Chapter OneA Promise Made
What mother wants her son to be a fighter?
But considering that my grandfather Vicente was a fighter, my father, Joel, was a fighter, and my older brother, Joel Jr., was briefly a fighter, we had no choice but to be fighters. When I say "we," I'm talking about my mother and me.
We were a team.
She learned to love the sport. She'd go to my fights and overcome her fear that I was going to get hurt.
When I was in the sixth grade at Ford Boulevard Elementary School, my class was asked to write an essay on what we wanted to be when we grew up. We then had to get up and read our assignment aloud. Kids said they wanted to be doctors, policemen, firemen.
I got up and said I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist in boxing. The class burst into laughter. They thought I was kidding. One kid said, "Yeah, right, you're from East L.A. How are you going to be a gold medalist?"
The teacher thought I wasn't taking the assignment seriously, so she punished me by keeping me after class.
I started crying, telling her, "I'm not kidding. That's what I want to be."
When I was twelve, I had this poster from the Olympic Games-I don't even remember where I got it-and I signed it Oscar De La Hoya, '92 Olympic Gold.
I still have that poster today.
Around my family, that became the goal: Oscar goes to the Olympics.
Whatever my goal, it became my mother's goal as well.
When I would go running in the morning, she would get up with me to make me a little breakfast before I left. That meant having something on the table before I went racing out the door at 4:30 A.M.
When my amateur career started to take off, I began to get noticed in the neighborhood. I remember being so excited because my name started to appear in our small local paper. No picture. No real story. Just an occasional line saying I had qualified for a tournament or won a trophy or knocked some guy out. To me, however, it was like being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I told my mother about it and she was thrilled for me, but it was kind of sad because she didn't read English and those references to me were only in English-language papers.
She didn't need to speak English to be my number one cheerleader. Her Spanish served her just as well. She was my inspiration even before I saw her fight a battle that was much tougher than anything I ever faced in the ring.
I didn't find out she had breast cancer for a while after she was diagnosed.
I remember I had come home from school-I was seventeen at the time-and my mother came up to me in our living room, crying, and gave me a big hug. She was trying to hold it in and be strong.
I said to her, "What's going on? What's wrong?"
Instead of answering, she asked me if I could apply some cream, from a jar she had in her hand, to her back. I scooped up a handful of the cream and reached down under her shirt to spread it across her back.
It was then that I felt something rough, like a scab. Her whole back was like that. I said, "What's this?"
She hugged me again and now I'm crying.
She said three words I will never forget: "I have cancer."
I have never been hit harder in my life.
I started hugging her through my tears and telling her it was going to be okay. All of the emotion that had been missing in our household burst free. I told her we were going to get through this. I believed it.
Obviously, I wasn't educated about the disease and she had been very effective in keeping things from us. She wore wigs or hats to hide the fact that her hair had fallen out.
One time, when I finally noticed she had no hair, she said she had shaved it so it would grow back thicker. My mother had been a heavy smoker. She would send me to buy cigarettes when my father wasn't around. Every two or three days, she'd tell me she needed more. I remember she smoked Kent cigarettes and they cost $1.05 a pack.
As time went on, my mother was getting worse and worse. And the doctors weren't being very positive about her condition.
At that point I decided to quit boxing, hang it up. I felt like I couldn't do it anymore even though the Olympics were less than two years away.
My mother spent her final days in the hospital, where I would visit her every day.
There was one time she didn't even recognize me. I walked into her hospital room, filled with relatives and friends, and she said, "Who is this person? What are you doing here?"
I told her, "It's me. It's your son."
I turned, walked down the hallway, and had a good cry. I knew it was the medication and her worsening condition that were causing the mental lapses, but it still hurt deeply. Especially because she knew everybody else in the room.
When next I saw her, that sparkle of recognition was back in her eyes. We held each other and cried together.
One day we were together five, six hours, even enjoying a few rare laughs. It was then I noticed that on the finger where she normally had her wedding ring, she was wearing a ring with a little diamond in it, a championship ring I had won in the bantamweight division at the 1989 National Golden Gloves tournament.
It was the first championship I had won on a national level, but to my mother, it was like a world championship. Her son had achieved success in a world she couldn't imagine. How much additional joy would she have gotten out of putting my gold medal around her neck, or seeing me win professional championships in six weight classes? At least she had the thrill of wearing that ring.