It was her fist, plunging into the bag, swinging it in all directions. Seniesa possessed a remarkable punch. She reared back and hit the bag again. WHUMP! This girl — oh, but this girl had power. WHUMP! I shuddered. The sound of her blows, so solid, persuaded me to forget about boy boxers.
Life in 'the Zone'
Growing up, Seniesa Estrada had found there was a lot to learn about her father.
He came from Tijuana, where he and his mother lived in a dirt-floor shack with no bathroom and no running water, where a chicken from the backyard was a feast. In Los Angeles, they settled in Aliso Village, a crime-ridden housing project near downtown.
By 11, he had joined Primera Flats, a gang that "jumped him in" by testing how much of a licking he could take. In what became a trait for life, he fought back — not just to survive, but to dominate. He called it going into "the zone," an anger that built and built until finally he snapped, feeling nothing but rage and raw energy. It turned him into one of the toughest fighters in the neighborhood.
At 15, he was an enforcer and a drug dealer. When he wasn't fighting, he was selling: weed, acid, PCP, uppers, downers, crystal meth. He snatched purses, robbed grocery stores and stuck up jewelers. He was arrested, jailed, then got out and started selling, fighting and robbing again.
Once, he would recall, an enemy gang tied his ankles to the bumper of an Impala and dragged him through a park. Pavement ripped at his flesh until, somehow, the rope snapped and he got away. Paul Gonzales saw him afterward and would remember, "He had his shirt all tore off, and his back was just thrashed." Joe would recall two other close calls: When a rival held a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Click-click; it jammed, and he escaped. Then, when he was shotgunned by a tough from the 3rd Street Gang, ricochets crashing around his head. He held his best friend, who was hit and struggling to sip air. The friend died in his arms.
Those days stayed with him like scars. Dangerous as they were, they suited him. What he liked most was to square off with bare fists at Pecan Park, two street gangsters on the grass, the violence contained only because everyone in the circle around them was armed. Nothing, not even being with a woman, made him feel better than standing firm, sinewy, olive-skinned, with piercing eyes, just him against the other guy, hitting, being hit, the joy of landing a stiff punch behind an ear.
It was a small step from there into "the zone." Once, in a brawl over one of his girlfriends, a challenger crashed a crowbar over Joe's brow. Anger engulfed him. It built until he lost track of who he was, where he was and what he was doing. He wrested the crowbar away, rose and chased his assailant. He tackled him. He lifted the crowbar high and brought it down on the other man's head.
That was Joe the terrorista. Then there was Joe the Robin Hood, as he would come to call himself: charming, smooth, cool, doting on his mother, bighearted like her, doling out money from his drug sales to anyone who needed it, buying toy trucks and Barbie dolls for neighborhood kids.
Like his mother, he was meticulous: He wore spit-and-polish Stacy Adams shoes, crisp Pendleton shirts and pants with a crease he ironed himself, perfectly down the middle, just so.
Long before Seniesa was born, drugs took her father hostage for the first time, and the drugs tortured and defeated him as no back-alley thug ever could.
His undoing was heroin. He could not say no to the way it made him feel. When he was 22, heroin turned his hair stringy and wild, his face pasty, his body bone-thin. The stone-cold gangster, the sharply dressed street tough, became a strung-out junkie.
Most mornings, he found himself on the outskirts of Aliso Village, by a liquor store at the corner of 1st Street and Utah, under shot-out street lights and shards of glass, shaky, desperate, willing to do anything for another fix.
Sometimes a teenager ran by in a gray sweatsuit and a black cap. It was Paul Gonzales. He, too, was in Primera Flats, but with help from a street cop who coached him, he also was an up-and-coming boxer, training with an eye on the Olympics, rising before dawn to jog from the projects to downtown and back.
Puppet, you all right, man? Gonzales asked one morning, slowing to a walk. He would remember feeling bad, because he had always looked up to Joe.
Joe replied. Hangin' in there.