When Joe Herrera stepped up to the plate during his senior year of high school, he was used to curveballs.
If the captain of the Ignacio High School baseball team wasn’t fighting them off from pitchers, he was battling them in his personal life.
Unlike most high school athletes who go home after practices and games and eat a family meal before settling into homework, Herrera was consumed by trying to find a bed or his next meal.
Like so many youths in Colorado, Herrera is homeless. In his case, he’s been homeless since he was 13. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in every 30 youths in America is homeless.
“I’ve always been independent,” Herrera said. “I’ll do anything to stay alive, and if that means sleeping by the river, then that’s what I’ll do. I think this has made me a better man. Accept the loss or accept a win, that’s life.”
With a loyal baseball team, close friends and a love for hip-hop music to help keep him going, the unassuming 17-year-old managed to graduate high school, all while battling an illness that threatened his life.
But, against all odds, Herrera persevered and will continue his education at Aimes Community College in Greeley, where he plans to pursue a degree in music production.
“A lot of people look at me and are not sure how I do it,” he said.
Caring friends brought Herrera into their household for a couple of weeks at a time. Other times, he would find a place to stay next to the Los Pinos River at Shoshone Park in Ignacio. While there, Herrera spent hours listening to music while rapping and writing lyrics over instrumentals. A natural daydreamer, Herrera admitted he would gaze into the river and dream about what life could be – teasing himself in the process.
Living off a steady diet of fresh-caught trout, Herrera quickly learned how not to go hungry at night.
He began playing sports when he was 3, right around the time his life at home began to crumble.
With alcohol and drugs prevalent, Herrera was sent to live with his great-grandmother, Lupe Alexander. Alexander’s love carried Herrera through much of his childhood and provided a stable environment, although a calamitous arena was his backdrop.
Herrera faced a big curveball at age 13 when Alexander died and what family structure he had disappeared.
After that, Herrera occasionally lived with his parents, Daniel and Francis Herrera. Herrera said that as household tensions grew, his parents’ relationship took a turn for the worse. One day, Herrera returned to an empty house – all of his belongings gone. Francis Herrera inexplicably cleared out the house and moved to Albuquerque with Herrera’s three younger sisters, Cheyenne, Danielle and Mercedes.
Herrera and his older brother, Adam, were left with their father. His mother and sisters have barely been in Herrera’s life since.
Herrera said that had an enormous effect on his dad.
“That little bit of effort he tried to put out there for us was gone. He bugged out and became homeless himself,” Herrera said of his father.
‘It does take a village’Rain Rosa has seen Herrera at his worst. After moving to Ignacio in the fourth grade, Rosa quickly became friends with Herrera through football. Herrera was in middle school when things got tough for him, and the Rosa family was there for him.
“I know his situation, and it’s really messed up,” Rosa said.
Rosa’s parents, Bobbie and Daniel Rosa, constantly had an open door for Herrera. Daniel Rosa bought Herrera his baseball cleats for his senior season.
“There’s places that he’s welcome, and my house is one of them,” said Rain Rosa, 17. “That dude is basically my brother. I’ve been there for it all. I’ve seen everything that happened. I’ve been right next to cfx him.”
Herrera’s situation mostly flew under the radar at IHS. His homeless status didn’t get the attention of Principal Melanie Taylor or Athletic Director and Vice Principal Rocky Cundiff until he was a junior.
“He was always carrying himself with his head up,” Cundiff said. “He never brought up the victim status. He worked as hard as he could. He used baseball and school as a refuge so he wouldn’t have to think about (his situation) too much. His attitude has always been positive. Watching him go from a ninth-grader and go through his trials and tribulations as a senior and accept a diploma was awesome.”
Herrera became seriously ill and needed help to graduate. Taylor said she put him in credit-recovery classes to ensure he would walk on graduation. She and her staff also worked with the cafeteria so Herrera could qualify for a meal plan.
“It does take a village to raise a child,” Taylor said. “He’s a special person. We’re extremely proud of Joe in this school district. He’s very resilient.”
Tough to stomachHerrera said an unusually high amount of carbon monoxide in his stomach caused a bleeding ulcer in his gastrointestinal tract when he was 12.
He had coughing fits that produced bloody phlegm. By the end of his junior year in 2015, it got worse and he was coughing up thick chunks of blood regularly.
