Once a slave in the US, still fighting for her freedom
For María Suárez, a young Mexican, America turned out to be anything but the land of opportunity. When the 15-year-old came to the United States legally in 1976 to stay with her sister in Los Angeles, she was full of dreams. But those dreams turned into a nightmare within two weeks, when the teen was sold into slavery.Skip to next paragraph
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Thirty years later, the courageous woman is still confronting the consequences of that domestic servitude and is fighting for the freedom and opportunity to remain in America, where all her family resides.
Ms. Suárez became the sex slave of an older man who had bought other young girls before her. Thousands of women are living in similar circumstances in the US today, often invisible though sometimes in plain view. Yet Suárez's story is unique in that her five years of violation and beatings led to a longer incarceration.
The young girl arrived from her village in Michoacán a bit overwhelmed by the new country. Her sister, Rita, had lived in Los Angeles for years, but María knew no English and admits she was naive "and ignorant."
"A [Spanish-speaking] woman approached me on the street – she was very friendly – and offered me a job cleaning house and answering phones," Suárez says in a telephone interview. "It sounded like a good idea, and I was very happy."
Since her sister wasn't home at the time, she agreed to the woman's urging that she just come see the house where she would work. But the drive took more than an hour, and María never went home again.
At the house of Anselmo Covarrubias, a man in his late 60s, she was allowed to call her sister to say she had a job and would be back later. But a lock was then put on the phone, and she learned otherwise.
"He told me he had paid $200 for me and that I was his slave," Suárez says. She was shown a tiny room with a bed and an altar with a picture of Jesus Christ above it but many other strange items on it. He then raped her.
"He told me he was a witch, that he knew where my family lived, and I'd better not tell anyone or he would kill my family, burn down their house," she adds. "From then on, my hell started. He abused me mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually."
Suárez's ordeal began in the '70s, but such ordeals continue today. Some 17,000 people are trafficked into the US each year – many of them teenagers and children – for purposes of forced labor or sex, says the US Justice Department. An untold number are picked up and trafficked domestically, as Maria was. The government is just beginning to get a handle on the problem.
During those five tragic years, Suárez was not wholly confined to the house. Covarrubias got her a factory job on an electronics assembly line and drove her to and from work each day. On Fridays, he would take her paycheck from her when she got into the car. Yet, terrified and superstitious, she told no one. "People asked me about who picked me up, but I was afraid for my family," she says. He would take her to secondhand stores for clothes.
For those not familiar with such situations, it may be difficult to grasp why someone would not just run away. "It speaks to the psychological coercion, the way people are controlled by fear," says Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), in Los Angeles. "People are told over and over that if they tell anyone, they will be killed, or worse, family members will be killed. Coupled with violence on a regular basis, it wears down self-esteem."
CAST has worked with hundreds of slavery survivors in the past decade. The group was created after the 1995 case in El Monte, Calif., where 72 garment workers were found in an apartment complex where they'd been held captive for seven years. The workers had been trafficked from Thailand, yet when freed, were treated as illegal aliens and thrown in jail.
Community groups came together to try to help with services; CAST was formally created in 1998 and began pushing for appropriate legislation. Today it provides a range of services for slavery survivors and serves on a metropolitan trafficking task force with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and others, to make the police and public more aware of the growing trafficking problem.