6 – Maria’s Human Trafficking Story

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak hear from survivor advocate, Maria Suarez. She courageously shares her story through the Maria Suarez Foundation to mobilize communities through a prevention approach of education and empowerment to eradicate slavery.

Key Points

  • Immigrants, even those who come legally, are more vulnerable to being human trafficked due to a language barrier, the desire to support their family, lack of awareness, and the motivation to achieve the American Dream.
  • Traffickers often use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims through false opportunities or threatening to harm the victim’s family.
  • Young girls who want to come to America often don’t have access to media and proper education to inform them of what human trafficking is and how coming to America puts them at risk of exploitation.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 6, Recording in June 2010.  Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:31] And my name is Sandra Morgan.

Dave [00:00:33] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, glad to be back with you for another episode of the podcast.

Sandie [00:00:44] Well, I’m glad to be here too. I am especially excited because we have a guest, Maria Suarez, with us today.

Dave [00:00:51] And we actually have her on the line, and I’m going to give you an opportunity to introduce her, Sandie.

Sandie [00:00:58] Okay. Maria Suarez is a survivor advocate of human trafficking. And so, her story is very important to helping us understand why human trafficking continues to grow globally. Maria, hello.

Maria [00:01:17] Hello.

Sandie [00:01:18] I’m so glad this is working out. And we have her on telephone. And I love technology because nobody had to get in a car and drive through all the traffic. So, it’s really great to have you. Maria, I want to ask you some questions about when you were trafficked. And first of all, we’ll start with where were you born?

Maria [00:01:40] I was born in this little village in Michoacán, which that little village doesn’t even exist on the map now.

Sandie [00:01:49] So, it’s not even on the map. How many people lived in that village?

Maria [00:01:53] At that time when I was there, it was probably like five hundred people.

Sandie [00:01:58] And your sister left the village, didn’t she?

Maria [00:02:03] She left the village when I was probably in diapers. She came to Mexico City. Then from there she came to the United States to make a better life. And she got married and was living in the United States when I got here.

Sandie [00:02:21] And how old were you when your sister sent for you?

Maria [00:02:25] I was in my early 16s, in other words, I was 15.

Sandie [00:02:31] So, you were 15 years old and you came to live with your sister in California?

Maria [00:02:39] Correct.

Sandie [00:02:39] And you came across on a real visa?

Maria [00:02:44] Yes, I had my passport.

Sandie [00:02:47] So, this is something I think is important for our listeners to understand, is that lots of victims of human trafficking come here legally on their own and then they’re trafficked afterwards. So, you were 16 and you were living with your sister. How many days had you actually been here in the United States?

Maria [00:03:13] I was in the United States for not even a month. I probably was here for like 2-3 weeks.

Sandie [00:03:20] And how well did you speak English by that time?

Maria [00:03:25] Zero.

Sandie [00:03:27] So, tell us about how you met someone who began to recruit you.

Maria [00:03:37] Walking on the street, I met a woman who offered me a job. I got very happy that I thought I was going to have a job. And she told me not to tell my family.

Sandie [00:03:51] What kind of job did she offer you?

Maria [00:03:54] She offered me a job cleaning and answering phones for this elderly couple, which was never at home that they going to be traveling. So, she told me that I was just going to be answering the phones and cleaning the house. Yes, I got very happy. And when she told me not to tell my family, I also was angry with her because I wanted to surprise my family with a job.

Sandie [00:04:18] So, you wanted to surprise your family with your success.

Maria [00:04:22] Correct.

Sandie [00:04:25] And how did it feel? Was that the very first job offer you’d ever had?

Maria [00:04:32] Yes. That was the first offer that I had. We have to keep in mind that I was fifteen. I was supposed to be in school at that age, but I was here from Mexico. I was just new and here and I didn’t go to school yet. My family hadn’t been taught about school or anything like that, because according to them, I just got here recently. So, we never talk about it.

Sandie [00:04:59] What did you plan to do with the money you would make from this job?

Maria [00:05:04] I was planning to help my family with that money.

Sandie [00:05:07] Your sister or your family in the village?

Maria [00:05:10] My family in the village, my father, my mother, and the rest of my brothers and sisters.

Sandie [00:05:18] How many brothers and sisters, Maria?

Maria [00:05:24] I had left over there two brothers and a sister.

Sandie [00:05:29] Wow. So, what an opportunity to help your family back in a village with only 500 people and very little opportunity. So, what happened next?

