- By | Mary Omatiga
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
U.S. boxer Jennifer Lozano wears the nickname of “La Traviesa” (the troublemaker) with pride. It came from her grandmother – “Abuelita” to Jennifer – whose tragic passing has been one of many powerful forces shaping the life of the Olympic hopeful from the border town of Laredo, Texas.
In a conversation with NBC Sports, Lozano discusses her relationships with the most important women in her life and how she was able to channel an inscrutable level of grief—one that would break most people—into strength, resilience, and motivation as she attempts to make her first Olympic appearance in Paris 2024.
Lozano, who has family roots in Mexico, also shares her reality of life in a border town, her pride in her heritage, how she went from a little girl watching Jackie Nava fights on Saturday nights with her grandmother to a professional making her passion her career, and how she channels her family and her identity into her boxing.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It contains some graphic descriptions that may be difficult for some readers, and reader discretion is advised.
How did you get your start in boxing and what was it that made you fall in love with the sport?
Jennifer Lozano: I started boxing at the age of nine because I was a very overweight kid. I was always fighting in the streets at school because I was bullied because of my weight. It was very hard. I would walk home from elementary school and have kids from different grade levels just waiting for me to cross the block or pass through them and they would just jump me. They would trip me and start hitting me and it just got to a point where I just wanted to defend myself. I would never say anything. I would just take it.
I never understood why kids were so mean to me, why they would call me all these names and just jump me for no reason. I never did anything to provoke them. I just decided to go and join a boxing gym in the south side of Laredo, Texas, and once I did I just loved the fact that I could finally defend myself. I loved the fact that my body was different. I had this different kind of confidence within myself because I started to see changes.
About a year later, I wanted to compete. In my city, back in the day, there weren’t any females in male-dominated sports. [The mindset] was that women were supposed to stay in the house and take care of their families. When my mom and I told my coach at the time that I wanted to compete, they immediately said no, you still have a lot of weight to lose. They told me you’re a girl and girls can’t box. Girls are never going to know how to box and this isn’t meant for you.
That really shattered me because I discovered a different type of love for the sport. Once I left that gym I continued to play sports, I played basketball and soccer but it wasn’t the same. Those were just hobbies. My mom noticed that and about six months later, she ended up finding this other boxing gym that was in the center of the city and within two months of being part of their teenage classes, they just took me in. They asked me if I wanted to compete. I was like, “you’re actually asking me? Of course, I want to compete!” So I joined their fight team and have been with them ever since.
I’m sorry you were bullied. How difficult was it for you and your mom to find people that believed in you and wanted to come alongside you on this journey with boxing?
Lozano: It was really hard just because I’m the first female from my city to ever really be in a sport like this and make it this far. I would spar [with] boys in gyms and and immediately people [watching] would be shouting “kill her, destroy her”… all of these negative comments. I’m like come on, that’s a guy, he’s just helping me out. Sometimes the guys would hurt me and I wouldn’t back down because I wanted to prove a point. I wanted to show that I can stay in [the ring]. I can last in here. You’re not going to scare me away from this.
Years went by, I started winning and I was getting recognized but it was very hard because not a lot of people believed in me. I would lose one fight and people would say, “It’s over. She’s going to stay in the house. Go to college.” The people who really stuck by me and pushed me were my grandma, my mom, and my coaches. My coaches always believed in me and saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself at the time. They knew I had something in me that could get me far in this sport, and that I could make a difference in my city, and in women’s boxing in general. Just being able to represent both Mexico and America…it’s crazy. I really hope I’m an inspiration to many on both sides of the border.
Fast forward to now, you’re a member of USA Boxing’s high-performance team, training for the Paris Olympics. Knowing all that you know now, what would you tell your younger self? What would you say to that coach and all of the people that said you didn’t have any potential because you’re a woman?
Lozano: I would tell my younger self to be patient. I would say “it’s okay.” I know it seems like the world is crashing down. I know it seems like there’s so much pressure and that you’re not going to make it out because of the way life is at the moment, but be patient. It’s okay. You’re going to make it and you’re not even going to expect to be where you’re at.
I always look at pictures of myself as a kid, especially when I’m feeling discouraged, and I just remind myself that I’ve come such a long way. Little Jennifer would be crying if she could see how far we’ve come. We made it. We’re here.
Something I’ve told that coach and others who have doubted me is look at me now. You just fueled me, you were part of my motivation. Thank you for not believing in me. Thank you for not wanting me there and not seeing what very few people saw. That’s exactly what kept me going. That made me want to be not good, but great in whatever I did.
