If you met her today, you would never know there was a time Maria Suarez had no hope for her future. Subjected to circumstances that would break even the strongest among us, she spent her days fighting to stay safe and sane. She wasn’t living; she was barely surviving.
But she did survive. Now that she is on the other side of the nightmare, she is speaking out. However, the first thing Maria wants you to understand is her motivation.
“It is all about giving. I want to give, to help, to save and prevent others from ending up where I did.”
Maria’s life started in humble, yet secure surroundings. She grew up in a small rural village where everyone knew everyone and trust came easily. When she was fifteen, Maria and several members of her family immigrated to the United States. Soon after, she met a woman who offered her a job cleaning house for an elderly couple. Trusting the woman, Maria eagerly agreed. However, nothing happened for a while and Maria thought the woman forgot. When the woman finally returned and approached Maria again, everything happened quickly. Too quickly. Maria wanted to tell her family, but the woman told her to get in the car if she still wanted to work. She insisted there was no time for anything else—this job had to be quick and fast.
Quick and fast lasted nearly 30 years.
Together they drove to the house of an older man. Maria didn’t know the area and didn’t speak the language, so she had no idea where she was. They left Maria in the living room while the woman and man went to speak in a back room. Everything in her gut told her something was off and that she should run. But she held onto the hope that everything would be alright, so she stayed.
It was the last time she hoped for much of anything for a very long time.
The man, who initially smiled sweetly and pretended to be kind, had purchased her for $200. He told Maria she was his slave and he could do whatever he wanted with her. And he did. Within 24 hours, after a scuffle when Maria tried to protect herself, he locked her outside without a stitch of clothing. When he brought her in later, he raped her after she had fallen and been knocked unconscious. This was only the beginning of the nightmare. He became her daily tormentor subjecting her to sexual, physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual abuse. The man claimed to be a “witch” and engaged in occult rituals and practices. Although she was able to contact her family at some point, his threats to their safety and daily mind games kept her quiet and compliant.
The nightmare continued for six long years. After this, the story took a turn straight out of a crime novel. A young man renting a converted garage apartment attached to the house became enraged by the older man’s constant noise and intrusion. During a confrontation, he beat him in the head with a heavy wooden board, killing him instantly.
You would think this would have been the end of Maria’s nightmare. Instead she found herself in a different kind of prison. This time a literal one.
Before the police arrived on the scene, the young man handed Maria the board and told her to hide it under the house.
Maria was used to doing what she was told so she complied. Although she immediately cooperated with the police—even showing them where the board was hidden—she was ultimately charged and convicted as an accessory to murder.
She had no record, had not participated in the crime, and had herself been a victim, yet due to the ineptitude of a fumbling attorney who was later disbarred, she was sentenced for 25 years to life.
Despite this gross injustice, prison was a welcome reprieve. When she was arrested Maria says, “I fell to my knees and wept tears of relief. I knew I was finally safe.”
Still in her early twenties when she was sentenced, Maria had no concept of a 25+ year prison term. As the years passed, relief faded and anger took its place as the fog of the previous decade faded and Maria woke up to the reality of her situation. The man she had feared in the day began to haunt her dreams. Even from the grave, his torment and control over her life continued. That is until Maria did the unthinkable:
She forgave him.
Seeing her daughter’s torment, Maria’s mother urged her to pray knowing her freedom would only be found through forgiveness. It wasn’t quick or easy, but in choosing to forgive, Maria not only found freedom, she found peace.
Even more importantly, she found hope.
Maria was still physically behind bars, but for the first time since her ordeal began, her heart was free. She began to live again—even in prison. She got her GED. She learned English. She became involved in advocacy groups. She spent much of her time helping others.
Through one of these advocacy groups, the Board of Prison Term Investigation, Maria’s wrongful conviction was finally reviewed and overturned. On May 25th, 2004, after 22.5 years behind bars, Maria was finally as free on the outside as she already was on the inside.
That’s when Maria’s remarkable story of hope really blossomed. She started the Maria Suarez Foundation, a survivor-led nonprofit dedicated to eradicating the enslavement of youth in Southern California. She also started Green Ants, a cleaning service that employs survivors of human trafficking, offering them a sustainable future.
“I want to help others who are at risk. I want them to be aware of their surroundings and able to recognize the signs of those being victimized, so they can report it. I want this generation to be aware, so they avoid the hole to begin with.”
Maria Suarez didn’t just survive, today she is thriving. Her journey from bondage to freedom was costly, but if even one person avoids the same fate because of her willingness to speak out, Maria’s story of hope will live on.
The Maria Suarez Foundation is actively looking for like-minded volunteers and partners to help build a safer and more hope-filled world for at-risk youth in the Southern California area. If you’d like more information on how you can help, visit www.mariasuarez.org, or email Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also visit the Green Ants Cleaning Service site at www.greenantsinc.com, and if you are in the local area, consider them for your housekeeping and cleaning needs.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of Voices of Justice Magazine