Candido Ortiz beamed as he stood in front of his new restaurant, the bright yellow-and-red awning providing a splash of light on an otherwise drab stretch of sidewalk between a tattoo parlor and a liquor store where bulletproof glass protects the merchandise.
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After more than 26 years in prison, life has come full circle for Ortiz, who was arrested for selling drugs in the late 1980s and was sentenced to more than 49 years. A year ago, President Barack Obama granted Ortiz clemency, along with other nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to lengthy terms.
On Tuesday, Ortiz, a former prison chef, welcomed a gaggle of reporters and well-wishers to El Sabor Del Cafe, where he hopes to write his next chapter as a free man.
"I never was a bad man," Ortiz said. "I was trying to make money, and I went about it the wrong way. I was punished by society, but I don't feel angry about what happened to me because I was in prison for doing the wrong thing. But I'm different now. I'm a changed man."
Ortiz received a congratulatory letter from Obama this week praising him for "using your extraordinary talents to give back to your community."
After his release, Ortiz received a huge assist from the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a group spearheaded by Democratic former Gov. Jim McGreevey that helps released inmates navigate addiction treatment, employment training, health care and housing.
Ortiz, 56, was a head chef in several federal prisons and became accustomed to overseeing the feeding of thousands of inmates. After his release, he got a job right away as a short-order cook in Jersey City. The Reentry Corporation then helped him raise $25,000 in loans and grants to open his own restaurant.
"With this one act, President Obama began the transformation of Candido's life," McGreevey said. "Candido has been transformed from a ward of the state, at a cost of $55,000 per year, to a taxpayer."
The restaurant will serve standard American fare such as chicken wings, wraps, salads and pasta along with a buffet featuring Latin American items such as costillita de cerdo (pork ribs), bacalao (salted cod) and carne guisada (beef stew).
Ortiz said his hope remained intact even when he was staring at nearly five decades in prison.
"I never thought my life was over," he said. "I knew I had a long time, but I knew God was going to put his hand on me."
He thanked the Reentry Corporation for its role.
"I'm here today," he said, "because I want to share with the people around here and let them see what the right way of living can do for you."