Maria was just a young girl when she was told she needed to contribute to the family by bringing in money whatever way she could.
In the life of poverty, this meant her mother would sell her to friends and family. Now Maria is using those painful experiences to tell a story, a story that is not just hers, but also one of 300,000 children in the United States who are victims of child sex trafficking.
Maria was born in California to immigrants from Mexico. Both of her parents were field workers, until her mother was poisoned from pesticides. Living on one, small income, with 3 children was difficult and her mother turned to a life she knew, making decisions out of desperation. She began prostituting her daughter, starting at a time Maria was too young to remember and stopped when she was around 11 years old, after years of abuse.
“My sister and I - we were sold. And my brother had to go work in the fields when he was very young… We all had to bring money in.”
Maria said of her family’s situation, “It was scary… You really don’t have a childhood in poverty. Not only are you having to worry about… whether you are going to eat or not- because that is in your awareness- but for me it was also making sure that we brought money in one way or another.”
Food was massively scarce and there were many times when the whole family went to bed hungry. If they did receive food, it was because a neighbor who worked for a local grocery store would give it to them when it had been disposed of in the trash or because her father would hunt, in the hopes of killing a rabbit or maybe a deer.
“As a child you don’t have choices. You are wherever it is that you are put. And you suffer the consequences of the choices your parents have made.”
“When you are in survival mode,” Maria said, “you're making decisions like, how am I going to keep [the money I do have] or how am I going to get my next dollar to eat? And for a long time, I’ve had a very deep rooted fear of not having money for food. Even when I've had a very healthy amount of money in my account, there's still that fear of running out and not having food... You can’t really make wise decisions based off of that.”
Maria found herself in abusive relationships, making decisions based in scarcity and fear. “Even in my language,” she noted, “as a young adult- even in my 30s- I would say things in my mind like, ‘well, if I ever have to sell myself…’ I would leave it in the realm of my possibility… that world- it's what you know and it's what you feel that you are worthy of.“
Poverty and hunger are heavily tied to a mindset of desperation and in that mindset it is nearly impossible to see your true self worth. When you’re trying to find your next meal, or to feed your children, you are in survival mode, which often means you do what you feel you have to do.
“If that’s what you have to do to eat, if that's what you have to do to survive, you just do. There is no option, there is no its wrong or it's bad, you have to do what needs to be done.”
Maria is now is a consultant and entrepreneur and sees her mission as helping children avoid the pain she was put in so very young. She feels it is important to address the “cause root of what is happening” and believes that by providing vital necessities, like food, we can save more children from desperate situations like sex trafficking.