BY JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, USA—PAROLED convict Rico Reimigio’s hands grip different sets of bars symbolizing a freedom only he could taste: bamboo strips for his first parol, the Filipino Christmas lantern.
On his face is a genuine smile, also the first time this reporter sees on Reimigio, the former thug feared while stomping the streets of San Francisco.
He is back again on the streets, as the lantern he finished in 90 minutes would be displayed proudly along this city’s South of Market (SoMa) area as the Filipino-American neighborhood here holds its fourth parade of Filipino lanterns on December 9.“I can’t describe the happiness I feel,” the 45-year-old Reimigio said, his inch-thick thumb and forefinger deftly slipping the paper-thin bamboo slits to tie a knot holding the five-pointed lantern.
He holds it up against the light, silently proud of what his work reflects and giddy with excitement at his first Christmas outside prison.
Reimigio is grateful for the opportunity given to him by the sponsor of the parade and the materials for the lanterns, a nonprofit Filipino-American neighborhood group in San Francisco’s SoMa area.
Now out on a five-year parole program, Reimigio is also grateful to having rediscovered his being a Filipino in the United States, which has tided him over for 25 years at the San Quentin Detention Center in San Rafael, California.
Jail riots, he narrated, are common occurrences in the 150-year-old San Quentin where the US government initially imprisoned most hardened and violent criminals.
After acknowledging his Filipino roots, which his mother reminded him of after his first three years in San Quentin, Reimigio said he took a different tack than slugging it out with fellow detainees during riots.
“Talking things over worked and inmates from other races respect Filipino inmates for that.”
That respect is what Reimigio has been bringing since stepping out of prison in January this year.
ToughHE smelled the marijuana before he saw the pot smoker, a Filipino nurse.
Reimigio wasn’t surprised to have felt déjà vu walking the streets of SoMa. It was here when drugs and violence was part of his everyday life since arriving from the Philippines in 1973.
He was only 12 then, he says, but SoMa became his little “Tondo”, a gangster’s haven in the Philippines during the 1960s.Gangsterism among high school students like him became his folly in 1980 when a fellow gang member killed two African-American males. Reimigio was 19 then and, together with three other gang members, were sentenced to life imprisonment.The courts said we were guilty “by association,” Reimigio said.
Going to San Quentin, he said, never liberated him from the environment of illegal drug abuse: prison itself was flooded with drugs and alcohol. How these substances flowed in and out of the penal system there, Reimigio couldn’t tell.
But his mother saved him from entering the bowels of hell.
“When she visited me in prison, I just felt this sadness within that was so deep I couldn’t shake it off. I then asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this to her?,” Reimigio said.
“It was then that I’ve realized it is never late to do something.”
The smell of pot grew stronger and whacked Reimigio from the reverie.
“Stop taking drugs, man,” he tells the nurse.
He said he would walk this particular street and say the same thing over and over again until the nurse comes to his senses.“He won’t change overnight,” Reimigio said.
This is what he do –gang and drug prevention work in SoMa– as a tribute to his mother, who had long hoped for the son’s exit from prison bars.
SoMaSOMA is an area adjacent to Market Street in downtown San Francisco where most foreigners and first-time immigrants have been settling, Filipinos including, since the 1920s.
Its Mission Street is a prism of lives in paltry and plenty. The street with its chic buildings and parks links SoMa to the city’s financial district. People would come out of high-rise and medium-rise housing projects to buy something from dollops of grocery stores or shops selling sex toys and videos that splotch the street. Along the way, they would cast eyes on the homeless or consciously or unconsciously bump into drug addicts.
This is the street Reimigio returned to pounding with his soft-soled shoes and brain cells honed inside San Quentin.“Now I am guarding SoMa from violence.”
This self-appointed task was a trek that began in the late 1980s when Reimigio went back to books while inside prison.So starting the late 1980s, Reimigio was in a mode of personal reform.
He finished some general education equivalency subjects leading to a high school diploma, and earned an Associate in Arts degree at Hartnell College; the prison bars just a physical barrier.
The toughest challenge was within himself, especially during jail riots: Reimigio wielding his tongue rather than his fist.Holding dialogues among inmates helped him develop leadership qualities. Prison officials noticed the changes when they appointed Reimigio to lead incoming Filipino inmates serving life sentences –lifers, as they were called.
I’d tell them first “to be always conscious about their surrounding environment,” Reimigio said.
He would also incessantly remind inmates to master their addiction to illegal substances that filter through the prison bars.“If you want to get high, take drugs in your room. But I suggest you stop taking drugs,” he continuously told Filipino inmates.Lifers would lose hope and regress towards accepting the fate of never again getting outside prison.
A lifer himself, Reimigio’s hopes always pointed to the opportunity that things could change “if we do good always.”“I always tell the Pinoy inmates doing good will boost chances to shorten time in prison when parole opportunities come our way,” Reimigio said.
He proved that when that chance came in 2005: he applied for parole.
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