He knew Paul was right. He watched him run off, across the 1st Street Bridge, toward the downtown skyscrapers peering through the morning fog. Good Lord, he thought, I could have been like Paul. If I didn't love the gangs and the streets and the drugs so much I could have been a boxer.
The reason is burned into his memory and was laid plain at his preliminary hearing. In late 1979, a woman in Aliso Village bolted from her bed. Someone was breaking into her house. As she reached to call the police, a Primera Flats gangster known as Pee Wee pushed a .38-caliber pistol into her face.
Put the phone down, he said. I'll shoot.
She looked up at Pee Wee, then saw Joe. She knew his mother and had known Joe since grade school. I don't know why you are doing this,
Pee Wee demanded her stereo, her TV, her money. Bitch, he said. I will shoot you.
That was more than Joe could take. Hey, Pee Wee, he said. Don't shoot her, I know her family.
From there, Joe's recollection and the woman's differ. Joe said he up and left. But she swore otherwise: Joe and Pee Wee looted her apartment.
To avoid trial, Joe pleaded guilty to robbery. He was already on probation for another stickup. "He cannot function in the community without resorting to criminal behavior," a probation officer told the judge, who sentenced Joe to three years in California State Prison at Susanville.
Prison was tough. He raged and fought to stay alive. But it was good for one thing: It got him off heroin and helped him gain a semblance of self-control.
Back on the streets in time for the 1984 Summer Olympics, Joe stood among the spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena to watch Paul Gonzales in the ring, fighting the way Joe wanted to fight. Gonzales won a gold medal.
Twisting Out of Control
Even before Seniesa was born, her father had a feeling.
He had married Maryann Chavez, a girlfriend from Primera Flats, who stuck by him through all the drugs and prison, and they had two sons. But now, when Maryann got pregnant again, Joe felt deep in his soul that this was a girl.
In anticipation of her birth, he gave her two names: Seniesa, after the daughter of a friend in his gang, and Carmen, after his mother. He crawled on his hands and knees, dousing the bathroom floor with Pine-Sol and using a toothbrush to clean the corners of the nursery where his little angel would sleep.
She was born June 26, 1992, at White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights. For all his eagerness, Joe missed the moment. Maryann had begged him to go call her father, to say the baby was coming. He ran down a hallway to a phone booth, and Seniesa slipped suddenly into the world. When Joe walked back in, he saw a nurse with a baby in her arms, wrapped in a soft blanket.
Yes, he said, holding her. A girl. My little girl.
She weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces. Her face was round and pudgy, her scalp matted with brown peach fuzz. She wailed like a banshee.