You are a product of your environment. We’ve all heard this statement echoed again and again by our teachers, counselors, elders, and history books. For a chosen few, this is a blessing, a sure-fire ticket to a happy and productive life; for others, it’s more of a curse, a black cloud that seems inescapable and dictates an inevitable struggle down the difficult road of life. The latter version applies best to Jose “Pepe” Amaya, the 10th child of 12 brothers and sisters, born and raised in the poverty stricken barrio of Mongolia, located inside the southern streets of Houston, Texas. Although life gave Pepe lemons, he has since turned them into sweet lemonade, thanks to his own sense of faith, resolve, and determination. He has overcome the most incredible of obstacles, channeling his pain into positivity, although it hasn’t been an easy path along the way.
At the age of 11, Pepe’s father passed away, leaving 12 children without a father, and thirteen mouths to feed with one source of income. In order to aid their grief-stricken mother and cope with this poverty, each sibling had to do as much as possible just to make ends meet. Pepe took the cue and found a job around the corner from his house, at the Maravilla Handball Court. Pepe met the owners, Tommy and Michi, and they instantly felt his burden and immediately took a liking toward him. They allowed him to shine shoes and keep the courtyard clean, and Pepe was grateful for the chance. While working there, he also learned to play a pretty good game of handball as well. Unfortunately, this seemingly positive relocation to East L.A. would soon have a negative effect on young Pepe.
As a youth, Pepe was surrounded by the Pachuco Lifestyle. His brother had already succumbed to the downside of the fast life, and it was while visiting this brother in a Texas prison, that Pepe was first introduced to prison life. Unfortunately he followed in his brother’s footsteps soon after this visit, and he found himself absorbing every aspect of gang culture. The trappings of the streets were all too difficult for him to avoid, and Pepe got arrested for the first time when he was just 10 years old. East L.A. saw a huge gang explosion in the 1950’s, and the lifestyle simply held Pepe in a tight grip. He soon became one of the “founding 8,” in one of the largest gangs in Maravilla. The local drug scene also terrorized this community at that particular time, as it went hand in hand with the gang scene to provide money making opportunities. Although Pepe knew the drug route was the wrong way to go, he had to support his family, and felt the pressure to receive recognition and respect from his peers. It was not a difficult choice, and Pepe embarked on the dangerous path of selling street pharmaceuticals.
Before long, Pepe found himself incarcerated yet again, due to the choices he made to get involved with selling drugs and participating in gang violence and activities. It was this fateful prison stint that changed Pepe for good, as he opened his mind to God’s message of salvation and purpose, and felt compelled to make something good come out of the troublesome life he had been leading. Finally released from prison in 1971, he made a commitment to help the youth of East LA. He knew that with his own experience and knowledge, he would be able to effectively reach out to many troubled teens. Pepe also decided to attend college, and did so, thanks to a program that was sponsored by the Y.M.C.A. He was able to attend Webster College in Washington DC, where he majored in Social Work and Mental health. He also attended many lectures at Howard University and received training in the Bronx, New York at the Frank Garcia Rehabilitation Center, where he received many certificates for his work and ideas.
Pepe soon dedicated his life to community service. He worked as an alcohol and drug counselor as the Director at Pueblito de Maravilla. Pepe also volunteered as the Director of the Soap Box Derby through Cleland House of E.L.A, along with the help of Al Hernandez from Coca-Cola, who sponsored the events. With constant support from current President and CEO of TELACU, Dr. David C. Lizarraga, he also worked as a youth group coordinator at Casa Maravilla, volunteered at Campus Community Center affiliated with E.L.A College, and donated time to the Y.M.C.A Eastside Boys Club.
Now retired, he continues to volunteer his time and experiences to his community. He is a proud member of Old Timers of Southern California. He is also involved with organizing the Maravilla Historical Society, ultimately hoping to declare the handball court he once worked at as a historical site.
Pepe believes a person can overcome anything with commitment, faith, God, and a higher education. He is a shining example of that statement himself, and offers up this mantra whenever he is asked for advice; “We must strive to move forward, no matter what obstacle comes our way!” Well said, Pepe.