Ricardo Lemus will give the commencement address to fellow graduates at Sacramento City College on Wednesday, a milestone in the transformation of a young man who occupied a prison cell not long ago.
His speech is entitled “We Persevere.”
Graduation days are typically awash in tears, but the tears for Lemus – likely shed by his family, friends, professors and counselors – will not only be for his recent achievements.
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They will be for the person Lemus, 31, used to be – an angry, confused young man whose propensity for physical violence earned him two terms of incarceration with the state of California. The first, a five-year stint at the California Youth Authority, came after Lemus was caught with his father’s gun. The gun is what sent him to CYA, but there were other offenses, such as evading police and battery.
Lemus had planned to fire the weapon at another young man. “I was going to hurt him,” he said recently. “I look back on it now and if I hadn’t gotten caught my charge would have been attempted murder or murder. I would have a murder on my rap sheet and one on my conscience.”
Lemus said he is looking forward to addressing his fellow graduates and feels honored to be selected. He is one of two students this year to receive the Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes SCC graduates who excel in academics and student leadership. The award has been given since 1931, and Lemus’ name will be engraved on a wall on the Rodda archway on campus.
He will receive two associate degrees, one in interdisciplinary math and science, and the other in kinesiology. Lemus plans to attend California State University, Sacramento, in the fall. Eventually, he would like to pursue a doctorate in kinesiology and become a physical therapist attending to the elderly.
Lemus, who kept a promise to his dad and never got a tattoo, is powerfully built with broad shoulders. He has close-cropped hair and a well-manicured soul patch. He’s not tall but has a big presence and a keen command of language. His life used to be about “linking with Mexican subcultures” in prison to stay safe. Now it’s about “seeking academic rigor.”
“I had never said this to a student before, but a few years back, I told him it would be amazing if my son grew up to be like him,” said Kim Beyrer, faculty coordinator of student leadership at SCC. “He said, ‘Wait, let me tell you about myself.’ Of course I was surprised. He’s come a long way.”
The Ricardo Lemus at SCC has been known for a singular focus on academics, a tireless work ethic and a cheerful nature that bears little resemblance to the crimes of his past.
“His story is powerful,” said Sandra Guzman, a counselor at SCC. “He really shows how when you believe in a student, he can really succeed.”
Lemus said he wants to work in hospitals and help ease the pain of vulnerable patients. “I want to give back,” he said. “I’ve paid my debt to the state of California, but I don’t feel I’ve paid my debt to society.”
He also wants to square it with his hometown of Winters, where he was once known for all the wrong reasons. After he establishes his career, Lemus hopes to work with troubled youths there, helping kids like the one he used to be.
If all goes well, he hopes to have built up enough goodwill to one day run for mayor of Winters. That would be something, because a few years back, Lemus’ only desire was to be “the biggest and baddest” person around.
By the age of 5, Lemus already had experienced the thrill of violence, beating up his then-best friend. The attention he received each time he engaged in a fight, even when he was outnumbered and took a beating, was intoxicating. He also thrived on the rush of social acceptance.
“Winters was fairly even between Latinos from Mexico and Caucasian people,” he said. “I hung out with the bad kids of all the groups.”
It’s not uncommon for first-generation immigrant kids to stray from once-tight families and become lost and isolated. The customs that might have kept Lemus in line in Mexico were not there in Winters, as Lemus searched for answers while his parents worked the fields.
His father, Abelino, and mother, Alicia, were always working, providing for the family. They thought that was enough, but when their only son began to stray, they didn’t know what to do. “From 13 to 15, those were difficult years,” Abelino Lemus said. “There were a bunch of little incidents that became big ones.”
“I had the example of a good man in front of me but I went another way,” Lemus said.
Working 10 to 12 hours in humble jobs held no allure for Lemus. Without his parents around much, he gravitated toward negative people who he thought exuded strength. In his mind, he was excited to go to CYA and was rewarded for it by his peer group.
“When I got out, people gravitated to me,” he said. “I was respected.”
Not long after he was released from CYA, Lemus got a DUI. What followed was a downward spiral of arrests and more trouble. He was facing a host of charges, including possession of brass knuckles. If it were his first offense, it would have been one thing. But it wasn’t. His past record, combined with more recent offenses, caught up with him.
On his first weekend in prison, his parents came to visit. He was happy to see them until he saw his father’s brokenhearted gaze. “He told me, ‘You got locked up for five years and you didn’t learn anything,” Lemus said. “I told him I would turn it around. He said that seeing was believing.”
Lemus wasn’t sure what to do with himself after he was released from prison. An older sister attending SCC suggested he give college a try.
The odds were stacked against him. The recidivism rate for former California inmates to return to prison within three years of release is over 60 percent, according to the California Department of Corrections. The odds for older students progressing from basic to advanced math also are not good, said Guzman of SCC.
Lemus bucked the odds. “Statistically speaking, he shouldn’t be here,” Guzman said.
Said Lemus: “What you tell yourself is what you become. Your words become your actions and your actions become your reality.”
For his parents, for his sisters, for himself – Lemus decided he wanted to stop hurting people. “It wasn’t just the individuals I hurt, it was their families,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore. I want to make my life about helping people.”
Lemus knows that proving it is more important than saying it. So his life will continue to be about proving it. That’s why his parents and others likely will be in tears during his commencement speech.
“You can never abandon your kids, even when they are in trouble,” Abelino Lemus said. “Look at all Ricardo has done. Look at how he is changed. I think he is on the right road.”