Maria [00:05:41] Well, she told me not to tell my family. And she also told me that she was not going to take me that day, that she was going to come back. Time went by, and I don’t remember exactly how many days or if it was weeks, but it was a short period of time, not that long. She came back again. I actually thought that she was not going to give me the job, so I just put it out of sight and out of my mind. Then she showed up and asked me if I still wanted the job. And I got, like I said, very happy. And I said to her, Yes. She said to go with her. And I didn’t want to go with her just like that. I wanted to let my family know that I was going to go with her. I wanted to let a member of the family know that I was going to go with her. And she said, “no, don’t do that. We’re going to come back very soon.” Well, the soon never came. When she says not to go, I just said, OK, because we’re going to come back soon. So, I said, OK, I’m going to go. So, I went with her. When I went with her, I met my trafficker. It was a house; I walk in the house and then the man welcomed me. He was kind of like, happy to meet me. And I was kind of like, I’m nervous. And I walk in the house and they went to one of the rooms to talk about I don’t know what. I stayed in the family room or living room. It’s a little room, and I’m watching the TV, but at the same time I’m looking around at the house. They don’t tell me about what my duties are, nothing like that. They just let me in there, and they go in one of the rooms and go and they talk, and they stay there for a while. And while I’m watching TV, I’m looking around in the living room. It’s these Windows stores and everything seems to have extra locks, and everything is kind of like scary. And I start getting this feeling like I’m in the wrong place.

Sandie [00:07:53] So, what did you say to them?

Maria [00:07:55] I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything I was just waiting for them. So, when they finish, I said, I want to go back to my house, and I want to go back to my family because they didn’t know where I was. And by then, it’s already more than just a little bit of time that she had told me. So, while I’m telling them that I want to go between the woman and the old man tell me while you stay here so you can start working and you meet my wife. And I said, no, I want to go. I said, I got to go to my family. He says, Well, call your family. So, when I was going to call my family, which is my sister, he removed a little silver thing from the phone, which was another lock on the phone. And I was able to call my sister. At that time, the only thing that I knew was my sister’s phone number. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know how to go back. I didn’t have any money with me. And I didn’t speak English. So, I call my sister. I let her know that I had found a job and it was with that older couple. That’s what the woman told me. I met the man and the man was sixty-eight or seventy, something like that. So, my sister is not happy. My sister tells me, no, you need to come home. And I said they want for me to stay, this is a job, and it’s actually an old man. And my sister asked me about the address, his name, the phone number, where I was. I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know the phone number, I didn’t know anything. So, my sister is telling me all of these things, that she wants me back. And I convince her. I convince her and told her that is was an elderly couple. And remember, I come from this village where you believe and trust elderly people. They won’t hurt you, and matter of fact, they take care of you. And so, my sister says, OK, are you going to come home tomorrow? I told her that I was going to come home tomorrow. And then the man said, OK, that he was going to take me home tomorrow. So, that next day never came. It was one day, it was two days, and then at the third day I actually told him that I want to go home by then, I’m not feeling good. By then, I already see around the house and I notice that there is a lot of weird stuff. He had an altar with witchcraft, he had these things around the altar. I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to go back. But he didn’t take me home.

Sandie [00:10:46] Did he use the magic to control you?

Dave [00:10:50] Yes. After that third day is when he told me. He told me when I told him that I was already upset, and I told him that I want to go home. He got mad, he slammed the door, and he told me that he was busy. He went to one of the rooms where he has his altar. And he said to me that he was busy, so I just wait and wait and wait. By then I’m crying when he came back after probably a couple of hours or longer. He came out and he was mad at me. And he told me that he was not going to take me nowhere. That he had bought me, that I was his slave, and I was there for him to do to me whatever he wants to do to me.

Sandie [00:11:34] How much did he pay for you?

Sandie [00:11:37] He paid $200 is what he said to me. I stand up because I noticed that he wanted to touch me, I ran around the little dinner table and everywhere around the house trying to stay away from him, because he was wanting to catch me, and I did one for him to catch me. So, after a while running and running, I think he got mad and he got tired. He tells me to get out and he goes open the side door and tells me to get out. But he puts his hand over the frame of the door. So, he puts his arm around there, and he says, get out. When I’m looking at him and I’m thinking, if I get out, he’s going to catch me. And I’m thinking and thinking how I’m going to do it. Finally, I guess I got brave and I ran outside to run out of the house. But I was not successful. He was able to grab me. When he grabbed me, he tore up everything that I possess on my body. Any piece of clothing that I had on me, he tore it up and pushed me out of the house. So, when I was out of the house, he closed the door and he is looking at me through the window. While I’m outside, the cars are driving by, passing by. And I’m just completely naked. And I want for him to give me my clothes. I don’t want anything else. I just want him to give me my clothing. And he is looking at me, laughing at me. I’m just begging and telling him I want my clothes. So, he finally opened the door and asked if I want my clothes. And I said, please let me have my clothes. He threw my clothes next to him, which is a step inside. When I bent to get my clothes on, I don’t know what he did. I actually don’t know if he pushed me or he punched me or kicked me. I don’t know what he did to me, but I end up next to the tub. I had a big bash on my head, and I was already awake, he was standing by my feet.

