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Jose Iuerdo talks about one of his art pieces called "The Committee" that is how he deals with being bipolar on Thursday, April 24, 2008. Jose has turned his life around through helps from the St. Mary's Center in Oakland, CA and through art. (Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune)
JOSE IUERDO shot up heroin for the first time at 14 in West Oakland. He didn't stop shooting up for 46 years, the approximate length of time he spent behind prison walls.

He knew San Quentin better than he knew Oakland. He robbed liquor stores mostly to feed his addiction. He was bipolar besides. And he gave heroin to his younger brother, who OD'd at 30.

That was Jose Iuerdo when he was Jose Querdo. He went through a name change about the same time he underwent a life change from con artist to artist.

Born 65 years ago in Colorado, he came to West Oakland with his parents during World War II. His mother was a Rosie the Riveter welder in the shipyards while his father was off at war.

When the war ended, so did the marriage. His father became a gambler and alcoholic in West Oakland. His mother moved to Alameda and lived "on the wild side." Jose and his brother, five years younger, stayed with their father. But role models clearly were missing.

"I started pushing dope," Iuerdo said. "That was the lifestyle of where we were living. At 14, I got into heroin and became a dope addict."

He became a ward of the state, then was sent to San Quentin at 18.

"I shot more dope in the joint than I did on the streets," he said. "It was that plentiful. Mexican gangs rioted against each other. We stabbed them, stabbed them, stabbed them."

Did Iuerdo kill anyone?

"Maybe so, maybe not. I can't tell you," he said. Iuerdo had three stays at San Quentin and one at Pelican Bay.


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"I'd get out, get busted, go right back to the joint," he said. "That was my life, the way it was supposed to be."

It's amazing that he's still alive.

"I know," he said. "I've been shot five times, man, by the police. I'm blind in my right eye. That's where a fragment hit me, destroying my retina. You can see the scar where the bullet grazed me." He pointed to a scar running vertically along his right cheek.

In leaving prison the last time, he lost his birth name. What happened — and he swears this is true — he was imprisoned so long, the Department of Motor Vehicles "expunged" his name.

And his birth certificate was somewhere in Colorado. When he applied for a new identification card, someone interpreted the typed "Q" as an "I" and that's why he's now Iuerdo and not Querdo.

That's OK with him. He's happier with the new Jose than the old Jose. He receives SSI checks for his bipolar condition, now controlled by medication. He lives in a Piedmont residence for seniors. He's now a painter.

In 2002, he showed up at Oakland's St. Mary's Center, a refuge for seniors who are homeless, hungry or, in Iuerdo's case, an ex-inmate druggie.

"This is where the miracle began," he said Thursday at St. Mary's.

St. Mary's is where he met Sister Mary Nolan, a miracle worker.

"She's like my angel," he said.

St. Mary's provides counseling, therapy, psychiatric help. Something called Recovery 55.

"I found my God of understanding in Recovery 55," Iuerdo said. "Something happened inside of me — a spiritual awakening. Sister Mary became my case manager, and ultimately my therapist. I kicked heroin cold turkey."

That was 2003. Iuerdo the junkie was gone. Iuerdo the artist was born, trained by art instructor Susan Werner.

Iuerdo paints expressively — bright colors, interesting faces. But it's the eyes that re-appear on several of his canvases. In one painting, it's the eyes of an abandoned child — his eyes, he noted.

"I thought painting was for sissies," he said. "But it's fun. I paint with inspiration; I don't paint no objects."

He won a painting award for seniors in Washington, D.C. And he's had several local exhibitions.

"I've seen Jose come from early recovery, being just really wild and unstructured," said Sister Mary, "to a man right now who's respected by everyone. What this is about is becoming whole."

Iuerdo was part of a funded group of seniors who traveled to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to talk about homelessness and health care.

What would that 14-year-old heroin user say about himself now at 65?

"I have to pinch myself every once in a while to believe that this is actually real," he said, "that I've been transformed."

He pinched his arm hard.

Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Metro page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail dnewhouse@bayareanewsgroup.com.