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I love hearing that! If you qualify for the Paris 2024 Games, you could be the very first Olympic athlete from Laredo. What does that mean to you?
Lozano: That means everything…everything. To me, it’s not an if, it’s “I am.” I’m definitely going to make it. I believe in myself so much. I’ve been so focused, I’ve been in the gym, I’ve been doing whatever is necessary to become great. I have some bad days, I’m not going to lie to you. But throughout those bad days, I have to push through and when I do, I see the payoff.
Just being able to say and show the people in Laredo, and in Mexico, that this is what I’m doing… to show some little girl from a town that’s not even on the map, this small city, with a small population where it’s so negative, and where even if you move to the next city, people expect you to come back and not make it far because nobody ever makes it out of Laredo… to be able to say look at me. I’m living proof that the impossible is possible.
Whether it’s boxing or not, I want to inspire kids from all over that it may be hard and might look like there’s no chance, but there is a chance if you make it possible. You’re the one who has to make the change. It just feels amazing to be able to say that I’m going to be the first Olympian from Laredo.
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You said earlier that no one makes it out of Laredo, where you currently live. For people that don’t know, can you tell me what life there is really like and why people don’t make it out?
Lozano: It’s very small, very closed-minded. It’s hard for people to adapt to change and new things because it’s uncomfortable, so they would just rather stay the same.
If you’re from the south side, you’re poor. If you’re from the north side, you’re rich, and it’s very much a south side versus the north side type of [mentality], especially with middle and high schools. It took me a long time to get out of that mindset and realize that this isn’t right. Why are we thinking like this? Why is there so much hate and negativity towards other people when [their environment] is not their fault?
Growing up right next to the river, it was really hard just because there was a lot of problems coming from border patrol and people crossing. It’s just very sad to see that on a daily basis and have that become your normal. When I tell these stories to to other people they can’t believe things that happen.
Once you have a little bit of success and you’re on this high, whether it be education, your job, a sport, etc., if you fall or have a minor setback, everybody just immediately starts telling you how bad you are and how you’re not going to make it. It creates a lot of pressure on kids and adults because everybody just wants to be perfect. A lot of people don’t talk about what they go through so they hide it. There’s a lot of abuse and kids who go the wrong route, because they grew up that way and can’t see the bright side of things.
I’m really trying to change the way kids in Laredo really view life, opportunities and how to deal with the negative. It’s very hard to get out of that because you’re constantly reminded that you’re not going to make it.
Laredo is right on the border of Mexico, where you have family roots. I know you spent a lot of your childhood visiting your grandmother in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Can you paint the picture of what growing up in Mexico was like?
Lozano: Growing up in Mexico was amazing. You can be rich in two ways. I was rich by being free, by playing out on the streets, and all of these things that I can just look back and laugh and say, wow, I had a great childhood. It was always my grandma and I watching Jackie Nava fights on Saturday nights. Those were my favorite types of nights.
Growing up out there taught me how to be humble and appreciate what I have. I didn’t have a lot. I still don’t have a lot, but I’m appreciative for every opportunity that comes my way. I thank God every day because I was once going down the wrong path and if I wasn’t strong enough, I would probably not be here right now.
How much pride do you have in your Hispanic heritage and what does having the opportunity to represent it mean to you?
Lozano: A lot. I always make sure I represent both sides. I always make sure people know that I’m so proud to be Mexican-American. My family came here for a better life and when I go back [to Mexico] I see a difference in life. Hopefully I can make a difference in the younger generation’s lives and push them so they believe they can do it. I’ve seen a lot of people go down the wrong path, especially in Mexico, so because I’ve grown up on both sides of the border I know that I can impact their lives.
It’s been hard. It was never a straight line or something that was given to me. It was always something that had to be earned. Even to this day, I’m still fighting to earn not just my spot for the Olympic team, but to earn that gold medal in the Olympics. Every day I’m trying to progress without forgetting where I come from, without forgetting who I really am, who I represent, and all of the people who are back at home counting on me and watching me. I was once that kid watching Jackie Nava on the Azteca Channel, thinking I’m going to be like her one day. To this day she’s someone I look up to so much. Those are the days that I look back on and I take pride in what I do, and who I represent.
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Earlier on you talked about what it was like growing up so close to the border and the things you would see with border patrol. Can you elaborate on what some of those things were?
Lozano: One day when I was a kid, I was riding my bike in the neighborhood and I remember seeing a family that came straight from the river and they were running. They got into a Black SUV that was tinted with no license plates and just took off. Shortly after that, border patrol came up to us and asked us if we saw anything and we told them what we saw. My friends and I biked in that direction because we wanted to see what was going on and saw that [border patrol] found them and had the family sitting on the curb, ready to take them back. I didn’t understand what was going on but my mom explained to me that they take whoever crosses the river back. She explained to me why she came [to this country] and why my grandparents came here and that they just wanted a better life. That’s when I realized we’re so divided.
