Seniesa Estrada

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Seniesa “Superbad” Estrada grew up around boxing. The sport is an important part of working-class Mexican and Mexican-American culture and in places like East Los Angeles, where Estrada was born and raised, it’s everywhere. Boxing gyms in the area have given rise to Olympic medalists, world champions and members of the Boxing Hall of Fame.

The sport runs in the family, too. Estrada’s father, Joe, boxed—in the gym, on the street, in prison—and introduced his daughter to the sport through televised matches at the tender age of 6. It piqued her interest immediately with the simple notion, “I want to be a professional boxer,” she remembers thinking. Joe dismissed the idea, telling her boxing was for boys.

Despite her father’s insistence that she couldn’t partake, they continued to watch matches together. This only further convinced Estrada that boxing was for her. She read books on the sport, including a biography of “Sugar” Ray Leonard that she reread incessantly. 

“I’m going to be a world champion,” she remembers thinking at age 7. “I knew that’s what I wanted,” she says now, “and I knew that’s what would happen for me.” Estrada asked to box so often that her father finally relented.

It can be intimidating to walk into a boxing gym for the first time. The sounds of speed bags rhythmically pounding, the stench of stale sweat, and the sharp piercing bell marking each round make some first-time fighters anxious. And that’s to say nothing of the anticipation of the first punch to the face, wondering how you’ll react when fight-or-flight kicks in.

But not Estrada. “I was just excited and happy,” she recalls. She was the only girl inside that gym, but the trainer treated her just like everyone else. Grueling two-hour workouts filled the first week. After each one, her father asked Estrada how she felt, expecting her to say she didn’t want to return. Instead, she’d simply say she couldn’t wait to come back tomorrow. “He was pretty disappointed,” Estrada says. “He was hoping that I’d be tired, sore and I’d say, ‘This is too hard, I don’t want to do it.’ But that didn’t happen.” 

Two weeks passed and Joe, still uncertain of his young daughter boxing, decided to see just how much she wanted to fight. He told her trainer to have her spar against a boy. The trainer agreed and Joe watched, fighting the impulse to jump inside the ring each time his little girl got hit. As he watched her, Joe moved and punched as if trying to control her body through his. 

“I go in there with no technique, just throwing bombs,” Estrada says of the first time she fought inside the ring. Hardly knowing how to box, she fought instinctually. “It was like a street fight.”

During their fight, the boy punched Estrada in her stomach so hard that she couldn’t breathe. The punch to the body is the most painful in all of boxing. You fight to breathe while holding off your opponent. Joe waited for his 8-year-old daughter to cry. Maybe then she would quit. Perhaps then, she would give up her dreams of boxing. Instead, after regaining her breath, Estrada fought back. 

“I charged at him from the other side of the ring,” Estrada says. She felt a rage inside her. She hit the young boy so many times and with such force that coaches stopped the fight. The boy started crying. He left the gym and never came back.

Seeing her reaction, Joe saw himself in Estrada. That passion and intensity; Joe could hardly believe what he saw. “That’s the moment I said, ‘My little girl is a fighter. She was meant to do this.’”

As Estrada fell deeper into the sport, she began honing her distinct style of fighting. More boxer than brawler. More sweet science than macho free-for-all. “The Mexican [boxing] community taught the boxers how to fight a certain way,” Estrada notes. “And I was doing things that were different. I just had [a vision] of what I wanted to do in the ring.”

That imagination and style led to her becoming a multiple-time national champion as an amateur. She won other tournaments and awards and was on her way to becoming the latest of the great boxers that come from East LA. In the amateurs, she had grown accustomed to fighting often. Traveling from tournament to tournament, there was always some place to box.

However, as a professional, the fights weren’t as often. That inactivity bothered Estrada. “When I turned pro, I didn’t realize how dead women’s boxing was,” she says. “It was very difficult because my career took off very slowly.” She had to train without ever knowing when and who she’d fight next. 

By May 2015, Estrada had been a professional boxer for four years and had only gotten the chance to fight four times. “Big promoters weren’t signing women at that time,” Estrada remembers. Opportunities were few and far between. “It was a big struggle.”

As her career sputtered, Estrada began to feel uneasy with her choice to commit full time to boxing. “I felt like I was in the gym, but not really going anywhere and I was just wasting my time.” Existential dread had set in. “Maybe I’m wasting my time, and my talent [will] never be seen,” she worried. She thought about quitting but worried that if she did, she’d regret it. “The times I wanted to quit, my dad would always keep me going and not let me,” Estrada says, thankful for her father’s support. 

Slowly, women’s boxing began gaining traction. In 2012, women’s boxing became an Olympic event, inevitably increasing exposure to women around the world, leading to more sponsorship deals and female competition, including Estrada.

In 2018, Estrada signed a contract with Oscar De La Hoya’s promotion company Golden Boy Promotions, one of the best known in all of boxing. Like Estrada, De La Hoya was from East LA and began boxing at the same place where her and her father had both gotten their starts: the Hollenbeck Youth Center. 

Without a promoter, a boxer has to secure their own fights and juggle the logistics that come with it. Once she was signed, Estrada knew her career was poised to change. With Golden Boy Promotions handling the business side, Estrada was free to focus on the sport.

She would have more opportunities to fight, which became more realistic as women’s boxing flourished alongside her career. She began looking at her early struggles differently, realizing that they had made her a more determined boxer.

