SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio sex trafficking survivor is using her voice during National Human Trafficking Awareness month by holding a town hall seminar on the subject.
Maria Perez was trafficked 32 years ago, but said she still remembers every detail.
“I had just lost someone that I dearly loved, so I was vulnerable and I was depressed, so that’s when they engage with you,” she said.
"They," meaning traffickers.
“At first he was the most charming person. Gosh. Then everything started to change. Controlling, his abusiveness,” Perez said. “Then one day he said, ‘We’re going to Reynosa, Mexico.’ I said I didn’t want to go.”
Perez said he forced her into his the trunk of his car.
“He says, ‘If you make any noise I will kill you and your family,’” Perez said.
Once in Mexico, she said the unspeakable happened.
"They raped me in front of everybody. They were laughing, they were drinking. I wasn't the only person there. There was other women there," she said.
For weeks she was kept in a tiny room, repeatedly sold for sex.
When she was finally brought back to America, she escaped. Out of fear for her life, she kept her secret for almost three decades.
"A lot of people are still blind, saying, 'That's not happening here, this is America. There's no way that can happen here,'" she said. "Yes it is. It's happening in our own backyard."
The community's lack of knowledge pushed her to speak up and she started the organization Our Empowering Women of America, or OWE. It allows women and experts to use their voices to educate and make change.
"We have to work together," Perez said. "We have to work with law enforcement. They can't do everything. They need help."
On Monday night, she hosted a town hall seminar with members of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s office on hand to offer information and take questions.
"Awareness, prevention, what signs to look for, the percentages, what's happening out there," she said.
Perez said by continuing the conversation, trafficking can be prevented and lives can be saved.
The seminar was one of many events included in Dream Week, a program every January encouraging community engagement on human rights and citywide issues.
Law enforcement is encouraging the public to learn the signs and red flags of human trafficking, and who to call if those signs are present.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-(888) 373-7888.
You can also send an SMS text to: 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”)
For children being trafficked:
- Roy Maas Youth Alternative trafficking drop in center, Centro Seguro
* Hotline: (210) 340 8090
- Roy Maas Youth Alternative trafficking shelter, La Puerta
- Any Quick Trip or YMCA location is a “Safe Place,” meaning anyone up to 18 years old can ask an employee for help and they are trained to lead the child to resources.