Do girls box? she asked, turning to her father one evening. Is it OK for girls to box?

Well, yeah, mija, they do,
he answered. Sure, it's OK for girls to box.

They were sitting on the bed in his cramped apartment, faces lit by a flickering TV, eating pizza, watching a pro boxing match. Seniesa loved to watch fights with him, loved the way boxers settled their differences, using fists to express what was inside. She was just a kid, a girl enthralled with a man's sport, but she wanted to express herself like that.

Dad? Can I box? Can I learn how to box?

Joe Estrada was shocked, he would remember afterward, but he didn't want to let his daughter down, not with what they had been through. Yeah, he said, eyes still on the TV. Sure, mija, you can do that, if you really want to. I'll take you to a gym in a couple of days. I promise.

He didn't mean it. Boxing wasn't for girls. Not for his girl, a pretty one with thin bones, a delicate nose and rosy lips. He had lived by his fists, both on the streets and in prison. All he wanted was to protect her. For weeks, he did nothing to make his promise real.

But she grew adamant. She read a book about Muhammad Ali, got a poster of him and tacked it to her wall. She admired his confidence, the way he would not back down, just like her father, she would proudly say, and the way Ali had grown up, just as she had — an outsider looking in. She wanted to become a champion boxer, bold and strong, just like Ali.

Besides, if her father trained her, he would be with her, no matter what. Both needed that, desperately. They needed it to save each other.

The more he put off boxing, the more she pressed.

Finally, guilt got him. One Monday afternoon, he drove her to a gym on a busy street in East L.A. When he parked, she sprinted from the van to the entrance. They walked inside, unsure what was next.

Do you train kids here? Joe asked.

The manager looked down at Seniesa, leaning against her father's side. How old is she? he asked.

Eight, Joe said. Almost 9.

She's too small,

the manager said. We'll train her, when she's 13.

She walked from the gym with her head down. Joe tried to console her, but actually he couldn't have been happier. Good, he thought, that's the end of this boxing thing. Then, inside his van, he looked at her and saw her staring out the window.

What's wrong, mama? he asked.

She couldn't speak. Tears filled her eyes.

It hit him then how much this meant, how badly she just wanted the chance to step inside a ring and put gloves on and let go.