The mean streets of South El Monte aren't so mean any more as they are tired and sometimes desperate.
The tiny bedroom community, which sprouts from the junction of the Pomona and San Gabriel River freeways, was once plagued by crime and gang activity. Now many of its residents are more troubled by poverty and unemployment.
"The last three years have been hard, you know what I mean?" sighs Joseph Diaz, an out-of-work truck driver married to a secretary who also lost her full-time job. "Things can't get any worse."
But rather than complaining over what he doesn't have Diaz has poured much of his time and energy into what he does have, coaching son Joseph Jr. from an undersized high school baseball player to, at 19, the youngest member of the U.S. men's Olympic boxing team.
"I don't get paid for this," Diaz says. "I do it for my son."
And Joseph Jr.? Well, not surprisingly, he said he's doing what he does for his dad, making the pair's hoped-for journey to London this summer something of a familial love story.
"The thing that motivates me the most is just getting my family, with all their finances, helping them out," says the younger Diaz, who goes by Jo-Jo. "Getting my mom and dad a new house. So I just think about getting the gold medal, think about helping my family out, think about the future that I'm going to have if I just stick to it."
The elder Diaz was thinking mostly about the past when he introduced his then 10-year-old son to boxing. As a teen growing up not far from these same streets nearly 30 years ago, he did many things he now regrets — and he wanted to make sure his son didn't make the same mistakes.
"I told him, 'Joseph, you want to go to the gym? You're hanging around the wrong people,'" Diaz says. "I didn't want him to choose it as a profession. Just something to keep him off the streets."
His first day in the gym that would soon become his second home, Jo-Jo was challenged to a sparring match by a neighborhood bully. He wound up making the boy cry and from that day on, Jo-Jo says, "I was hooked."
Soon Ben Lira was too. For two decades Lira has run the boxing program at the South El Monte Community Center, where the gym's trophy case is stuffed with pictures and memorabilia from some of the greats who have trained there, among them world champions Antonio Margarito and Sergio Mora. But Jo-Jo, he says, is the best amateur to have fought there.
"Without a doubt," he says.
And while Lira has played an important part in making that happen, it's Jo-Jo's father who deserves much of the credit. After surgery to a knee and shoulder cost him his job with a moving company 3 1/2 years ago, the elder Diaz began reading everything he could on boxing. He had long conversations with Lira and other coaches, sat through countless sparring sessions and spent hundreds of hours in front of a computer screen, studying YouTube videos.
"I knew how dangerous a sport this was. So I figured I needed to learn as much as I possibly can," he says. "I'm not afraid to ask questions, to go to somebody and humble myself and say 'how do you do this?'"
That learning curve was made a bit steeper by the fact that Jo-Jo is a left-hander, unorthodox in boxing. So Diaz had his son shadow box in front of a mirror, which reversed his image and turned him into a right-hander, allowing Diaz to apply the things he had learned from watching traditional fighters.
"I'm his trainer. His strength and conditioning coach. I'm his nutritionist. I try to be everything for him," he says. "I've been asked if I would train other kids and I have to tell people no because if I start focusing on other kids, then it's going to take me away from Joseph. And right now I don't want that."
Not long ago both Diazes figured baseball would be Jo-Jo's ticket out of South El Monte. He played a variety of positions at South El Monte High and dreamed of starting in center field for the Dodgers — although at 5 feet 5 and 123 pounds that seemed unlikely. So he set his sights on earning a college scholarship.
Practicing baseball in the afternoon and boxing at night proved to be too much, though, and when his high school coach asked Jo-Jo to choose a sport, he took the ring over the diamond.
"It was really a tough choice because I love both," he says four years later. "But I just had to stick to one. And boxing was the one."
Jo-Jo has proven dominant as an amateur, winning 108 of 114 bouts by his count. He was so dominant, in fact, when he graduated high school two years ago he wanted to start fighting for money instead of medals.
"My main thought was just to go pro because I wanted to help my parents with the finances," he says.
But even as his father struggled to pay the bills — his benefits ran out six months ago and his wife Valerie has had to settle for part-time work — he pushed Jo-Jo to remain an amateur, at least through London. And that decision proved a wise one last year when the boyish, baby-faced featherweight won the U.S. nationals and the Olympic trials, then placed fifth in the world championships in Azerbaijan, becoming both the first and the youngest American fighter to qualify for the Summer Games.
The challenge now is finding a way to get his coach — and his dad — to London as well. With hotel rooms during the Games going for three times their normal rate, the elder Diaz figures it will cost as much as $10,000 for him to join his son in England for the duration of the Olympics. To help raise that money, Lira is selling T-shirts with Jo-Jo's likeness on them out of the South El Monte Community Center while the family is planning a series of car washes, the first of which will take place this Saturday in a Pep Boys parking lot at the corner of Valley Boulevard and Garvey Avenue in El Monte.
"It's a blessing, man. Me and my dad worked hard," says Jo-Jo, who doesn't want to go to London alone. "We told each other if we're going to box, we're going to do it 100%. So my dad was like 'Joe, you train your butt off in the gym and I'll train my butt off on the computer, looking at YouTube, reading books.'
"It was crazy. And now here I am."
He doesn't plan to stay in one place long, though. Because after fighting for his country this summer Jo-Jo plans to fight for his family as a pro, paying back some of the priceless things he's gotten from them.
"It just gives me that extra boost to train even harder," he says. "Just to help my family get out of this environment, out of this city. I can move them over to Beverly Hills."