The worst came in May 2015 while Herrera was staying at the home of Leroy Martinez, the uncle of longtime friend Andrew Martinez. Mutual friend Sam Corrado came by to check on Herrera one afternoon and found him unconscious and covered in his own blood. Fearing for his friend’s life, Corrado quickly pulled a bloodied Herrera – along with a trash can that carried Herrera’s blood – in his car and took him to the emergency room at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango.
“I took matters in my own hands,” said Corrado, 20, who has known Herrera since they were children. “It was hard to see. Growing up with him and seeing what he’s been through ... it’s just hard to talk about. I love him to death.”
The severity of the incident brought immediate attention to Herrera’s case. He wasn’t 18, and he didn’t have a legal guardian to provide medical coverage.
Herrera said he didn’t have a birth certificate or Social Security card, documents his mother apparently took to Albuquerque.
But anonymous donors stepped up to help Herrera, and he was regularly seeing a doctor by the time he was a senior in high school, and his treatment continues.
Herrera said doctors are uncertain what caused the illness.
With his issues finally revealed, Taylor arranged for Herrera to become a 504 student, a program for special needs students with a medical or physical disability.
‘Team is family’Without a home, Herrera’s teammates in baseball provided a sense of family.
“That whole team is like my family. I wouldn’t wake up and think I’m here for nothing,” Herrera said. “I would wake up and go see my teammates.”
His statistics never jumped off the page and grabbed anyone. He had a .192 batting average and only two runs batted in his senior season, but what he lacked in stats he made up for with team cohesiveness.
Head coach Robert Miller and his son and assistant coach Clay Miller saw what the team meant to Herrera and noticed his dedication. One day, Herrera was helping both Millers set out jerseys before the season began. The coaches called him over and told him he would be a captain.
“It was a really important job to him,” said teammate and friend Andrew Martinez. “He was a valuable asset to the team. He was a good utility man. Wherever you put him, he was ready to do anything. Not everyone is willing to do something like that.”
Last season, the Bobcats went 14-5 overall and 7-1 in 2A District 2 league, the first winning season for the team in more than 10 years. More than wins and losses, what baseball taught Herrera was patience, self-discipline and how to work with others.
“Joe liked being around other people,” Martinez said. “You have to cooperate and bond, and he needed that.”
Finding strength in musicWhile the playing field has been his haven, Herrera clung to music to exorcise his past, and it kept him out of trouble.
Former Ignacio music teacher Katrina Hedrick was one of many teachers who played a role in Herrera’s evolution. As an underclassman, Herrera wasn’t in the music program but would occasionally take part during Ignacio’s fine arts week.
Hedrick encouraged Herrera to express himself through freestyle rapping and stand-up comedy. Herrera’s musical talents are raw, but talent is evident, said Hedrick.
Herrera eventually found himself in Hedrick’s choir. But he didn’t sing – he wrote rap verses to songs.
“We created cool harmony parts with it,” Hedrick said. “The choir had to write the chorus that reflected (Herrera’s) verses.”
Hedrick is a native of Ignacio and faced adversity of her own as a youth, helping her connect to struggling teens. She graduated from Fort Lewis College, but while there was charged with a felony for underage possession of drugs and alcohol on campus. Hedrick said the felony was deferred and turned into a misdemeanor.
She was a high-achieving student with a scholarship, but drug use nearly derailed her career. After a 12-hour stay in La Plata County Jail, Hedrick wanted to use her experiences and apply it to students who were going down a similar path.
“I did a lot of therapy counseling with (Herrera),” she said. “He was in a place where he wanted to hear the truth and was receiving it well. Joe takes ownership of his situation and does not play the victim, even though he has every right to. He has found strength in that.”
Through music, Herrera earned his opportunity at Aimes Community College thanks to the help of Talent Search, a federal outreach program that is apart of the TRIO Program that assists students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The battle withinThe stage gives Herrera an outlet to delve into his struggles. He works his craft in rap battles throughout Colorado. He took first at a battle in Grand Junction in February and claimed the title at Ignacio’s “Trend Setters” event at the Teepee Lounge.
Going by the stage name “Lil’ Joe,” Herrera exercises his thoughts and vocal chords as if he’s taking infield practice before a baseball game. His natural yet furious style is unmistakable. It’s here where he emerges from the shadows and truly shines.
With the stormy life behind him, Herrera looks to his future. He’s ready to prove that life has purpose.
“I’ve always had a mentality to be somebody, whether it’s through sports or music,” said Herrera. “Music has gotten me to so many places, and given me so much respect.”