Joe Diaz, 45, has seen Boyle Heights go through many changes. He has worked under three mayors during 17 years of working for the City of Los Angeles in the very neighborhood where he grew up. In his position as youth council and media coordinator, he works to find job and educational opportunities for youth, many of which he did not have growing up. In his free time he plays softball and spends time with his three daughters.
Growing up in the Pico-Aliso housing projects in the 80s and 90s when violence was at its peak, Diaz managed to stay out of gangs and away from trouble. “Twenty to 30 years ago, this was the craziest place in Los Angeles. It was the largest housing project west of the Mississippi,” he says. “There were two projects – Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. In the early 90s, there were about 13 active gangs in that 2 ½ mile radius. “
He credits his family and his involvement in sports and extra-curricular activities. “The number one thing that kept me out of gangs was, first, my mom. I was part of her gang,” he says. “I had eight brothers. It was my mom and playing sports throughout high school. Playing baseball and running cross country at Roosevelt, that kept me out of trouble.”
Still, he saw many around him die and the impact it had on his community. But instead of leaving the neighborhood as he made his way in the world, Diaz chose to stay and work with youth.
He recently spoke with Boyle Heights Beat about his experience growing up in Boyle Heights and how things have changed. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BHB: Have you ever lost a family member or someone close to you due to gang violence?
JD: I’ve known a lot of guys that have passed away due to gang violence. My brother, who is four years older than me, was hanging out with some friends and was shot in the hand on Halloween in 1985. It wasn’t a major shooting. We had always heard about the shootings, saw friends getting shot and getting stabbed, but we had never felt it directly ourselves until then. But friends? Close to 25 people that I know have been murdered because of crazy gang violence.
In 1984, you were part of a group of young people that worked on the “We Live Here Project,” as well as a Memory Wall. You helped put together an exhibit of photographs, videos and interviews with neighborhood residents for the “We Live Here” project to depict everyday life in the projects. The Memory Wall was a large wooden board with the nicknames of 27 gang members from the neighborhood who had been killed in the previous six years. Can you tell us a little about those experiences?
The “We Live Here Project” gave us an opportunity to show that there was more to [Pico Aliso] than just gang violence. Back then, Pico-Aliso was one of the hardest areas to live in. We wanted to tell the story. [It was] an emergency call for stopping violence. We wanted to tell the story of every guy [killed] from gang violence, shootings, stabbings, beat downs–violence overall. We had gang members from different gangs. We put one to four names from every gang on that wall.
Can you tell us about how your past has an influence on your work at the Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center?
I have worked at the Boyle Heights Tech Center for the City of L.A. for 17 years overall. I don’t even consider [it] work. I work with youth between 14 and 24 years old. The best thing is getting the opportunity to do different things. I want to bring things (to them) that they have on the Westside. We have a music and a television studio. We want to give youth opportunities.
You all know what a power strip cord does? It connects power to something else. That’s how I see how my job. My job at the Tech Center is bringing a huge power strip cord and connecting youth to different things from baseball to after school programs.
We are one of 13 youth resource centers throughout the city. Part of the [mission] is to help with employment and help youth gain their high school diploma if they don’t have one. We really push for employment and education.
Until recently you served as a board member of the Neighborhood Council. Can you talk about this experience?
Yes, I spent seven years on the Neighborhood Council. The hardest thing is getting people involved in the Neighborhood Council. We didn’t have an audience every time we met. It’s weird to have 20 board members make the decisions of the community when the community is not there to really push issues. It would be different if there were more community members at the meetings, to agree or disagree.
Do you have any advice for youth?
I would say take advantage of every opportunity that’s out there, because we don’t know when that opportunity is going to be taken away. Boyle Heights is not a bad place. What keeps me in Boyle Heights is all the positive stuff. It’s how much you get involved in Boyle Heights. The more you get involved, the better off you are. What keeps me going is being involved, taking advantage of opportunities.
The following youth BHB reporters contributed to this assignment: Keven Almontes, Guadalupe Felix, Carmen Gonzalez, Citlalli López, Armando Magallanes, Jaquelin Rosas, Oscar Vargas and Regina Zamarripa.
Photo above by Keven Almontes.