Reimigio Is Guilty By Association Vows To Do Good Always
by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
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, California.
He is back again on the streets, as the lantern he finished in 90 minutes was displayed proudly along this city’s South of Market (SoMa) area as the Filipino-American neighborhood in San Francisco 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 imprisons 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 he stepped out of prison in January, 2005.
HE 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 were parts of his everyday life since arriving from the Philippines in 1973.
He was only 12 then, he said, 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 members killed two African-American males. Reimigio was 19 then and, together with the three other gang members, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The courts said we were guilty "by association," Reimigio said.
Going to San Quentin, he confided, 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 sad within that was so deep I couldn’t shake it off. I then asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this to her?," Reimigio revealed.
"It was then, I 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 told the nurse.
He said he would walk this particular street and said the same thing over and over again until the nurse came to his senses.
"He won’t change overnight," Reimigio said.
This is what he did –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.
SOMA 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.
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 is 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 wielded his tongue rather than his fist.
Held dialogues among inmates which 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 are called.
I’d tell them first "to be always conscious about their surrounding environment," Reimigio said.
He also incessantly reminded 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 advised 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 I do good always."
I always told 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.
THE trek to walk again on SoMa was long in itself for Reimigio; longer than his 25-year prison stay.
He went through a battery of tests and interviews, mostly revisiting the days leading to the crime two decades ago and the night of the crime itself. Some questions, he said, were also about his future out of jail.
A passing grade on a psychiatric test led to a prison official’s recommendation for Reimigio’s release. A three-person panel evaluated the official’s report, grilled Reimigio about almost everything on himself, and pushed a recommendation that he be placed into the state-wide parole program.
A nine-person panel seconded that recommendation and Reimigio’s application landed on the desk of former on-screen tough guy-now-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reimigio waited for 60 days for Schwarzenegger.
After six months, Reimigio spent his last Christmas inside San Quentin in December 2005.
Stepping out on a new year, Reimigio said he began to take steps in his new-found freedom.
He lived in Daly City, got a full-time job, and now receiving strong community support from a SoMa-based nonprofit. These three conditions are part of California’s parole program.
He went back to SoMa, saw the Bayanihan House at the corner of 6th and Mission streets, and was then introduced to the Filipino-American Development Foundation.
He is also a volunteer for FADF’s sister group-Veterans Equity Center, that assists elderly Filipinos, especially Filipino World War II veterans.
"I find joy in helping our elderly," Reimigio said.
He cited that not everybody accompany its elderly people crossing the busy streets of San Francisco.
He doesn’t begrudge these people but take it upon himself to be the elderly’s escort when times call for such simple Boy Scout task.
Crossing the streets, however, also reminds him he’s, indeed, out of prison.
He’s also out on a mission.
THIS Christmas 2006 was his sweetest, Reimigio said, not only because of his freedom but also because he showcased the resilience of the Filipino against odds stacked against him or her in a foreign land.
Reimigio is one of the key people who organized the "Fourth Parol (Lantern) Festival" of FADF.
Filipino lanterns of all sizes hand-made by Reimigio and other Filipinos paraded through downtown San Francisco to showcase the Filipino way of celebrating Christmas.
The San Francisco public, through the festival, was reminded that the parol is "Filipino," explained FADF community strategist MC Canlas.
What reminded parade onlookers was that the bamboo strips, art papers and Christmas lights are "Filipino," and will thus provide an opportunity to have these products, as well as the parol, mainstreamed into the US market.
"Is there any product that reminds people this is ‘Filipino’? There’s none, and whatever Filipino symbol or product we have should then blend with the [American] public’s search for Asian products, including Filipino products."
Such is Canlas’s long-term vision for Filipinos’ visibility in the US, not just in the Bay Area.
Reimigio, tasked to take care of materials used by volunteers in FADF’s weekly parol-making workshops, wants to be a part of the festival’s vision "to bring back the Pinoy Christmas tradition".
Reimigio also has a vision for SoMa: that people there, Filipinos included, will be less involved in gangs and avoid violence.
He has been doing just that since January last year as a gang prevention counselor for FADF among high school and college students.
He slowly lays down the parol, sat back and allowed silence to linger when asked about his plans in 2007.
"I am praying to the Lord that He makes me do these good things for others. For that, I will not leave my neighborhood." /MPmailto:firstname.lastname@example.org