It’s a long way from picking strawberries at her mother’s side in Irvine to her position as Public Information Officer at the Santa Ana Police Department for Sgt. Maria Lopez. Although the journey may not seem that far as the crow flies, for the 10th of 11 children of a bracero, it may feel like light years.
Lopez’s father, Francisco Orozco, first came to the United States from Mexico, to pick the fields up and down the California coast and through the Central Valley.
The expectation was for the children to join their parents in the fields as soon as they were able and contribute to family finances. For parents with little formal education, schooling was an extravagance. A college education seemed inconceivable, and Lopez is the first in her family to get a higher degree.
Before strawberry picking in Orange County became a chichi family activity, it was how Lopez’s parents were able to clothe and provide for their family. They moved among apartments in Santa Ana, barely getting by.
Lopez remembers being woken by her parents in the predawn hours, the beauty of the sunrise over the fields and the bone weariness at the end of the day.
An American-born child, Lopez dreamt of something more.
Athletics Sets the Foundation
A self-described “gym rat,” Lopez found her early dreams in sports, particularly basketball. Athletics and strict parenting kept her from the allure of the Southeast Santa Ana streets. Although she would top out at slightly over 5 feet, Lopez dreamed of playing in the WNBA. Though her baller skills didn’t get Lopez into the pros, they did lead her to a college education. She attended Golden West College and earned a two-year basketball scholarship at San Francisco State University.
However, it was anything but a straight path.
“My mom was very old school. She wasn’t a fan that I wanted to play basketball,” Lopez said. “But if it weren’t for basketball I don’t know if I would have attended college.”
Lopez said playing basketball was transformative in her life. Basketball taught her about teamwork and the importance of keeping her school grades up, and exposed her to a different world.
“It was the first time I got to travel,” she says. “It opened my eyes and showed a different side of living.”
She learned valuable lessons from her parents as well, particularly the importance and value of labor.
“When you talk about hard work, that’s what I learned from them,” she said.
In college, Lopez was introduced to law enforcement, which she had never considered as a vocation. She discovered the television show “The First 48,” a true crime series that follows real-life homicide cases and the investigators who work the cases.
Lopez said she would binge watch the show and wanted to solve crimes.
“It was a professor who broke the news that I had to be a cop to be a detective,” Lopez said with a laugh.
“He said, ‘You want to be a cop?’”
“I said, ‘I want to be a detective.’”
Lopez had the opportunity to do several ride-alongs with units in the Los Angeles Police Department Central Division.
“I was like, this is what I want to do,” she said.
After completing her eligibility at San Francisco State, Lopez completed her criminal justice requirements at Cal State Chico.
Lopez joined the Santa Ana Police Department in 2008 and entered the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy.
Since then she has worked her way up and, yes, worked as a detective and supervisor investigating domestic abuse, sexual violence, and child abuse.
Meeting the Challenge
Lopez says her goals in the job are straightforward.
“I want to be transparent and tell Santa Ana community what we do as quickly as I can,” Lopez said.
Born, raised, and educated in Santa Ana, Lopez understands the community and will strive to give out information in the same conversational style she’d use to tell her family what was going on.
Lopez expects the job to be a test and looks forward to rising to meet it – another quality she inherited from her athletic career.
“You can’t stay stagnant,” she said. “If things look a little too challenging, that’s what I go for.”
Lopez says she expects to learn as she goes, figuring out what information can be released and what must be withheld to protect the integrity of investigations and for public safety, whether she needs to go to the scene of a midnight shooting or meet with reporters at the front steps of the police department.
Lopez’s roots in the information business go back to her childhood, although she never envisioned a career in communications. Growing up, her family owned one television. And that television was tuned to only one thing.
“All my Dad watched was news,” Lopez said. Specifically Spanish-language news.
Consequently, that was all the family viewed.
“When the (PIO) position opened it took me back,” she said. “I thought maybe I could be that person, the voice, the face of the department.”
Which leads to a memento in the office.
Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, who handled the PIO Office for 12 years, left several items behind when he retired in 2021. One is a plaque with a kind of primer for those in the public eye. As a PIO in Santa Ana, that includes no small amount of camera and press facetime.
The plaque contains helpful reminders to check yourself in the mirror, stand tall, make eye contact, focus, smile and “never let them see you sweat.”
It’s entitled “I’m Ready for my Closeup,” and, Mr. DeMille, Maria Lopez is ready for hers.