Flor was trafficked into the US from Mexico and enslaved in forced factory labour. She travelled into the US willingly with a “coyote,” or people smuggler, after being offered well-paid work in the US. Instead of the job promised, she was kept prisoner and abused, working extremely long hours. She told her story to another survivor, Ima. Both women were part of the Survivor Advisory Caucus attached to the Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking in Los Angeles (CAST LA). Flor talks about her the pride and satisfaction that working with Ima as part of the Caucus has brought her. Another narrative from Flor can be found in the archive.
The recruiters contacted me in my hometown. It was a good opportunity to go to the US. Everything was paid for. They told me that I’d have a job, food, and housing. But I had to leave in three days. But it was good.
My daughter had been sick and passed away. When she was sick, I didn't have money to take her to a hospital. I felt I was failing as a mother, and I became depressed. I wanted to leave. I thought this was a good opportunity. I didn't want what happened to my baby to happen to the rest of my children. I asked my mother to take care of my children. Then, I left.
Everything looked legal. They asked me for my documents. Until then, I thought everything was fine. I arrived in Mexico City; then I flew to Tijuana. In Tijuana, I met my trafficker. The only contact I had was my sewing teacher. I had never met the trafficker, but I thought it was okay because the sewing teacher was coming with me, and we were going to work in the sewing industry.
Then, we talked to the coyote. It was me, the trafficker, her niece, and the sewing teacher. The coyote told us that the first person to cross would be my sewing teacher. Then the trafficker and her niece would go. Then I would cross. Before we crossed, they left me alone in the hotel. Then, the coyote took me to so many places. It was 7pm when they said I would finally cross the border. They changed my clothes and took me to a salon. If they asked at the checkpoint, I was supposed to say I was going to San Diego for a dinner. They gave me a cell phone with a number. Everything looked like I was going to a party. I remember the checkpoint guy was a tall blue-eyed handsome man. He let me cross.
I met my sewing teacher and trafficker on the other side and they took us to… I never learned the name of the city they took us to. First, we went to the trafficker's son's home. We had to wake up at 4am to clean the yard and wash the cars (there were four or five). Then, she took us to the shop. I was tired. I had emotional scars. I was exhausted. She showed me what I had to do but never discussed hours, pay, or how much work.
There were no other workers when we arrived. We worked until eight. Those three first days, and we had to sleep in the shop. The shop wasn't huge, but it held fifty or so [people]. There was no place to shower. We had to sleep there, and my sewing teacher and I had to share a bed. There were five or six women who worked with me. At night, the trafficker left her niece to watch us and closed the bars.
There were only little glass doors. I wasn't able to escape. I could only wash in the sink. She said that she wasn't able to install a shower because it was so expensive. I wasn’t able to do anything about it. She said she would contact the authorities and that I would go to jail. She threatened my family. She was angry all the time. She would say, "Good morning," and then call me a brat in English, but I didn't understand. I asked the other workers what it meant. She was physically and verbally abusive. She'd push and pinch me all the time.
One day I had pain in my chest and fever. I told her I needed to see a doctor. One of the workers also told the trafficker that I needed to see a doctor. We were having lunch at a big table when the trafficker asked me if I was sick. I stood up because all my co-workers were there, and I felt embarrassed. I was leaving lunch. I stood up to go.
She said, "I'm talking to you. You never leave unless I tell you to leave." She pulled my hair and made me sit, and the whole time she was laughing. I was so embarrassed, and I wanted to cry. I was angry and ashamed. All mixed feelings. I couldn't move. I didn't know who to tell. The co-workers said I should say I'm sorry. Me—sorry for what? Sorry because I feel sick?
They said if I didn't say I was sorry that things would get worse. They were right. The trafficker came to me and told me that everything was going to change…that it would be different. It was worse. My body was like a zombie. Everything was worse. Abuse was escalating. She called me all kinds of things. She made me feel so scared. I feel bad to repeat those things.
