Maria Suarez marks the turning-point in her decades-long journey from slavery to freedom as the moment when a bird knocked at her window. She had no idea she about to be freed, but when the bird came she knew that she “was going to have some good news.” She waited, and minutes later officials told her she was going to be free.
At the age of 15, in 1976, Maria immigrated legally to the US from Michoacan, Mexico, with her father. She was soon approached on the street in Los Angeles by a woman offering work as a cleaner. But instead the woman sold her to 68-year-old Anselmo Covarrubias for $200, and Covarrubias made her his domestic slave. For five years he held her in bondage in his house in the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, raped and beat her, and threatened her with black arts wizardry. Maria believed that he read her mind, possessed her soul, and would hurt her family if she told anyone about the abuse.
In August 1981, Covarrubias was bludgeoned to death with a table leg by Pedro Soto, who was renting a converted garage on the property. Maria washed the weapon and hid it under the house, as directed by Soto. She was arrested, along with Soto and his wife. Soto was convicted of first-degree murder, and his wife was convicted of soliciting murder and being an accessory to a felony. Maria was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced to 25 years to life, and incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona. Officials eventually confirmed that she suffered from battered woman’s syndrome — allowed as a legal defense in California after in 1992 — and she was paroled in 2003, after five years in slavery, and 22.5 years in prison.But Maria still wasn’t free: according to federal law, non-citizens convicted of violent crimes must be deported upon their release, and she was taken directly to a federal detention facility. She spent more than five months fighting deportation, then was certified as a trafficking victim eligible for a T-visa—a new status for victims of slavery and trafficking in the US. She was freed in May 2004.
I grew up in a village of between 500 and 700 people. Most of the people there were family; cousins, my grandpa, my uncles. Everybody was family. It was a very, very nice life for me, growing up with my parents, on the farm, with my brothers and sisters. When I was a little girl I saw my parents working hard, and my dream was to one day become somebody, have money, and give them the best in life; treat them like a king and queen. I always wanted to take care of my parents. That was my dream.
I was 15, I was going to be 16, and my father came to this country. He came to get his residential card, and I came with him. And he left. I stayed here. It wasn’t my plan to stay here, I thought I was going to go back with my father. But he left after two weeks and I stayed here with my sister. A month later I got a job offer from this woman I didn’t know. She offered me a cleaning job, and coming from my country, it was like, wow! I’m going to get a job! I believed her, I thought it was real. But it wasn’t a job. It was just a trick, a trap that I fell into. I didn’t even ask how much they were going to pay or anything. She told me not to tell my family and that she was coming very soon. It sounded good because I was going to surprise them with the job.
She didn’t show up for another week or so. I forgot about it. But then she came and asked me if I still wanted a job, and I said: “Yes. I want the job.” She told me to go and meet the people. My sister was working, I was at the house by myself, and my brother-in-law was at work. I was going to go and tell him that I was going to go to this place, but she told me not to do anything—told me: “Just let’s go. We’re coming back very soon.” She took me to the place, and it felt like it took forever. I didn’t know the area—I just knew how to get to my niece’s school and to the store. She took me all the way to Azuza. I was living in Sierra Madre, so it was a long drive.
When we got there, I met this old man. Probably he was 65 or 70, I don’t know. When I met him, he had a big smile. She introduced me to him. It was kind of nice, but at the same time, it was creepy—like, you don’t want to be there. But I didn’t follow my instinct. I didn’t. And I should have. It didn’t feel right for me to be there.
They told me to sit on the couch, and I sat down. They went away and talked—I don’t know what they talked about. They came back and I told them: “I want to go back to my house.” He told me not to go but to stay there and start working. I didn’t want to stay there. He kept telling me: “You stay here, you’ll meet my wife. And then I’ll take you to your house tomorrow.” I didn’t want to, but between the two of them they convinced me.
They told me to call my sister, but the funny thing was the phone had a lock. He removed it from the phone, and he let me call my sister. When I called my sister, she didn’t want me to stay there. She goes: “No, you’re coming home.” I explained to her that it was an old couple, and she asked me for address, the phone number, the names. She kept telling me to come home. I said: “I’m coming tomorrow.” That tomorrow never came, never came until a year ago. A year ago I came home.
The third day in the house he told me that he had bought me, that I was his slave, that he paid $200 for me, that I was there to do whatever he wanted to do to me. I didn’t have a mind of my own. I was controlled by his witchcraft. He told me he was a witch. I was afraid of him. I was terrorized by him. He beat me, raped me, everyday he abused me mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I was not in touch with my family because I was afraid of saying something to them that he disliked, or making him think that I was going to escape. I lived in fear. When I fell asleep because I was so tired, I’d get woken up by him putting things on my face, and telling me: “You have the curse and you cannot leave this house.”
My family reported him to the police, and the police came to the house. I opened the door, cause he told me to. The policeman sat on the couch asking me if I’m okay, asking me in front of this man, and how can I say: “no I’m not”? I was so afraid of him, because he had threatened to kill my family. And he threatened to kill me. Every time that I did something that he disliked or I didn’t want to have anything to do with him, he told me that he was going to kill me. I can actually tell you that I’m a miracle because so many times I was close to dying.
