Maria Suarez is the Volunteer Coordinator and a paraprofessional Talkline Counselor for the Women Helping Women department at NCJW/LA. She is warm, kind, always smiling, and a great cook who loves to bring in her famous dishes to work to share with colleagues. She is also a survivor of human trafficking. This year Maria received the Unsung Heroes of Los Angeles Award from the California Community Foundation. This is a summary of her story of six years in slavery in Southern California, 23 more in prison, and then freedom, self-fulfillment, and inspiring leadership.
Maria came to the United States from a small village in Michoacán when she was 15 years old. Within a few days of arriving here, Maria’s father went back to Mexico and Maria stayed with her sister in Sierra Madre. One day she met a woman who promised her a job, an esteemed offer for someone like Maria who felt she was not contributing enough to her sister’s household, and within a couple of weeks Maria was in a car with the woman for 45 minutes to meet her new employer. Upon arrival, Maria was told that she would be cleaning the house for the couple she was introduced to: an older man and his wife.
Maria felt uncomfortable from the beginning and told them she wanted to go home, but they convinced her to stay one night and told her they would take her back to her sister’s the next day. The man let her use the phone to call her sister, but the phone even had a lock on it that the man had to remove for her to make the call. She called her sister, who was very worried, but Maria convinced her that she would be back the next day. Maria was not taken home to her sister the following day. And she was not asked to clean the house. She never saw the woman who got her “the job” again. She was being held captive in Azusa, California.
The older man she was now living with put Maria in a room where she was surrounded by voodoo dolls. After two days he told her he was a witch and could watch her every move and hear her every thought through his crystal ball. He raped her and beat her daily for six years. “I was a slave,” she says. “And I was scared. I didn’t know any English even. And I had no idea where I was. When I tried to leave, he would threaten to kill my family.” In order to protect her family, Maria would tell her sister that everything was fine when they spoke on the phone.
Maria’s trafficker had a garage he would rent out. At one point he rented it to a young couple and started pursuing the wife. Maria describes that he started using his witchcraft by threatening them with voodoo dolls. He would also break into the garage, causing the couple to feel uncomfortable and scared. The husband eventually became enraged and killed Maria’s trafficker.
When Maria heard a loud noise she came outside to the backyard and saw the man on the ground. She was in shock when the man who killed her trafficker gave her a piece of wood and told her to hide it under the house. After being held captive for so many years, Maria did not know anything but to follow rules and commands, so she did what the man asked her to do. She hid the piece of wood, which was the weapon he had used to kill the trafficker. When the police asked, Maria was honest and told them she had hidden a piece of wood under the house as the man had told her to do.
Maria was arrested. She still spoke no English and knew nothing about legal representation and procedure. She was represented by an attorney who had been disbarred and was using another attorney’s bar number to practice law, but he was the only attorney her family could afford. Although she had nothing to do with the murder of her captor, Maria was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. After serving 22.5 years, Maria was released from prison, only to be picked up by INS and forced to serve another 5 months in state prison until her pro bono attorneys were able to obtain a T-visa for her – the first issued in California. The man who did kill Maria’s trafficker eventually told the Board of Prison Terms investigation that Maria had nothing to do with the murder of her captor, but this was all too late to make a difference for Maria.
Despite so many years of trauma, Maria never lost hope or stopped believing she would be free one day. She received her GED and almost completed her Associate’s Degree in prison. She learned English and spent time helping others and reflecting on what she wanted to do when she was free. Today Maria speaks up on behalf of survivors of human trafficking, tells her story, and educates the public about what human trafficking is, how it can happen anywhere and to anyone, and what we should all do about it. “I am not a victim anymore,” says Maria, as she smiles at me. She reminds me that she has a lot of work to do and calls to make to volunteers since it’s a short week for Thanksgiving.
When I did this interview with Maria during Thanksgiving and Chanukah I asked myself: had I met anyone so grateful to be free in my entire life? Had I met anyone so warm, so thoughtful, and so willing to share her story for the benefit of others? Maria’s story is hard. It’s complicated, long, and happened right in my own backyard in Southern California. It is a painful story to hear, but it is also a story of faith and endurance, of strength and love. It is a story of an unsung hero, but it is also the story of the many unsung heroes I have met throughout my life. And for all of them, including Maria, I am thankful.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Human Trafficking Awareness Day is on January 11, 2014. Human trafficking happens in our own backyards here in Los Angeles County. Here is what you can do to help reduce human trafficking in Los Angeles County in the coming months:
NCJW/LA, CAST LA, Oasis LA, JLC, and T’ruah have joined together to create a two-phased program to implement SB1193, a law passed in late 2012 by the California legislature mandating businesses throughout the State to place posters with human trafficking hotline numbers on their premises. Our program includes two phases.
1) LA Youth Human Trafficking Poster Contest: 14-25 year olds in LA County are invited to participate in designing the poster to be put up in businesses throughout LA County. The deadline is January 6, 2013. Click here to read the rules and regulations or to submit a poster.
2) LA County Human Trafficking Poster Outreach Project: On February 9, 2013, the Project Partners will hold a training session at NCJW/LA to train volunteers to visit businesses throughout LA County, provide them with information about the new law, give them the poster to put up, and track the information on their posting. For more information on this phase of the project, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.