Playmate on Patrol
roberta vasquez could break your arm as well as your heart, but she saves the rough stuff for the bad guys
At 18, Roberta Vasquez was bored. She was in her second year of college, still living at home, and her life lacked -- well -- adventure. So she dropped out of college, rented her own apartment and went looking for a job. Her first stop was the May Company department store in Los Angeles. On the job application, she noticed the classification "Security." She was intrigued. "When I thought about it, I said to myself, 'I can do that!' I had the strength and I had a black belt in karate, so I knew I could handle myself."
Bert's qualifications, though startling for an 18-year-old, were just right. She got the job -- and a spot in Playboy's February 1984 Women of Steel pictorial. Cool, strong and compassionate, she soon found she was a natural at law enforcement. She applied for, and got, another position, this time with the California State Police, patrolling state property.
In those two jobs, Roberta got the adventure she was looking for -- sometimes. Sometimes, it was just an experience.
"I discovered I have to adopt a different personality toward the public because I'm a woman. I don't necessarily have to be meaner than a man but just a little more assertive. I have to stand my ground and demand certain things from the people I'm dealing with. I can't smile, which leads everyone to ask, 'What's wrong?"' or 'Didn't you get any last night?' But I have to, because I'm in a car all by myself and my closest backup is ten minutes away. It's a scary situation."
It must be especially scary for someone with Roberta's background.
"I was afraid of the dark when I was a kid," she admits, "slept with the light on, started crying if you turned it off, and so on. I had a really strict Christian upbringing. Real, real old-fashioned. I wasn't allowed to wear pants. I had to wear dresses and no make-up. I couldn't even set my hair. I had never been on a date until I moved out of the house when I was 18. So life was new to me, and I wanted to experience it. It's almost as if life began when I moved into my own apartment."
What she found was a world where right and wrong were sometimes abstract concepts.
"Once, while working security, I stopped a seven-year-old kid I had seen shoplifting a $25 remote-control model car. He had been instructing another boy, who was 12, in his technique. When I pulled him into the office, it struck me so funny. He just sat there -- his feet didn't even touch the floor -- casually telling me about all this stuff he'd ripped off before, because it was like a big game to him. It was like, 'Oh, yeah, I've got the motorcycle to match in my house.' A lot of times, what happens is, although you don't want to, you end up getting involved. You try to help people. Even though you try to be hard, you want to help them as much as you can."
It turned out that the boy's confusion stemmed from socioeconomic factors with which Roberta was familiar.
"I grew up just like that. I grew up with nothing. My mother had five kids on welfare and didn't know what she was going to do. We lived in the Ramona Gardens projects in East Los Angeles. I knew many times what it was to go hungry or to go next door because they had beans and tortillas and we had nothing. I can understand not having clothes or shoes for school. I can remember getting a box of crayons wrapped in tissue paper, and that was Christmas.
"It would have been so easy for me to just give up like so many others do -- never graduate from high school, end up getting pregnant by the time I was 16 or 17 and just live the life everyone else did."
These days, Bert's antsy again. She has left the state police -- something about there being more "paper shuffling than action" in that department. First she'll put in some Playmate time; then she's thinking about a personal-bodyguard service. Whatever she does, it'll be where the action is.
"What drives me is not wanting to be in the situation that I was in when I was a kid. I don't ever want to be there again. So I try hard; I set my goals. If I set my goals as far up as I can imagine, if I get halfway there, it's 100 percent better than where I was."
Photography by Stephen Wayda