The Azusa native has served as mayor for the past 13 years, but is not running for reelection


On Monday, Azusa will have a new mayor for the first time since 2007. Joe Rocha is retiring after 13 years as mayor of Azusa.

As he began to clean out his office, Rocha reflected on his time as mayor and his life in the Canyon City.

“I don’t look like what a mayor should look like according to some people. When I first was elected, I went to meetings and people asked, ‘where’s the mayor?’ They would point to me and say, ‘He can’t be the mayor. That’s not what a mayor looks like,’” Rocha said. “Take the time to get to know people before you pass judgment on them.”

At 75, Rocha has lived his entire life in Azusa. He said the city looks remarkably different now than it was in the 1940s and 50s. 

“When I was young, there were certain parts of Azusa where we were not allowed to go,” Rocha said. “Our destiny was determined by other people based on the color of our skin.”

Rocha’s parents were denied the opportunity for many things, including buying a house in the northern part of Azusa. Because of this, his father pushed the importance of education on his family from a young age. 

“My dad only went to third grade. My mom only went to seventh, and they were both hard workers,” Rocha said. “My dad really wanted us to graduate and go to university. He worked a couple of jobs to help me get through [the University of] La Verne. I was the first one in either family to go to college.”

After graduation, Rocha became an elementary school teacher. He began working at Magnolia Elementary, but soon transferred to Charles H. Lee Elementary, where he taught for more than 40 years.

Rocha taught third through sixth grades throughout his time at Lee. Then at 28 years old, Rocha began teaching ESL to adults. As if this wasn’t enough to fill his time, he decided to go back to school to get his master’s at La Verne.

“I worked days and nights when I was getting my Master’s,” Rocha said. “I was married. My wife and I got married really young, I was 22, and we had three or four kids by that point. I knew I wanted something better for the kids.”

Rocha gave his kids a piece of advice that he has strived to live by to this day.

“I told them, ‘Dreams come true if you aspire to be what you want to be. Don’t let anybody else determine your destiny. Don’t try to prove them wrong, but prove yourself right,’” Rocha said.

Rocha instilled this lesson in all of his students, to treat everyone with dignity and work hard.

“It’s not a perfect journey, but as long as you know the Lord is always with you, you will get to the point with a lot of hard work and perseverance,” Rocha said.

Rocha was asked to run for City Council in the 90s. He declined the first time, but the next time, he listened. In 1997, Rocha ran along with nine other candidates. He finished with the second most votes and earned a seat on the council. 

After a decade of service on the City Council, Rocha decided he wanted to do more. 

“In 2006, there was not a balance between economic development and quality of life in Azusa because we were so hungry to bring in businesses. We were accepting anything without any concern of how these new businesses were going to impact our people, our families,” Rocha said. “That was my platform, to maintain equal balance between economic developments and the way it impacted our residents.”

One of his accomplishments as mayor focused on community development. He created an opportunity on Saturdays for kids to work with adults, planting flowers and trees. Rocha saw this as an opportunity for kids who didn’t have older siblings to receive mentoring from adults. 

“We give up a lot of our time, but seeing the difference in the kids, it’s all worth it,” Rocha said. “Don’t ask of others what you’re not willing to do yourself. So if I ask them to pick up trash or to plant plants, I’m right alongside them.”

Another of Rocha’s accomplishments as mayor was a structural change to City Council meetings. He made sure that the meetings always began with a prayer. That way, even if there were harsh words to be exchanged soon after, each meeting began on a positive note of faith.

“Our meetings have been very calm and respectful with the different pastors from the different churches,” Rocha said. “We had a ministry association and it fell apart because of in house fighting. So I brought it back about a year ago and now they’re strong. They make sure that we always have somebody here to start with prayer.”

Rocha is hopeful this tradition continues with his successor. He said one of the candidates promised he would keep it going, but Rocha is unsure.

In his tenure as mayor, Rocha has seen numerous businesses come and go. Several prominent chains have built new locations in Azusa in the past year, including Raising Cane’s and In-And-Out Burger. Rocha said he always tries to speak with the new business operators before they open.

“I ask them, ‘If there are two qualified applicants and one is an Azusa resident and one is not, please give the job to [the] Azusan,’” Rocha said. “I hope that it continues, that businesses come in, businesses that are going to enhance the city and also hire Azusans.”

Rocha has also worked to help the homeless. He helped start a food bank 12 years ago under Pathfinder’s Ministry.

“Every Friday we feed about 40-50 people. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Azusa, or if you’re working or not. If you come in, you get food,” Rocha said. “The people are very respectful. I hope some of the things that we have will continue.”


When thinking about his legacy, Rocha turned to the famous John F. Kennedy quote, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

“That’s my motto. Don’t ask for what your people can do for you. Ask what you can do for them,” Rocha said. “I think my students and the people of Azusa can vouch for that.”

Rocha decided not to run for reelection because he wants to spend more time with his wife and the rest of the family. His wife has had health issues for years and Rocha began experiencing some too recently. 

Last year, Rocha caught pneumonia. When he went to the doctor’s office, his doctor found a lesion in his lung and another abnormality in Rocha’s chest.

“From February 8 last year until July 30, I had to have procedures done almost on a daily basis,” Rocha said. “I went from taking zero pills a day to five a day.”

Although he is sad to leave the office he loves so much, Rocha is prepared.

Photo of Joe Rocha and his wife, which he keeps in his wallet. Photo courtesy of Nathan Foster.

“We knew it was coming. My wife and I, we’ve been together since we were kids. We knew the day would come,” Rocha said. “My wife has been sick for a long time. I knew it was time.”

Rocha recently bought a condo in Hawaii where he and his wife will spend most of the next year. They don’t plan on keeping it much longer than that, but he wants all of his family to come out with him for a week or two at a time. 

“I’m excited to spend time with my family out there,” Rocha said. “But that’s not home. Azusa is home.”