Sandie [00:14:16] So, like many victims of human trafficking, you were lied to. They offered you a job that didn’t exist. And then they humiliated and brutalized you.

Maria [00:14:31] Yes.

Sandie [00:14:32] And you tried to escape, and yet you became his slave and he spent $200 to purchase you.

Maria [00:14:44] Yes. After he did what he did. He told me that I better not tell anyone because he knew where my family lives and he can kill my family. And he also told me that he can report me with the police, that police won’t do anything to him. He was a witch and he can do anything and everything to me and to my family. He described the ways how he was going to kill my family. And that was a fear that I didn’t want to put my family through. So, after that, I just felt like, how can I tell my family this? This is humiliating. How I want to tell my family what this man have done to me, that was impossible. So, I didn’t tell my family anything. I just knew that I was going to die in that house. And then after probably after a week, I had long hair, he cut my whole hair, and left me like a little boy style. With my hair he did a bunch of dolls and put it all around in the house and put it in this cemetery and told me that I never was going to be able to get out of the house.

Sandie [00:16:16] Can you explain that for me, please? The hair. He used them to make dolls.

Maria [00:16:21] Yes. He made it to make witchcraft on me.

Sandie [00:16:25] And is that a familiar witchcraft that you understood from your village before?

Maria [00:16:31] We hear stories in my village about witchcraft. We heard somethings that happen. I never experience it in my village when my family are on me. We saw some things in old tales my mother used to tell us things and people that did things. And we fear that. We fear them.

Sandie [00:16:57] And what did you call someone who did that?

Maria [00:17:03] Brujos.

Sandie [00:17:03] Brujos. So, he used that as another method to put fear into you.

Maria [00:17:08] Control. Correct.

Sandie [00:17:12] And he put the dolls in the house and in the cemetery?

Maria [00:17:17] Yes, all around the house. Because he says I was not going to be able to get out of the house. The only way I was going to get out of there was that. I was waiting to die so I can get out of there.

Sandie [00:17:36] And the windows had locks. And now you understood that the little silver thing on the phone meant that you couldn’t even use the phone to call your sister.

Maria [00:17:46] Correct.

Sandie [00:17:49] And all of this happened because someone approached you on the street that spoke your language and offered you a job.

Maria [00:17:59] Yes.

Sandie [00:18:00] So, we see from your story exactly the elements that are what we’ve talked about before of human trafficking, of force, fraud and coercion. Fraud, they offered you a job to lure you there. The force and then the coercion, the threats and the fear to control what will happen to your family, because eventually you really didn’t care anymore about yourself. You just figured you would die. But if you didn’t keep doing what he told you to do, he made those threats against your family.

Maria [00:18:37] Correct.

Sandie [00:18:37] Do you think that there are girls that are 15 years old in villages like yours that are dreaming about coming to the United States even now?

Maria [00:18:49] Yes, I do believe that.

Sandie [00:18:52] Why do they continue to have those dreams? Don’t you think that we’ve told this story to the media? It’s been in television stories and things. But why do young girls still have those dreams?

Maria [00:19:06] Because in villages, they don’t have any television. They don’t have any newspaper. They don’t have any education on these issues. And that’s the main thing. They don’t know what’s happening. Some of them like I said about witchcraft. When I was a little girl that I used to hear my mom telling us, I thought that was a story, that it was not real. You know? These young girls, again, they probably if they haven’t heard, they probably think it’s natural and it’s just a story.

Sandie [00:19:37] So, if you could go and speak to those girls, what would you tell them?

Maria [00:19:42] If I was able to go all around the world the way I had dreamed to do. I would explain to them step by step, the way how I did when I went through what happened step by step. The meaning of human trafficking and the way they prevent it, and how the people look. They can be charming, nice, gentle, but they can be the beast.

Sandie [00:20:10] And when you went to the village this last year, how did the girls respond?

Maria [00:20:18] Very good, they were very alert. They were actually in shock to hear all of that, because, like I said, they don’t think that actually exists. We all think that that was in the 1800s, that it was already taken care of, but actually it never had been taken care of and we still have that.

Sandie [00:20:40] So, what would you say to a girl if you only had one minute to convince her not to come and take a job that someone offered her? What would you say?

Maria [00:20:53] I would tell that person that it’s better for that person to stay where they are at, no matter if they are just going to have beans and tortillas, just to know that they are going to be safe. And I think that a lot of times the dreams that we have for a better life, a lot of times we pay a very high price. I paid a very high price. All my life, I’ve been regretting why I came to this country because that was not the right decision. That was not the right choice.

