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Recovery Champion: Domingo Noreiga

The way Domingo Noriega sees it, he’s still living the American dream.

“It’s been a real blessing to come here,” the stout, 63-year-old Peruvian immigrant said at Municipal Stadium, where he’s a janitor and parking-lot attendant for the minor league San Jose Giants baseball team. “I feel fortunate that someone opened the door for me.”

It just wasn’t the door his father envisioned decades ago when they left their working class neighborhood in Lima. Noriega played soccer on the dirt streets with other boys, had never even seen a baseball diamond, let alone think of working at one some day.

A leather craftsman by trade, Noriega’s father picked crops in Colorado, Arizona and California before settling the family in Santa Clara County. He landed a janitorial job at IBM that would last 25 years and give him the financial stability to help his children succeed in school and move up in life and work.

Not that he wanted to become a custodian, but the young Noriega delighted in helping his father on occasion at IBM. In sixth grade, he even earned pocket money sweeping floors at a garment shop after school.

“That’s where I learned my trade,” Noriega said. “I love it!”

When Noriega’s older brother entered medical school, his proud father came up with a line for anyone who could appreciate a good immigrant story: “I already have a doctor in the family. Now what I need is a lawyer!”

The idea grew on the young Noriega. After sailing through Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, he entered Santa Clara University and graduated in 1977 with a pre-law bachelor’s degree. The dream was on track.

Only one year into his studies at Lincoln Law School of San Jose, manic depression suddenly felled him. There was nothing in his past or the family history to suggest he was vulnerable to the severe mental illness.

Noriega said his first doctors at a public clinic prescribed an alarming dosage of Lithium, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant at the time, that eventually damaged his kidneys. The complications produced muscle twitches and gout, a form of arthritis caused by excess uric acid in the bloodstream.

“I felt like I was withered down.”

Even today his hands tremble as he speaks. Forced by lack of funding, Domingo left law school and started washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, cleaning high-tech offices, and helping as best he could his brother, Arturo’s wine business.

He caught a break about seven years ago when the residential treatment center where he was living temporarily sent him to a job fair at Momentum for Mental Health. That’s where he met San Jose Giants recruiters, who decided to hire him.

He now works every home game at Municipal Stadium during the baseball season. After directing traffic he does general maintenance in and around the stadium and sweeps out the dugouts after the final outs. His supervisors say he never misses a detail. In fact, the team named its employee customer service award after Domingo this past year.

After all he’s been through, from the dashed dream of lawyering to suffering the consequences of botched chemical treatment, Noriega tells his story calmly and without an ounce of bitterness, sorrow or self-pity.

After the death of his father last year, he continued to live in the family house in San Jose, pay the mortgage and bills. He hasn’t taken a vacation in years. In his spare time, he keeps up with the news and reads the Bible. He carries a pocket copy around the stadium.

“A happy future means to be able to work,” Noriega said. “Sometimes it seems a little treacherous as you’re walking up the mountain and before you enter the valley below, but there’s always a reward.”