I started paying attention to how life really was and how Mexicans were treated and it was just so unfair. Race has a lot to do with it because once people see Brown or tattoos, they immediately assume that you’re from the cartel, you’re a gangster, you’re no good and you don’t have an education. A lot of men in Laredo [are criticized] because they don’t have opportunities. Seeing that growing up—seeing friends get shot because they messed with the cartels, or tried getting out of gangs… having my friends’ family members disappear because they couldn’t pay the cartel—it was all hard. It’s not something that’s talked about because people are afraid and it’s so normal here.
Thank you for sharing that. You used the word division earlier. A lot of people don’t live as close to the border as you. They don’t understand that people want to come over to the U.S. for that better life. What message do you have to people that don’t understand why people make the sacrifice and the desperation they have in wanting to come here?
Lozano: Come to the south side of Laredo, Texas. There’s an energy here that you can just feel from all of these hardworking people who were able to make it here and create a life for themselves. Put yourself in our position and our shoes. A lot of people just don’t understand what it takes to leave your family in Mexico and come here because you need to escape that life. People don’t understand that you have to do that on your own and pay so much just to be safe [in the U.S.] and when you get here, you’re still judged, you’re still misunderstood, and you’re being told to go back to your country, when you left that country for a reason.
Never judge a book by its cover; you really don’t know what’s going on through somebody’s head. People don’t see the injustice or unfairness that happens and nobody talks about it because we don’t have the money to pay for a lawyer. So it’s very hard. Hopefully, I get to share that on a bigger stage and just show people to treat others with more respect.
I want to talk about something sensitive, if that’s okay with you. In 2019, you and your family experienced a devastating loss. Your grandma tragically passed away after cartel violence broke out in the street outside her home. First off, my condolences to you and your family. I’m so sorry that you went through that. Can you take me back to that day? You and your mom were away at a tournament and ended up back at her house. How did you know something was wrong?
Lozano: It took me a really long time to be able to [talk about this] and say that it wasn’t my fault…
We had given her a cell phone so we could communicate with her throughout the week and we’d always go to see her every weekend. There was one day when she stopped answering her phone so my mom got worried and went to Mexico immediately to check on my grandma and she was fine. She had just left her phone on the bed. There were a few times when she didn’t answer the phone but this one time—the last time—it was different.
My mom and I had been there for the weekend. It was a Sunday. I had a tournament in Laredo coming up and I had this routine of getting my nails and eyebrows done to look fresh during my fights, so I wanted to get that done. My grandma wanted to run different errands but I was very antsy because of the tournament I had coming up. I just wanted to get my eyebrows done. I feel like a brat but I just wanted to leave. I took [time] for granted like my grandma was always going to be there. We were going to be back next weekend and the week after that. All that was important to me in that moment, were my nails and eyebrows because the salon was going to close.
[The last time I saw my grandma] she was talking to my mom outside and I looked at my mom and said, “We have to go, the salon is about to close.” My mom looked at me and said, “We’re in the middle of a conversation.” My grandma said, “It’s fine. She wants to go. Just go. I’ll see you guys next week. ” The last thing she told me was: “I promise you I’m going to be there for your fight. I’ll be there. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you soon.”
I took it for granted. I told her I loved her but I was in such a rush that I wasn’t focusing on the moment. My mom called her the following day, Monday, and she answered. Tuesday she calls, no answer. So my mom made up an excuse and said she’s probably at the grocery store and just forgot. My grandma didn’t know how to use the phone. She only knew how to answer the call when it was coming in so we didn’t expect her to call back. Wednesday came, no answer. Thursday came, she didn’t answer, and my mom started getting worried. Friday came, and my mom was like, “Something is not right. We have to go check on her today.” I tried to calm her down and was like, “Mom, it’s okay. She does this. She doesn’t know how the phone works. Let’s go tomorrow. She’s fine.” I ended up convincing her to go the next day, Saturday morning.
9 a.m. on Saturday morning, we go and it’s a very hot day. Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where we’re from, [are] hot all year long. My grandma’s house was handmade by her and my grandpa out of clay and mud. There are no vents. I remember when we got to her house we only had keys to her gate and the first door that she had. She had a double [set] of doors; both were made of metal, because there were always shootings in that area and people were always trying to get into her house.
