The Litchfield Files: Maria Ruiz

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Piper Chapman has convinced herself she’s in on a game she knows nothing about and she’s up against a player who was born into the rules. Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) is a tough cookie who calls it how she sees it and doesn’t believe in handing out niceties unless she feels people are truly deserving of it. Since handing over her daughter to her partner Yadriel, immediately after giving birth to her, she has kept her head down, living solely for visitation hours. She suffered deep depressions for a while, unable to face her childless reality and the guilt eating at her during every waking hour. In the kitchen she managed to keep herself busy and stumble out of her despondent state, but the momentary high quickly slipped into a silent rage when Yadriel announced he no longer wanted to bring their daughter along for visitation. And this anger has now manifested itself in a manner her teenage self would despise her for.

Maria was raised by her father Jorge, better known as El Leon, the leader of a Dominican gang. As a young child, Maria enjoyed the lavish birthday parties and the attention her father and his gang gave her. But once she hit her teens, she was embarrassed by her father’s lifestyle and the Dominican pride she perceived as false. She wanted to become a dental hygienist and help people gain confidence with pearly white smiles, but instead assisted her father’s rival, Yadriel, in hiding a pearly white package when she saw him running from the police. She was drawn to his stoic, humble personality and quickly fell in love – much to the dismay of El Leon. He took deep offense in his daughter leaving the house to live with the man who had stolen his corner and was responsible for their crumbling empire. Though she remained stubborn in her decision, walking out on her family wasn’t easy for her. But when she saw Yadriel smiling at her from a distance upon exiting her house, she felt she had made the right choice. Even though it meant she had left one drug ring for another. But “he’s just trying to make a living,” right?

Growing up with El Leon, Maria felt the tensions between the Mexican and the Dominican community at first hand, but the “them vs. us” mentality was one she never adopted. Up until now, there has never been any real friction amongst the inmates of Litchfield’s Spanish Harlem; there was no beef between the “cholos”, “dumb-inicans” or “Bacardis”. They weren’t racist; they just said racist shit. But with the influx of new inmates and a growing divide between cultural groups, a power struggle is underway, and Blanca plans to take advantage of the Dominican’s rise in numbers. At first Ruiz isn’t impressed by Blanca’s new found sense of national pride. All she ever wanted was to bridge the divide between the different Hispanic communities and, to this day, she does not see the point in the on-going hostility between them.

We're all the same, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, todos somos mestizos, todos comemos arroz con habichuelas."    

But her attitude changes when she witnesses Blanca being attacked by the White Pride newcomers. Her friends are ready to strike back immediately, when Maria steps up and takes the lead. She knows how to play this, she knows they can’t act on impulse or they’ll be shipped off to seg. Instead, they wait for the right moment and throw a hoodie over Blanca’s attacker, drag her into the prison’s salon and beat her. Evidently pleased with herself and her new status, she approaches Blanca and, in no uncertain terms, lets her know they are now in it together. However, there’s no evidence of a joined leadership in the following episodes. On the contrary, Maria is obviously la jefa and whatever she says, goes.

While members of her gang try to persuade her to push drugs, Ruiz has her eyes on setting up a used panty business much like Piper’s. She does so successfully, despite Piper’s warning her against it, and even manages to get Maritza and Marisol to ditch the Felonious Spunk empire in favour of “upward mobility and la raza.” When Piper’s attempt to take back what she believed was rightfully hers adds an extra three to five years to Maria’s sentence, the war is on and hiding behind a White Power group isn’t going to help Chapman one bit. Maria and her crew actually help Piper feel more at home amongst her new group of friends by branding her with a swastika. But, is it all really about la raza for Ruiz? Nationalism, conflicts between races and the world of drugs were once the things she most resented, to the point in which she no longer wanted to identify as Dominican. And though she has now taken reign over her own people, it is hard to imagine her having taken on a racial superiority over cultural groups who once formed part of her close circle of friends.

Though she has always been moody and brash, she has taken on a frighteningly intimidating attitude as of late, one she is not afraid to keep up in front of the guards either. The choice to take on the position of la jefa seems to have been more about control and purpose than innate patriotism or the need to stand in the fire lines of a racial war. Dreams of reuniting with her beloved daughter are slipping further and further away, her job in the kitchen has become less satisfying with the introduction of pre-packaged meals and visitation hours no longer hold the same magic for her. In taking on the leader role she has given herself a task and a strong identity, two aspects of prison life that are quickly exhausted and forgotten. But whether she takes pride in having followed in her father’s footsteps or is conflicted with her personal integrity remains to be seen. Only one thing is for certain: this is a lady you do not want to fuck with. 

Commissioned by Paste Magazine

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