Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruiz (1997)

…I’m a child of the nineties, so maybe that explains why I seem to be so fascinated with so much of the literature from the period?

Or maybe it’s just that what so many writers published during the nineties comes off the pages as being directly related to general discussions about law and order today.

To be sure, Mona Ruiz’s Two Badges informs the idea of law and order from a rare and critical position; inspired by the author’s own life, the book is an autobiographical foray into the world of a former gang member turned police officer in her ‘old’ neighborhood.

If it sounds like a strange concept, the author is more than well aware of it. In the introduction to Badges, Ruiz describes the process for her:

“Talking about my past, my barrio and the circle of friends is difficult because there has been so much pain and loss. For many of them, the fact that I wear a police uniform now is a betrayal of sorts. I hope that this book will help them understand that I have never turned my back on the past–just the opposite, I believe I have dedicated my life to facing and dealing with it. I never left my barrio, I never ran away. I stayed and I’m trying to make a difference.”

The excerpt hits close to home, capturing perfectly the sense of survivor’s guilt that faces so many who feel they ‘escaped’ from a certain tragedy while their counterparts ‘stayed behind’.

In the case of Mona Ruiz’s life, the tragedy is the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration that demeans and disfigures her immediate circle of friends, and later, their children.

There is a second tragedy, however. If Ruiz was ‘fortunate’ enough to ‘escape’ the cycle, it’s figuratively and literally a blessing in disguise, as she takes on a uniform which many would argue plays an unforgivable role in the execution of the cycle.

Ruiz doesn’t preach to the reader about which side has the right, though. Instead, she speaks purely about how role-switching since her youth informs her adulthood on unforgettable terms, as if it all happened in a single day:

“…The makeup made us feel older. The mask smoothed away signs of weakness and gave us power. When I was a teen, it was a sign that I belonged to the streets. At age thirty-two, staring into the peeling mirror in the locker room at the police station, it was a disguise, a way to hide my badge and my job. I couldn’t pretend, though, that I wasn’t feeling strange seeing myself in the war paint again. Behind my busy hands, I saw the face of my past staring at me in that mirror.”

For its vivid sense of introspection, Ruiz’s passage brings to mind just how often ‘the mask’ is being donned. That is, just when does the make-up begin for a person, and at what point does it end?

Moreover, in the twenty-first century, who isn’t putting on a mask to get through the day? For Ruiz, putting on the mask in her teens is a rite of passage, or the first step of claiming a face in the world for power. But later as a police officer, the disguising only continues.

As Badges goes on though, it’s clear that Ruiz isn’t interested as much in ‘playing’ for power as much as she’s interested in healing from the consequences of so much playing.

Apart from the struggle between her roles in the past and the present, there is a third struggle for Mona: at home, when the badge is off, she’s the wife of a jealous husband, and mother to their children.

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Even after everything, then, the mask-donning and fighting continues for her, and I can only imagine how exhausting it was for Ruiz to not just to survive all of this, but to then place it into perspective and sit down to write about it.

For this, apart from the fascinating insights the book offers to the discussion of law and order, Two Badges also simply shows how while great writing takes incredible amounts of time, when done truthfully and unapologetically, the result is genius.

In turn, The Lives of Mona Ruiz get a third badge: one of raucous approval from The L.A. Storyteller.

A couple of months ago, I had the privilege to share an excerpt of the book alongside a group of youngsters with the I.O.W. program, and though the writing didn’t earn unanimous badges of approval from them, it sure inspired a lively array of opinions; I can assure anyone looking to engage their own group of youngsters that Ruiz’s achievement will come through for you all the same.

J.T.

 

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