija, aren't you afraid? he asked as he drove her home to her mother's apartment. You're the only girl out there. Boxing is hard, mama.'
'No, Dad, she said. I'm not afraid.
The little boy Seniesa pummeled never showed up to box again.
The Only Girl in the Place
She was a surprise. I had set out to write the story of a boy, near manhood, full of promise, one step from making it big as a boxer.
I searched the weary Latino neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, scattered with boxing gyms. One was fashioned from an abandoned jail, another from an old building that rose from the street like barracks, another from a run-down church where the pews had been replaced with a large canvas ring, and still another from an old body shop with walls splintered by bullets.
They were filled with young men. Some fought because the boxer, proud, tough and loyal to the craft, was so revered in these parts. Some fought because they had been pushed to turn their machismo into something useful, even if it meant taking blows, countless blows, again and again. Some were tender and some were hard. Some were high school kids with stubble chins, tough nicknames and new tattoos, and some were children as young as 6.
The gyms of East L.A. have produced a long line of great fighters. Paul Gonzales was one. Richie Lemos, world featherweight champion in 1941, was another. The most recent and most famous was Oscar De La Hoya, a world titleholder in six weight classes. But for every fighter who has made himself into a name, scores upon scores have tried and failed. When I stopped by the Hollenbeck Youth Center, I heard about every young man who was training there. I was impressed. Each showed confidence and hustle and hard punches. In a loud, bustling arena that smelled like old socks, I watched for hours, searching for the next De La Hoya.
Then, one day, in late August of 2002, my attention drifted past the boys and past the ring. Over there was a girl, the only girl in the place.
Her fists sliced through the air, and her feet skipped lightly as she punched a heavy bag filled with sand, dangling from a rafter by a chain. Next to her, eyeing every move, stood a thin man wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. Seniesa and Joe. I hadn't imagined this. She was not a teenager, not even a he. I knew that female boxers fought professionally. There were movies about them. But I did not know that girls still in grade school boxed, their eyes fixed on future fame, just like the boys.
Intrigued, I walked over and sat on a wooden box. Joe smiled but didn't say a word. Seniesa worked on a single punch, a round right hook. She peered over her red gloves at the bag. When she was ready, she bent her knees, corked her body, first to the right, then to the left, and let her thin arm release. WHUMP!
Her punches were solid, smooth, well-coordinated, bringing to mind the form of good male boxers. I decided to come back. Soon, I became a regular. As time passed, Seniesa and her father began to confide in me. I learned that this small girl not only wanted to be in the ring, she needed to be there — not just for herself, but for her father as well.
She had challenges far bigger than her next fight. Her neighborhood, for one, where kids got shot for as little as standing on the sidewalk. Her mother, for another, who didn't really want her to box. Her brothers, who always seemed to be on the edge of trouble. And her uncle, a turbulent man who lived close to trouble himself. Her life was filled with unpredictability, sneak attacks, ambushes and obstacles lurking to surprise her.
Even her own father could be a problem. He was an ex-street gangster, ex-doper, ex-convict. He was a father who, for all his goodness with her, was only one more angry confrontation away from going back to prison. Then she would lose him, maybe forever. Still, he towered above everything else in her life. If not for him, she would not be here at this sweaty gym.
But a girl?
I thought she'd quit. What girl could want the loneliness she would find in the shadows of a sport so very male?
Then I listened to the sound: WHUMP!