When we got to her house there was this brown liquid dripping down the door. There were flies in it and it smelled horrible. We thought that it was weird but my mom and grandma have always been into DIY things so we just assumed it was a [repellent] for flies because of the humidity. But we knew something wasn’t right because it smelled like roadkill. We thought, maybe the dog died, but we found him and he looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. Her plants looked like they hadn’t been watered. We started knocking and knocking. We looked through her window and the small fan she had was on but it was tilted downwards. Her sandals were placed crooked on the side of her bed, indicating that she had gotten up in a rush. My grandma would never go barefoot so we immediately knew she was in there.
We started knocking and screaming her name but no answer. We went to the back of the house, where there’s a metal door that’s rusty and has a chain on it. My mom told me to pull the chain as hard as I can and break it. I did but there was a big piece of wood across it to keep robbers out. My mom told me to kick it to make an opening. I kicked and kicked and kicked, and it finally opened loose, but only I could fit in. So my mom told me to go in and then open the front door.
When I got inside I was trying to not think the worst. It was so hot and the smell became a thousand times worse. It was like something I can’t even describe. It was horrible. As I’m going through the hallway, there’s a big window that you can see the kitchen and the front [of the house]. To this day, I still say this, I saw her move. She was on the floor and I saw her move as if she had just fallen.
Immediately, I ran straight through the hallway and broke the other door. I slip but I catch myself. I’m in shock at this point. I just remember seeing her feet and they were just purple. I started looking up and she’s just face down and I realized I’m standing in her blood. There was blood all over the floor and she had been there for days. She wasn’t breathing. I touched her and my fingers just sunk in.
I’m not crying at this point. My body and my mind are just in so much shock. I hear things crawling in the background but I’m not sure what it is. I flipped her over and saw everything and just put her back down. That’s when the tears came. I immediately just started pinching myself so hard because I thought this had to be a nightmare. I just saw you last week. You promised me you were going to be at my fight. I just saw you last week… just like that she was gone.
I remember opening the door and that’s when I was screaming. My mom rushed in. My mom is one of the strongest women I know. She did not shed a tear in front of me. I was in so much shock, she just took me out of the house and all she said was “damn” in Spanish. Instead of crying and giving up in that moment, she just took [care of me].
Life was just flashing through my eyes. My heart was pounding so fast but yet so slow.
I remember I still had to train. I called my coach and told him what happened. Sunday came, it was my day off. We were all in shock. Monday came and I remember throughout my entire two weeks of training, everyone told me to walk away from the fight. “You’re not ready, you’re not okay.”
When I was sparring in training, I would be up against guys that were heavier and older and I would tell them off in the ring like “Hit me. You’re going to let a girl beat you? Hit me.” I would come out with bloody noses and lips, bruised eyes and cheeks, and I’d still be on two feet with my hands up ready to fight with anybody. It got to a point where my coach asked me, “What are you doing? You’re so mad. They didn’t do anything.”
It got to a point where my teammates started not to like me. I just lost control of myself because I was so, so angry. My family became very distant, very cold. It was one of the hardest things we had to get through together.
Throughout those two weeks where I was training, every night after practice, we’d go straight to Mexico and clean my grandma’s body. Clean her blood, clean her skin, clean the bugs, because in Mexico, they’re not going to do that for you. You can’t call anybody to do that. There are no services for that. You have to do it on your own.
The autopsy came back and we learned that she had a heart attack because there was a shooting that was so loud and close to her home. They said that she got up in a rush to lock the door and that’s when the heart attack happened. She had a cane that she leaned on and it snapped. She fell forward on her chair which opened her skull. She tried getting up but she was too weak and banged her head again, and that was basically it.
It took us a while to clean everything. It took a lot of acid, chlorine, and chemicals and we’d get back at around 2 or 3 in the morning every day. I still had to go to school. I was in this nursing program that would let me graduate with my associates degree and high school diploma and I was so close to getting kicked out of the program. I was failing my anatomy class and when we started talking about the bones and vessels, I just couldn’t take it. I was having bad flashbacks.
I wanted to fight anybody in school. If somebody looked at me the wrong way I would tell them off and I didn’t care. I was the coldest and most ruthless person. It got to a point where I had to eat my lunch by myself in the gym to control myself and my friends started coming with me because they knew that if a fight broke out, I was going to jump in regardless of whether or not I knew the person. I just wanted to fight.
It took me a while to get help and speak to somebody. But even teachers started telling my mom, “Jenny’s not the same. She’s really quiet.” I didn’t care about anything and it went on for a very long time.