Estrada enters 2020 with an unbeaten record. She’s beaten all 18 women she’s fought. As women’s boxing continues to rise, Estrada will be one of the important names leading the sport’s evolution. She’s already noticing that more girls are fighting in local gyms. In some gyms, there’s even more girls boxing than boys. “It’s so crazy seeing how many little girls are in every gym in LA,” Estrada says. 

It’s a drastic change from the time when she was the only girl in the gym and forced to fight against boys. That change has made Estrada a hero to young boxers. “Seeing young girls who cry when they meet me and say I’m an inspiration and that they’re boxing because of me is such a good feeling, because I never had that growing up.”

Estrada’s goal is to be a three-division world champion. She hopes to keep inspiring girls who come from a similar background. She wants to become one of the best women to fight because, more than anything else, “I just feel like I was born to fight.”

Eulogy for my Uncle

My uncle made a mess of himself while trying to live clean.

It wasn’t the first time that week he’d made a mess and it was far from the first time in his life he had tried to get clean. On that day, he immediately jumped in the shower. Didn’t even bother to take off the clothes that also needed cleaning.

I’ve often wondered how soon into that shower he talked himself into believing the next day could be different. I’ve wondered why it took that moment for me to realize he had a problem.

A few minutes later, my uncle came out the bathroom with nothing but a towel around his waist. He went into a back room, detached from the house, and opened a bottle filled with liquor the color of syrup. Didn’t even bother with a glass. He swallowed heavy gulps as if he were inhaling life. Water dripped from his wet hair and on to his shoulders and back.

On the days my uncle tried to get better, he was quiet and morose. “He’s not feeling too well,” my aunt, his oldest sister, would tell us kids in Spanish. “Just leave him alone,” my grandmother would say of the son she blessed with a biblical name. But at that moment when I watched him drink as if his life depended on it, he came back to us. Almost in an instant, he was the uncle I loved. Back to the charisma that attracted people. Back to telling jokes and smiling and seemingly loving life. Back to the man I recognized, who treated me like a son. He then got dressed and left. I can still remember the smell of his cologne.

I never got to see my uncle as much as I wanted. For a while, he was our neighbor, living in Juarez. He then moved to Chicago. When he’d return to visit us, he’d stick around for a few hours then disappear for days at a time. Sometimes, before he’d leave, his friends would wait outside while he got dressed. Friends that went by nicknames, who as they moved up in the world, people would rhetorically ask, “en que trabaja el muchacho?” Friends who’d get so high in that world people stopped asking out of fear they’d hear the truth of how they earned their money.

Sometimes my uncle would return to Chicago without saying goodbye. He’d just disappear, and I’d wait to see him again, even if it was just for a bit.

Decades after he left—only returning sporadically—my uncle moved permanently back to Juarez. My uncle was the type of person that makes families keep secrets. So, from what I understand, he got into some legal problems and got forced back to a world different from the one he left.

Juarez had changed for the worse by the time he came back. Some of his friends had died. My aunt and grandmother, who always lived together, had moved to El Paso and then also died. The rest of the immediate family had also moved north of the U.S.-Mexico border to places like El Paso, Albuquerque, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Away from his wife and kids, he lived alone. He lived in my grandmother’s old house that had once been full of joy, love, laughter, and life. By the time he returned, that house was crumbling. It was empty with holes in the ceiling. Some doors looked as if someone had repeatedly kicked them. Inside that dying house, my uncle claimed to hear voices and, from time to time, even see things that made one—I assume—want to believe in God.

Those last few years, I never got to see my uncle as much as I wanted. I moved away, so far from home I couldn’t help but romanticize what I left. Every once I’d catch a whiff of cologne and think of him and that place.

Enough time passed without seeing him, that each time I did, I could tell how much he’d aged between our visits. He was thinner. His eyes—once so full of life—looked as if they had sunk in his face. His confident walk had disappeared. With his vital organs failing, he worked as a hobbled security guard at a casino.

Eventually, he moved to that back room, detached from my grandmother’s house, where he’d hide liquor. My grandmother had used that back room as storage. We all hid things there.

The last time I saw my uncle was during this past summer. As he walked out that back room and into the same street where his friends had once waited for him to get dressed before they would all disappear, he looked like a 75-year-old man. We shook hands and hugged. He smiled and asked to see pictures of my daughter. He didn’t ask for money, which felt like a positive even if it felt odd. So odd I restrained myself from offering some.

We spoke for about 10 minutes—he could still make me laugh—and then we hugged again. I told him to take care of himself. “Cuidese m’ijo,” he told me and I nodded. I regret not telling him I loved him before I left. I regret we all came from a place where we first had to get fucked up to tell each other the truth or shield ourselves from it.

My uncle died on a Friday. On the first of May at 2 in the morning, we’re told. We’re also told he died of a sickness so contagious that doctors didn’t allow family by his side as he took his last breaths. I’ve wondered if a doctor or nurse, unjaded from all the death that’s been part of Juarez for over a decade, held his hand or said something to my uncle. I can imagine his once warm, friendly eyes taking a few last blinks.

Living so far away from home and with travel restricted because of that same virus that helped kill my uncle, I couldn’t attend the shortened viewing for my uncle. The funeral home only let 10 people attend and the casket had to stay sealed and at a distance. My mother and father were there, as were a few of his coworkers and even some of the friends with whom he’d disappear. Every one of them had to wear masks.

My uncle was 56 years old. He’s in a better place, my mother says, so there’s no need to cry. She says he’s now with God and no longer running from the demons that chased him. The same ones he made a mess of himself trying to break free from.

My uncle has left. I never got to see him as much as I wanted.