My name is Charlotte and I am a survivor of Human Trafficking.
I was just fourteen years old when I entered The Life. I was the only child of my parents. My dad passed away when I was eight years old and our lives went downhill after that. My mom drank booze to ease her pain and loneliness, so often she became an alcoholic. It was then that I really lost my mom too.
She remarried when I was twelve, trying to find someone to fill the emptiness of her life in our home. Little did she know, it was a terrible mistake. My stepdad was better off dead than alive. He too, had an addiction. Not to drinking, but drugs. He was a crackhead who abused my mom every time he needed money, and she couldn’t give it. All for drugs. Some nights, when I was up in my room, I would hear him beat my mom and yell at her. She tried to muffle her cries, so I couldn’t hear. But I heard. Everything. The crash of furniture tossed around, the pounding on the walls filled the house. I would plead with her to call the cops, but she would never listen. She strictly forbade me to call the police. My mom was too afraid, of him, and of being left alone yet again…she was paralyzed with fear and dread. She was too deep in this pit, impossible to claw her way out. It was helpless.
I remember always being depressed. I was lonely. I couldn’t have friends over. I couldn’t talk to anyone. My house never felt like home. My anger grew. One night, on my fourteenth birthday, I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran away from that house. I packed my bag with a few clothes, a picture of my mom, my dad, and few odds and ends. I looked at all the items, and thought, “This is the sum total of my life?” And then I left. I didn’t know where to go at first. I just wanted to be as far away from that house, that life, as possible. With the little money I had, I bought a train ticket to Los Angeles. LA was the city I always wanted to see. It was my dream city, the place I wanted to be. I wanted to become a dancer, like my dad when he was alive.
I remember getting off the train, not knowing where to go. Everyone around me was moving fast, they all seemed like they had a place to go. It was nighttime, pitch dark, with only a few lights beaming every now and then. The night was really cold for LA, and I could barely feel my hands. I was walking on the sidewalk with no one in sight. From behind me a car emerged and came up close to the curb. It stopped just ahead of me, waiting for me to get close. I turned to see who it was. Before I knew it, the window on the passenger side lowered. It was a man. I could barely see him inside the car. He was wearing a black T-shirt, with lots of tattoos that hugged the light brown skin on his arms. He seemed to be in his early twenties.
“What are you doin’ out here at this time of night…all by yourself?” he said.
I answered honestly, “I ran away from home and have nowhere to go.”
A smile played on his lips. “You can come with me. I got an empty room in my apartment. You can crash there as long as you want, till you can get on your feet.” I thought I had no options. I was cold. I was hungry. I wasn’t used to being out on the city streets. Without thinking, I accepted his offer.
His name was Ricardo and he was twenty-three years old. That’s all I knew about the man I started living with. Ricardo was very kind and took care of me. Before I knew it, I fell in love with him. He bought me gifts and said only the sweetest things to me. I thought he loved me too, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
One night we went to a popular club. There were so many young people there. The music was loud, the lights very bright. It was intoxicating. There were dancers, drinking and drugs. After a few dances out on the dance floor with Ricardo, we went back to some very comfortable couches. Ricardo leaned over to me and whispered in my ear. He told me a man noticed me dancing. He asked me to sleep with that man, that he was a friend. In return, that man would pay money. I was in shock. I refused. He kept insisting, his voice getting more and more insistent and assertive. “The money that you make would go towards our future, where you could be the dancer you’ve dreamed about. We could live a better life together. Trust me, Baby. You know I love you. Do this for us.”
I was out of my mind. I was just a naïve fourteen-year-old girl who thought she understood what love was. I didn’t have anyone to show me what love really felt like after my father passed away. My mom was drunk most of the time and totally self-absorbed. And my stepdad was just an abusive crackhead who leached off us. Ricardo was the only one who showed me that he cared about me. Or so he made me believe that was the case.
He was persistent. After many entreaties, I told him okay. Words cannot explain the experience I went through that night. But it wasn’t the end of his plan. What I thought would be a “one-time-thing” became a daily routine. Ricardo would take me to different places…clubs, hotel/motel rooms to “promote” me to men. I thought I could handle going to bed with different guys each day if I could make Ricardo happy. I would lay down lay down, in a daze, letting men have their way with me. There were nights I would cry myself to sleep, tears welling up in the shower thinking about the turn my life had taken. I was a mess, and I blamed myself. “It’s your fault”, the voices in my head screamed.
I was rescued a couple months after I turned fifteen. Ricardo had been arrested. The police found out he was trafficking me, an under-aged, runaway teen. Turns out, he had other girls, several of which turned on him. He was put in prison. When the cops questioned me, I didn’t want to say a thing to them. I loved him, so I kept quiet about my life with him during the last several months.
Surprisingly, an aunt I never met before, came to get me from the police station. She was my mom’s sister and told me she saw me on the news. She met me when I was a baby, but my mom shut her out of our lives after the death of my dad due to personal reasons. She lived in LA and kindly took me home. I went to rehab for several months, trying to get better after being traumatized from those horrific events. This time in my life scarred me for life. At some point, I gained enough inner strength to tell myself that although I couldn’t change my past, I could use me experience to help change my future.
When I reached this “fork in the road”, my understanding of love was broken, then re-made. Things came into focus. Ricardo never loved me. Instead, I was groomed into believing he was the only one who loved me when all he was actually doing was exploiting me for his own selfish needs. The future he promised was no future at all. I was blinded, but now I see.
Today, I go from various youth service centers, helping and advocating for others who are or have suffered from human trafficking like I did. I want them to know they are not alone and it’s okay to ask for help, because you need help. A very small percentage of girls like me escape The Life. I hope my experiences will encourage and inspire those who are suffering in the shadows and in silence like I once was…to come forward with a story of courage and resiliency like mine.