It's all about choices.
When a teenage Mona Ruiz witnessed the death of her brother-in-law Oso after a drive-by shooting on New Year's Eve, she made a choice to get away from gang life. Today, the 40-year-old mother of three is a member of the Santa Ana Police Department and the head of its Graffiti Task Force.
This week, Ruiz spoke to students at Santiago High School, telling them stories about her experiences in gangs, about the different types of graffiti and graffiti artists, about the importance of making positive choices.
She spoke to the students because of choices that they made.
Bored with the district-mandated book her class was reading, sophomore Charlene Delatorre decided the class should read "Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruiz," a 1997 book co-written with Times staff writer Geoff Boucher. Delatorre, 16, had heard about the book and knew that classmate Louie Ruiz, 15, was the policewoman's nephew.
Their English teacher, Amy Barr, liked the idea but didn't have school funds to purchase 140 books and didn't want her students to pay the $22.95 cover price. Louie and Charlene suggested that the class chip in to buy 30 classroom copies that Barr's students could read in class. Barr put the idea out to her students.
"As soon as you know it, I have $500 in my hand," Barr said. "They gave me the money out of their own pockets."
Barr said most of the kids chipped in $5 apiece, although some could only afford $1. "These kids are so poor and it's amazing," Barr said. "They're taking charge of their own curriculum."
Barr was able to purchase 30 books at a discount from Barnes & Noble. About halfway into the book, Barr called Ruiz and asked her if she would speak to the students.
Ruiz didn't hesitate.
"The students don't realize how special they are to take their money and buy a book," Ruiz said. "It shows that they're interested in their education and interested in making positive choices."
Another student, Ross Mattice, 16, thought that when they finished reading the book, students should donate some of them to the school library, and the rest to local juvenile halls. "The books that the district has to choose from are boring. We can't relate to them," Ross said. "[Two Badges] is something we can relate to. It's from around here."
And now Rueben Martinez, who owns a bookstore in Santa Ana, is donating $350 to the cause, letting Barr's students pick out books for their school library and to donate some to the juvenile halls.
At the end of Ruiz's visit, students asked her to read a favorite section from the book. She read the section about Oso. "It was my wake-up," Ruiz said.
After the drive-by shooting, when Oso died in a hospital, "His mother screamed a scream I still hear today in my head," Ruiz said. "And I hear it whenever a parent is told that their child has died.
"It's your choice. Even if you're involved [in gangs], you can still get out. That's why I'm here today."
Chris Ceballos can be reached at (714) 966-7440