In the winter of 2001, I became a victim of slavery in the garment industry in Los Angeles. I was an easy target for my trafficker: I was a desperate mother who had just lost my baby because I didn't have the money to take her to the hospital when she got sick.
After my baby died, I got so depressed and worried that what happened to my baby could happen to my other three children. I was taking sewing classes in hopes of starting my own business and earn enough money to take care of my children.
My sewing teacher was approached by a trafficker because she knew a lot of women who knew how to sew and would be desperate to come to the United States to make money. There were no opportunities in my town, so when my sewing teacher told me about the opportunity to go to the U.S., I was definitely interested.
I had to leave my mom and my children behind. I was told that when I got to the U.S. I will have a job so I could send money home, food and a place to stay. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I quickly realized it had all been a lie.
My trafficker told me that now I owe her almost $3,000 for bringing me to the U.S. and that I had to work for her in order to pay her back.
I was forced to work 18 hours a day making dresses that were being sold for $200 department stores. When all the workers in the factory got to go home, I had to clean the factory. I was forced to sleep at the factory in a storage room and I had to share a single mattress with another victim. The other workers in the factory were able to come and go at the end of their shift. I was forbidden to talk to anyone or from putting one step outside of the factory. I worked hard and I was always hungry. I was given only one meal a day and I had 10 minutes to eat.
If I took longer, I was punished. After only a few weeks of being there, one of my co-workers started suspecting that something was not right. She had realized that I was always there in the morning when she got there and was working at night after everybody left. She gave me her phone number on a piece of paper, and told me that if I needed help, I could call her.
I was so afraid, I didn't really trust anybody. My trafficker told me that if I ever go to the police, they wouldn't believe me. She said that she knew where my children and my mother lived and that I wouldn't want them to pay the consequences. This went on for 40 days, but I tell you it felt like 40 years. I thought I was going to die. I thought I would never see my children again. I was sick with worry about how my children were in Mexico and how they didn't know what happened to me.
After weeks of begging my trafficker to let me go to church, she finally let me go. The moment I set foot outside the factory, I decided not to go back.
I went to a pay phone to call my co-worker but I didn't know how the pay phone worked. After awhile, someone walked by and I asked him if he spoke Spanish, and he did. Helped me dial the phone number and my co-worker came and picked me up and took me to a restaurant.
I was found by FBI agents who were already investigating my trafficker. They connect me with CAST (a non-profit group). CAST found me shelter and helped me with all my basic necessities because I had nothing when I escaped. Ultimately, my trafficker was charged with labor abuse and got a light sentence - only 6 months of house arrest.
Since regaining my freedom I have had many challenges. Although I was enslaved 9 years ago, my trafficker is still after me and my family.
I was enslaved for 40 days but it felt like 40 years. Even though my enslavement doesn't define me as a person, it makes me who I am today. I am an advocate against slavery, I am a survivor of a crime so monstrous that the only way to move forward is by fighting back. I am not the only one. There are other survivors that are fighting back with me. We are part of a group called the survivors caucus at CAST and we are working to educate people, law enforcement and communities using our stories. The caucus is a network of survivors where we feel safe and supported and we have advocacy to end slavery for good. Even though we were once victims we are now able to impact social change.
So today I am here with you to congratulate you to join our fight to end slavery. We need to find a way to get to the root of the problem - the demand for all products tainted with slave labor. The companies who brought these garments could have stopped me and others from being slaves, if they had made an effort. If those big companies can show consumers they are doing things to make sure the company is not using slave labor in the making of their products, these companies can be the key to freedom for hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. I know that from my experience even one person can make a difference. If companies post what they do to stop slavery, people will understand that they can buy from these companies and that will help stop the demand for these products.
All of us working together can end slavery forever. Let's make it happen.
Narrative as delivered to a California's legislature hearing on the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, June 29, 2010, in Sacramento, California.