Editors note: Maria Suarez is an example of how one person’s story of tragedy can turn to triumph despite unthinkable and often unspeakable challenges. As a teenager, her life was forever changed when she was “bought” by her employer and held captive as his slave for more than five years and then sent to prison for a crime she didn’t commit. After spending 23 years in jail, she is now using her experiences to help the most vulnerable in need and works tirelessly against human trafficking in the city of Los Angeles. We appreciate Maria sharing her personal story with CCF to tell others how to help another person from becoming a victim.
Maria and two of her 13 siblings in Mexico
By: Maria Suarez
Many people might think that victims of sex trafficking come from bad families or terrible living conditions. That’s not necessarily true, especially in my case. I’m here to show you how anything can happen when you least expect it.
I grew up in the little town of Timbuscatio, Michoacán in Mexico with my parents and 13 brothers and sisters. I was a very sheltered child, and my very sweet and kind father and wonderful mother gave me a very happy childhood. We lived in tiny village where everyone knew each other, and we trusted all of our neighbors. I grew up thinking no one would ever hurt me.
Around the age of 15, l left my town with my father and travelled to the United States and visit my siblings living in Los Angeles. I don’t remember why I decided to stay when my father went back to Mexico, but I did, and lived with my sister. She continued to take care of me and shelter me. As a young girl, I had many dreams and goals that I wanted to accomplish, and wanted to make money to help the family, but didn’t know how. I also only spoke Spanish at the time, and didn’t know my new surroundings.
Maria and her father
One day, I was walking down the street and met a woman who asked me if I wanted a job. She told me about an elderly couple in need of some cleaning and care and immediately I said yes. She also told me not to tell anyone. I didn’t think it was strange because I trusted her, and thought she was being good to me. I also liked the idea of getting a job because I wanted to surprise my father so he would be proud of me.
As she was taking me to the job, I said I wanted to let my brother-in-law know where I was going but she said “don’t worry, we’ll be back soon.” I was taken to a house and met the man that was going to be my boss. I remember he shook my hand, smiled, and then went to the back of the house with the woman. I noticed the house had a lot of locks and was very secure and at the time, I didn’t think that was strange. I didn’t ask any questions, but after he agreed to “hire” me, I asked the woman to take me home. Instead, they both kept convincing me to stay. I said, “no, I need to go and tell my sister.” I didn’t know this country, I didn’t know where I was, and I had no money. All I knew was my sister’s phone number. The man finally let me call her and my sister was very upset. The man told me to tell her that he would take me home tomorrow. That day never came and my life was changed forever.
The first night in his home, he showed me around and took me to the room where I was going to be sleeping. I saw an altar with a picture of Jesus Christ, surrounded by a lot of little jars and bottles filled with dirt. Also, there dolls with pins stuck on their bodies. I thought it looked like witchcraft. I was very scared, and didn’t know what to think or say, so I didn’t say anything.
After three days, I finished cleaning, and I asked him to take me home, but he refused. Then he told me he “bought me” for $200 dollars and could do whatever he wanted to do with me. Instantly, I knew he wanted to touch me, so I tried to run away. When I tried to get out of the house, he grabbed me, and tore off everything I was wearing. Then, he pushed me out of the house, without any clothes. I was screaming and crying and begging him to give me my clothes. All he did was laugh at me as if it was funny.
He said, “do you want your clothes?”
As I bent over to pick them up, he punched me and I passed out. When I woke up, he had already raped me. He told me that he would kill my family if I tried to leave, and the priest would not believe me, because he was a very important man. He also told me he was a witch, which I believed. I was so scared and afraid to tell my family, or anyone, so I kept quiet. I was in that horrible house for almost six years. He raped me, beat me, and psychologically tortured me. He even made me dig a hole in the backyard because he said I needed to dig my own grave since he was going to kill me. I was paralyzed by fear. When I was young, I didn’t have the strength to know what to do to get out.
The old man then rented his garage to a young couple and soon, he started paying a lot of attention to the wife. Her husband found out, and then he killed the old man. I heard the old man scream my name so I went outside and saw him on the ground. The young husband had killed the old man with a piece of wood and told me to hide it under the house, which I did. I didn’t speak any English, I was in shock, and thought everything was my fault. I was arrested for the old man’s murder and spent 23 years in prison.
Maria at the time of her arrest
During that time, I went to school, learned English, got my GED and my Associate of Arts degree. I took all kinds of training and wanted to educate myself because I knew that God wanted me to do something in this world. That’s why I’m still here. I was so vulnerable for so long, that when I got out of prison, I was scared to even to cross the street. Now, I’m not going to let anyone stop me from helping others like me. Today I’m a strong woman with a lot of goals and desires to help others.
I have always been the kind of person who likes to give back, rather than to receive. Today I can help sex traffic victims and domestic violence victims because I have the knowledge. I encourage them to do what they need to do, and tell them they need to trust themselves and see how wonderful and smart they are.
I feel that as hard as it is, I need to share my story because if I shut up, people are going to think that these kinds of things don’t happen. That sex trafficking is a myth. But it’s very real.
At this point, I’m starting my own the Maria Suarez foundation to work on prevention, and rescue. I want people to work with me to educate others, so that they don’t fall into this kind of tragedy. We need people to be aware of those around them, because it’s not easy to spot a trafficker. It’s important for everyone to know that you never give your information to a stranger, and if you see a young person walking with an older person, or behind, like she’s afraid, something is wrong. I want people to take action. If you see something strange or odd, call the police.
I am so lucky that through it all, my beautiful family was there to support and help me. I’m here today because of what I went through. I need to do what I need to do. I need to help the next girl.
According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. More than 70 percent are female and half are children. To learn more about trafficking and how it affects your community, visit http://www.castla.org/ or http://www.dosomething.org/