Once in a while I thought, how can I get out of here? But then I changed. I was afraid to think that. He told me that he knew what I thought. He had me believe that he saw everything in his crystal ball. So I believed him. My family suspected that I was not in the right place, that I didn’t want to be there, and they did send the police but I was afraid that he was going to kill my family so I told the police that I was fine. I was afraid. I couldn’t allow him to do something to my family.
By then I hadn’t seen anything. I didn’t know nothing. I was just a teenager, 16. I wanted to be with my family the way I was before, and my dreams were crushed, crushed. They never let me bloom, like a rose. They never let the rose grow up to be a rose. That’s how I felt.
Ya know, faith is the last string in my life. I can be almost at the edge of falling down, and my faith is going to keep on going. I always dreamed. I dreamed that I was in a tunnel and the little dot of light was freedom to me. Every time that I had that dream, I knew that was my freedom. But I had no way out. I just used to pray a lot. I thought God had forgotten me. I asked him why. I asked him give me a sign, to show me something that I can see, feel, touch. To give me a sign that I’m going to be okay, and that my family’s going to be okay if I leave this house. I remember spending nights crying and praying on my knees. And I did lose faith in God. I felt like he forgot me, because I was begging for him to show me a sign. I used to ask God: “Why did you forget about me? I’m your child.” I kept on like that, day after day, day after day.
After I reached 18, he sent me to work in the factory and I brought my check back. A lot of times I wanted to die, just die. That was my only way out. I didn’t want to provoke my own death, but I wanted to die. I was just living one more day. Either he was going to kill me or I was going to die.
The way I ended up in prison was that he had another place in back of his house. He rented to a young couple and tried to pursue the wife. He was trying to do witchcraft on them and one day the young guy killed him. I heard the noise and I came out. The victim was on the ground. The only thing I remember is that he told me to grab the stick and put it under the house. I did that. He put it in my hand and I did it. I put the stick under the house. I didn’t know anything else but to follow commands. I don’t even know if I called my family or how my family got there, but my sister came and took me with her.
I was like a zombie. I didn’t talk, I didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I was very fearful, thinking that he was coming to get me. I was arrested and I felt that he was going to come and get me. I spent one year fighting my case but I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t understand the law terms, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand what they were saying. My family didn’t know anything about laws or attorneys either, so they got ripped off. The attorney who represented me was already disbarred and he was using someone else’s bar number to fight my case. He promised my family that I was going to be free by Christmas. I never got free. I was sentenced to 25 years to life.
They felt that they needed to blame someone in order for them to be safe. They said whatever they wanted to say. When the parole members used to come they wanted me to say that I was guilty. And I was not going to say anything like that because they asked me to put my hand on the Bible and told me to swear that I was going to tell them the truth. It was not the truth that they wanted to hear from me.
They did an investigation on my case and they found out that I hadn’t done it. They went in and interviewed people at my job and asked them if they knew me, how I looked, how I was. They found out that I’d been telling them the truth. I just wanted somebody to listen. To believe in me. And to know that I been telling the truth—just a little bit of justice. I wanted to get out of there. I felt that I had done more than enough time. I just wanted a chance. I wasn’t going to go crazy outside, I was going to be a normal person. I thought I could be an asset to society.
I did a lot of things while I was in prison. I figured, I’m not going to be here one year or two, I’m going to be here longer. I chose to use my time productively and to be a better person. I was going to be a decent human being. And I had a family who every time that I did something good they were very happy. That was my payback. To see how happy they used to get when I got my GED, when they heard me speaking English, when I used to write them in English, even though it was hard for them to understand. I was going to show them that I was doing something. Professors used to come in there and teach us. So I took classes. I learned a lot of trades. I learned computing, the basics. I learned how to work with people. I got involved in HIV education because people need to be aware of certain things and not put down people with that disease. They need love, they need help, they need care. Not to be put in the corner and forgotten. They are also human beings. And we don’t know—I could be the next to have AIDS. We never know. I feel a lot of compassion for people who are ill and elderly people. I work with doctors, with people who are mentally distraught, and I get so much joy from doing that.
I have a lot of people around me who have been supporting me in different ways. They don’t know me, they just hear about me, but they believe in me. Their support means a lot to me. I will keep that forever. I’m sitting here today because of all those people. I owe my freedom to them all.
The day they told me that I was going to be free, a bird came and told me at the window. I was very sad that day and the bird came. With his little beak, he knocked the window and I knew I was going to have some good news. And I told the person that was in with me, I’m going to have some good news today. I didn’t know anything. The bird came and confirmed it. He came and knocked the window again with his beak. I put my plate at the table to eat and they knocked at the window and told me.
Narrative as told to Peggy Callahan for Free the Slaves, May 13, 2005, at the headquarters of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, in Los Angeles, USA.