Sixteen-year-old Maria Suarez was very excited when she arrived in the United States to live with her sister. She had watched her father and mother struggle to survive on their small farm in Mexico as she grew up. It was now her hope that she could find a good job and provide all the things for them they had never been able to afford.
She didn’t speak English and didn’t know how to even begin her search for employment, so she considered it her good fortune to meet a woman on the street who spoke her language and told her she could find a job for her.
The woman took her to a tiny house and introduced her to an older man about 65 or 70. The woman told her she would meet his wife later and that she was to stay there that evening. She was told they would take her home the next day. Maria was very uncomfortable with this, but they convinced her.
There was no wife and she was not taken home the next day! Instead the man told her he had bought her for $200 and she was now his slave. He terrorized her, telling her he could read her mind and she was to do whatever she was told or he had the power to kill her parents. He claimed to be a brujo or witch.
She was to be entrapped in that little house, suffering terribly, for five years. The man beat and raped her regularly. Every day he abused her mentally, physically and emotionally. Her hopes and dreams evaporated as they were replaced by fear. She rarely saw or spoke to anyone during this time and was so paralyzed by terror that she made no attempt to escape or communicate her dilemma.
As though this experience wasn’t bad enough, after five years of this torture a neighbor entered the small house and beat the man to death. Maria was naively compliant when the neighbor told her to place the murder weapon under the house.
The result? Maria was convicted of the murder and sentenced from 25 years to life in prison despite the statement of her co-defendants that she was not involved in the killing.
She was released 22½ years later after a pardon by the governor of California. The Board of Prison Terms had investigated her record and found her conduct while in prison to be exemplary. Maria said she chose to use her time productively there; she chose to become a better person. She served as a mentor for younger prisoners, studied hard and acquired her high school GED (General Educational Development) credential, took college classes and conducted counseling and therapy groups.
Today, Maria Suarez is studying to become a social worker and works with The Coalition Against Trafficking (CAST) based in Los Angeles, California. She says she wants to help people who need the benefit of what she has learned through her experiences.
You may view a video featuring Maria entitled Dreams Die Hard in which she personally recounts her experiences. This short documentary was produced by Free the Slaves, a nonprofit organization working to end slavery worldwide.
Vision contributor Bill Butler interviewed Maria about her experiences with slavery, prison and her life today.
BB Maria, how are you adjusting to life since being freed from prison?
MS I’m doing very well. I’ve been out of prison for two years, and I’m working as a counselor for About Face, a nonprofit domestic violence organization in Los Angeles. I exercise a lot by running—I’ve run the marathon twice in Los Angeles. I’m still spending time getting reacquainted with my family after all these years.
BB What was the time like in prison?
MS I did my best to make my time profitable and to be a model prisoner. I was involved in a number of volunteer activities. I ran marathons; I conducted support groups and took college classes.
BB Have you resumed your college education?
MS Yes, I’m enrolled in a local college here and have been taking classes, although I’m not taking any at the moment. I am trying to focus on my work, now. I plan to re-enroll at some point, and I would like to become a social worker eventually.
BB How are your parents and family doing?
MS Very well. My mother is elderly, over 80 years old. One of the things she wanted was to see me freed from prison, which she did, and to see me before she died which also happened. And obviously I wanted to see her before she passed away, which I have been able to do. My family is happy to have me back after all this time and that everything is working out so well for me. They don’t want me to work so much so they can spend more time with me and make up for the many lost years.
BB What are your feelings toward the woman who sold you into this condition of enslavement and the man who enslaved you?
MS I don’t have any bitterness toward anyone. I believe in justice and that good things will happen to you. I am a very optimistic person and I always have hope and believe that good things are going to happen.
BB What advice would you give to someone who is trapped in a situation like you experienced?
MS I would say don’t give up. Believe that you are strong enough to endure it and always believe there is hope of getting out of the situation if you keep trying.
BB What would be your advice to parents to help a daughter who might find herself in a situation like you were in?
MS I was actually able to talk to my family members and the police during the time I was being held captive by this man, but I was so scared and frightened that I didn’t tell the truth—I didn’t say what was really happening. My advice to the parents would be the same as for the girl, don’t give up hope and keep trying to free yourself of the situation.