She told me she could kill me…that she could do what she wanted. I had no ID. No one knew I was here. She knew the law. She had friends. She knew a lawyer. She knew English. She had connections in Mexico. She said that if I killed you, you would have no rights. She said, “Dogs have more rights in this country than you.” I felt so bad because I knew it was true. I had nothing. I had no friends, no money.
Everybody was against me. I was afraid. I kept thinking they will put me in jail. I'm illegal. Especially coming from Mexico where the authorities are so corrupt, how could I trust the authorities here?
I had to work long hours. At 4 or 5am, I started sewing only with a little needle with no lights until 8am. The other workers came at 8am and turned on the lights, and I had to act like everything was normal.
A truck was parked in front of the door. There was no room to escape. I sewed, then ironed, then sewed. When the workers left, I had to sweep the huge shop, and then take out the garbage. Then sew again until 1am. She said I wasn't allowed to go to bed until she finished working. I tried to convince her to let me leave with a co-worker. She said no. I was desperate. I felt like I was living a nightmare. My back hurt so much.
I ate only when she told me I could eat. I only had ten minutes. I was losing hope. My mother had always told me don't forget to pray. Even when I was so exhausted, I prayed. Mom told me not to forget to pray.
I remember one day I asked her to allow me to go to church. I said I really wanted to go, but instead she gave me more sewing. I said “I don't care if I have to sew day and night… but I want to go to church.” I was so stubborn that I couldn't give up. She told me that I was stubborn. Finally, she said I could go, but only after I had finished sewing. I was so happy. My tiredness went away. I worked all night.
She said so and so church was on so and so street. I had no idea where it was. I had never been out. She asked if I knew where I was. I said of course, but I had no idea.
That day, I woke up early, finished working. I was nervous and excited. It was the first time I had been outside in forty days.
The sewing teacher, who was also a victim, had tried to leave, but she had been punished. So I was scared. That day, I finished working, and I walked out. I didn’t know where to go. I was scared and kept thinking, what would happen if the trafficker showed up? A co-worker came by, and she asked if I was alone. I didn't answer. I gestured to a person [my sewing teacher] hiding in the grass. She gave me paper with a phone number on it and left. I found a payphone and picked it up, but the operator was in English. I didn't know English. I didn't even know how to put in a coin!
It was a Sunday. There was no one on the street. No cars passed by. I wasn't planning to escape…I just wanted to go to mass and come back. Finally, I saw a Spanish speaking person. He helped me with the pay phone, and then asked,
"Have you just arrived?"
"No." I said.
"How long have you been here?" he asked me
"Forty days." I replied.
He didn't know what I had been doing. He dialed the number. My co-worker answered the phone and asked, “Where are you?” She said she could come and get me.
I was so scared to upset my trafficker. The co-worker picked us up and took us to a restaurant, and the food was so good. But I was so nervous. When we got to the restaurant, it was the first time I'd ever talked to the co-worker. I'd been so silent. She said she knew something was wrong because I would never speak.
I told her I didn't speak because the trafficker was threatening my family. We spent the night at her house. Then, she went to work. The trafficker was so mad. She hit my co-worker. While we were at her house we cleaned the whole home and didn't go anywhere. Finally my co-worker came home and told us we had to look for a place because the trafficker threatened her. She called a friend in San Diego to pick us up. We stayed there until Valentine's Day.
At the house in San Diego we were with a young pregnant girl. The trafficker found the phone number and kept calling and asking for us. Finally the husband came home, and the trafficker asked to speak with him. She asked if he had seen me and my sewing teacher. Then a crew of people came to the house. One of them was a co-worker. I was scared. How had they found us?
They took the husband outside and put handcuffs on him. His wife was scared. I was scared she'd be so stressed she'd lose her baby. I'm like, “Oh my God, she might lose the baby to protect us.” I felt so helpless. I said, “call the police,” but the police just passed by. In Mexico, people who have money have justice. It seemed the same. I was scared they would kill me. I felt desperate. I thought to escape through the backdoor. But then I thought maybe they have guns, and they'll just shoot me. So I just waited, and I thought this is my way to die. I was crying and crying. I felt like it was the last minute of my life. I saw another co-worker, who knew everything. She saw me crying and asked why. I said I thought this was the last day of my life.