Sandie [00:21:35] Wow, Maria, that’s a powerful statement. Beans and tortillas for safety. Would you like to say that same statement for the girls in Spanish?

Maria [00:21:47] Of course. El sueno Americano es un sueno podesmos nos tenemos venir. Y quieren una vida mejor pero en realidad muchas ese sueno Americano nos cuesta la vida de nuestras familias y en veses por una enteridad las matan. Yo diria que es mejor que nos queremos en nuestro paiz y buscar en forma de vivir mucho mejor en este paiz que venir a America o hacele caso a una persona que los afresca trabajo sin saver de donde viene a este persona.

Sandie [00:22:48] Wonderful. That’s excellent. And I really got the part about beans and tortillas and safety. If someone is here in the United States and they see someone that seems to be under someone else’s control in the way that it was for you, what should they do? Who? Who can they call?

Maria [00:23:09] We always need to have in mind that the number is always available. I know the number by heart. It’s a number that we use, but it’s 888-3737-888. The number is where we call, we use and that’s a resource. But also, you can call the police. Well, in my personal experience I did not have luck with the police. But they already had been educated in that area in those issues. And I believe they will do a better job than what they did with me.

Sandie [00:23:54] Because they’re listening to your story and law enforcement training, it’s changed so much that 888-3737-888 number reaches the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. And in recent statistics, I’m told that 25 percent of the calls to that hotline are from victims. Is that encouraging, Maria?

Maria [00:24:18] Yes, that is encouraging.

Sandie [00:24:20] Yes, because victims are learning to identify themselves and realize someone here wants to help them and we have resources to help them and they know how to make that phone call. But if they’re like Maria’s situation, where the only phone is a phone that has a lock on it, they’re going to depend on someone in their community to be the voice. And we’re the ones who have to be able to see and understand what we’re seeing and pick up the phone and make a call that will change someone’s life. Is that right?

Maria [00:24:55] Yes!

Sandie [00:24:55] Maria, you have a really big story and our time is kind of short. So, what I’d like to do is eventually let’s make plans to come back and revisit your story and the process of becoming a survivor advocate and what your dreams and hopes are for that. Will you be available to do that with us?

Maria [00:25:19] Correct.

Sandie [00:25:20] OK. Thank you. Dave, I didn’t let you talk much on this one, but if you have one question left for Maria that’s just been burning there. Take your shot at it.

Dave [00:25:32] Well, I actually have more of a statement rather than a question. Maria, I would say, first of all, thank you for your courage. Thank you for your willingness to tell your story to others and to us. And for us to be able to broadcast your story, because, you know, Sandie, as I listened to Maria talk, what I’m struck by is how many similarities I hear from the stories you’ve told and from the what we’ve learned about in the Trafficking in Persons report that we talked about last time and just how many similarities there are with her story and the patterns that you see. And I think it’s also very interesting that she came to the U.S. legally. And I think a lot of times we have a stereotype in our minds that this is only happening by people who’ve chosen to come illegally to the U.S. and that’s not the case. It happens to all kinds of people. And the other thing that I would say is that this is just such a strong reinforcement for us to get this message out for the importance of this podcast, of this show, to be able to reach people, because there is still so many people that don’t know about this horrible issue. And the more that we can raise awareness and really study these issues, the more that we can empower people who would become victims and empower people who would be out there advocating in support of ending this issue. So, Maria, thank you so much for taking your time.

Sandie [00:27:01] And Maria, I just want to applaud your dreams. I know that your dreams were part of what made you more vulnerable to becoming a victim, but now your dreams are built on being a survivor and ending human trafficking through being a voice and being an advocate. And I appreciate you so much.

Maria [00:27:25] Thank you. I figure, that I cannot do anything by dwelling on what had happened to me. I think my best way of helping others not to go through what I went through is doing what I’m doing today, which is going upon every word that I can spread the word. And to tell them this is what happened to me, and that can happen to you. There are a lot of people who go around thinking or feeling that won’t happen to me. Wrong, that can happen to anyone- rich, poor, beautiful, not beautiful.

Sandie [00:28:09] That’s right. And anyone who wants to learn more about Maria’s story, or if you’d like to invite her to come and tell her story to your group, you can contact her through the Global Center for Women in Justice at gcwj@Vanguard.edu and we will pass the message on to her. Thank you, Maria, so much for being with us today. And we look forward to having you back.

Maria [00:28:42] Thank you.

Dave [00:28:43] Thanks, Maria. Take care, everyone.

Sandie [00:28:50] Bye bye.

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