The fight of a lifetime — Joe de la Cruz
By Michael Lopez 07/19/2012
Joe de la Cruz is a professional fighter who owns and operates Big’s Gym on Main Street in Ventura. The majority of his students are teenagers. What struck him was that kids from Ventura Avenue, aka the Avenue, started following him for no apparent reason. He has made mistakes in his life, but now he believes that God has put him where he is supposed to be. One of his students is Helen Peñaloza, who has been boxing with him for three years.
De la Cruz says that he believes Peñaloza saved him, because he was in a bad place when they first started training together. He was an alcoholic and would show up to their training sessions smelling like alcohol, and yet she never stopped going. He eventually stopped drinking and attributes that to her.
Peñaloza, who is diabetic, has lost about 40 to 50 pounds since she started training with De la Cruz and sees him as a father and brother figure. One day, as a pact of their friendship, they both went to get tattoos and decided to get matching shadow boxers behind their ears.
De la Cruz, a father of six with another child on the way, who happens to be all male, sees Peñaloza as the daughter he never had.
“She will always have a special place in my heart because she is the one person that believed in me; and because she did believe in me, I got back into boxing,” De la Cruz said. “She revived this old dog and gave me my hunger back. I can honestly say she saved me.”
De la Cruz is happy to have built connections with neighborhood kids. A few years ago, he knew a group of kids who grew up and made something out of their lives. One went to college, another got a job, and another went to the Marines. He trained all of them, and has only lost one kid to gangs. This is what he loves to do, and is happy to make a difference in the lives of these kids. At the end of the day, he might go home with no money in his pocket, yet he can be satisfied that he has helped keep a kid off the streets.
Currently, he is training one kid who is on his last month of probation. Two of his older brothers are in jail, as well as some of his cousins. This kid has been with de la Cruz for a while now, and if de la Cruz hadn’t been there for him, who knows where he would be right now.
De la Cruz recalled looking at the Facebook picture of that kid, and there was a photo of him boxing at Big’s Gym. Who knows what was there before, but Joe feels happy to be part of the change in this youth’s life.F
Local Hero is an ongoing project, featuring local residents who have made exceptional contributions for their communities. If you know of someone you feel should be featured as a Local Hero, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.