She told me not to worry about the trafficker. Someone had called CHIRLA [Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles], and CHIRLA had called INS, and they were already investigating the case. But I escaped a few days after they came to rescue me. They said all the co-workers were in jail, but the boss was free. She said I was the only one who could set the co-workers free. The co-worker that had helped me had been blamed by the trafficker as the instigator.
But another co-worker had started for one day, and she was an FBI agent. She had a camera in her lunch bag and had taped everything. So when the trafficker denied everything, they brought in the FBI agent.
They said if I can cooperate, I can help, but I have to go with them. They said I could stay legally, and they would protect me. I wanted to free my co-workers, so I said ok. They took me to INS. It was top security. CHIRLA had told INS, but they wanted the rights of workers to be respected. They took my fingerprints and interrogated me. I thought whatever is happening here, it's just as bad as with my trafficker. But I wanted to free my co-workers.
We couldn't communicate, but he was really nice. Then I went to the CHIRLA office, and I stayed with Angelica, the Director. I stayed there until July, when I came to Alexandria House [shelter]. CHIRLA then brought me to CAST.
The trafficker only got six months of house arrest. She never stopped chasing me. She went to visit my mother and tried to pay my mother twenty dollars for information about me.
But from CAST I learned how to change the situation.
This is a monster without a face or hair. It has so many different faces. Faces like forced labor. It is slavery; we're not free. Sex trafficking is another face. We need to be working hard to fight all faces of human trafficking. We need to work hard and educate people, and our politicians. We need to bring opportunities to origin countries so women and children wouldn't have to migrate. We can implement better trade so they can have life with dignity.
They work really hard, but it's not enough to help children. After witnessing your child passing away it changes your life forever. Right now it's a huge darkness. Let's spread the light. Living in trafficking, they take the light out of you – they not only take away your freedom, but your right to dream.
They did it to us, and now we are doing everything possible to stop them. We have the power to take back that power and spread the light. We can do it. We are just starting but we cannot do it alone. As I said and I always say… just do something. If you yourself cannot help, then call the police. You don't need a coin to dial 911. Sometimes I feel like crying because this should not happen to anyone else. No one should go through what I went through….
I am proud of the Caucus. We are growing and are learning… I didn't understand it when it started. I thought I was the only one. Now I’m a leader. I am proud to take be a Caucus member. To be a leader. I am a stakeholder in the caucus. Ima, you make me feel like that. You make me feel special. I don't have sisters, but in the Caucus group I can laugh, cry; I can tell how I feel. I'm not judged when we are a group. At the Caucus you can speak freely. I can't do that outside the group. I have friends, but for safety reasons, I can't tell them what happened to me. I keep my shades down all the time… The FBI asked if I wanted her to pay for my work. I said “No. I just want to be free.” I'm proud of the Caucus. We went to Sacramento to see how we can make a change…
I want my children to be proud of mom and to be part of the movement. They were not with me because of my trafficker. I want them to join this movement because people have heard enough from me. But people should also hear my children's experience growing up without a mother. Also, if I have the opportunity, I want to be a police officer. I want to inform the police and help others.
First, I would tell [trafficking victims] not to lose hope. Second, that there's a lot of people who are working hard to end this issue. Say something to someone. You can tell a police officer, and they know about trafficking now. See how far we have come? Monsters use the silence. That's why we have to raise our voices and say something. This is not fair to someone – a child, a stranger, etc. We all have a feeling…If you suspect something, ask questions. We can start questioning. Without the Caucus, I would feel lost, like there is no one who cares. No motivation. Because we enrich each other and empower each other each time we see each other. We encourage ourselves to help each other. And we have food at our meetings! We eat together first, and then we discuss issues and check in…. Now that I'm with CAST, I feel like I'm allowed to dream…. That's what was taken away and now I'm dreaming. Dreams can come true.
Narrative as told during a survivor-to-survivor interview at CAST LA.