December came and I was training to make the youth team for nationals. I remember I had bad camp. I was slacking off, making bad decisions and just doing things to numb the pain. But I was so furious at the world—at anybody. I didn’t speak to my mom for a long time. It was hard for her to speak to me about how she really felt because she was trying to stay strong for me.
I went to therapy and they gave me some coping mechanisms but it wasn’t the help I wanted. They would ask me the same questions and right when I was at the peak of telling them how I felt, my 30 minutes were up it was on to the next patient. It was very hard and I just stopped going.
When COVID hit and the gyms shut down it was very hard to stay on track and find motivation. I wanted to give up so many times. I’m talking to you about depression. I had hit rock bottom by the age of 17 and that was the lowest I’ve ever been. I let myself get there because I didn’t have the right help. I felt like I didn’t have anybody to talk to. I lost a lot of friends and people who I called family in the process, because of my anger and depression. I didn’t want to be around people. I just felt so alone and empty. But I started exercising again and finding my way again. I knew my Grandma wouldn’t want to see me that way. She would want me to continue and be better and stronger. We had so many conversations about my boxing career and she wanted to see me become a world champion. When I realized that, I got right back on the horse. I always think about my Grandma before and after my fight. Her and my mom are my why.
Jennifer, I’m so sorry you and your family went through that. Thank you so much for your vulnerability. You talked a lot about anger and experiencing PTSD. You were obviously grieving, but can you explain the anger and thoughts behind those emotions that you felt?
Lozano: I couldn’t say my last goodbye because I was too immature. I was focusing on what I wanted in that moment rather than being present. I didn’t cherish that last moment I had with my grandma. I took it for granted and that cost me my last time. It really got to me.
Just seeing elderly people walk around with their family members, I would see them and get so angry because I wished I had that. I would see little kids screaming at their grandma or being mean to them and it would upset me because they have no idea how much they’re going to miss that person when they’re gone.
My grandma basically raised me since I was a baby and just like [that], she was gone. I had a lot of guilt in me that said it was my fault. I interrupted that last conversation we had when we could have enjoyed it for hours talking about anything. All I can do now is cope and help others be better than what I was at that time. To help others appreciate what they have right in front of them rather than ignoring it because they’re focused on something else.
Another thing that I would get upset about were the stages of grief. I’d feel like I was finally at the end of it and about to be relieved and then I would fall back down.
I was so angry because people would tell me that I was going to be okay, like it was no big deal but they didn’t understand. I just wanted to be myself again and I just couldn’t find that. Today I know, that everything I went through just helped me grow. It made me a stronger person mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally today.
I’ve heard you say you talk to your grandma a lot. What do you say to her?
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Lozano: I would say look at where I am. All of those days and nights that we talked, all of those times she was at my fights or my training just cheering me on, look at where I am now. I would tell her that I miss her and I love her and no matter what, I’ll always have her with me.
I know she gave you the nickname “La Traviesa”. The trouble maker. How do you carry that nickname and her memory with you when you box?
Lozano: I carry that name by making sure I’m a troublemaker to my opponent, making sure it’s not an easy fight for them, and making sure I bully them around [the ring]. Just being the most vicious person that I can. A lot of people say that I look so scary before a fight because I get so zoned out—it’s like they don’t know me. I won’t say a single word. I just stare down my opponent as they’re warming up in front of me until we get in the ring. I make sure they feel my presence because that’s when I feel closest to my grandma, because of that nickname.
She would call me her “pollita traviesa” because as a kid I would give her a lot of trouble. I have this saying in Spanish that’s in my mirror that says, “Don’t give up now, it’s all going to be worth it in the end, I promise.” Every day when I wake up and read that I feel like she’s saying that to me and I feel a little bit closer to her. I feel her with me as the day goes by.
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Your mom has been with you from the very beginning. She was with you in the gym that day when that coach said you weren’t cut out for boxing because you’re a woman. She’s watched you along this journey through the high moments and to the really tragic and devastating moments that you maybe didn’t even know how you would get through. What does her support mean to you?
Lozano: My mom is everything to me. One day I’m going to repay her for everything. I’ll retire here and she can move in with me. Her support has always meant everything to me. She’s my best friend. I’ve come home crying and told her I don’t want to box anymore because of what people would say about me, and how no one wanted to see me win, but she’s always had my back and encouraged me. “Pray. God’s got you and I’ve got you,” is what she’d say.
She would work all day and still show up to my practice just to watch me spar. When I have my bad days, I remember everything she’s taught me and I know she’s counting on me.
There was a point in time where she actually didn’t want me to box because she didn’t like watching me get hit, but whenever she’s watching my fights, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs.
Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.