‘At 16, I should’ve been going to sleepovers and sweet sixteens. Instead, I was being sold to men, repeatedly.’: Sex trafficking survivor graduates college with honors, advocates for others

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of self-harm, abuse, human trafficking, and drug use that may be triggering to some.

“I am a Human Trafficking Victim Advocate and Drug and Alcohol Counselor. I am also a human trafficking survivor, a former foster youth and a formerly incarcerated student. Growing up, I endured so much physical abuse that I landed in foster care. I remember at the age of 4, I was left with my grandmother. This woman was evil to me, and she hated me. Whenever my grandma was angry with me, she would get me naked and whoop me with a stick, and the men in the house would stand by and watch.

My mom eventually came and picked me up from that house and the physical abuse continued. I was sexually assaulted when I was with my grandmother and a case was opened up. No one was ever caught for the crime that took my innocence away. As I got older, I became suicidal and I would go into my room to cut my arms. My dad was in and out of my life. At the age of fourteen, I met an older man. He asked me to go hang out with him, he said he would pick me up. So, I met up with him and his friend was driving the car. I got into the backseat of the car and his friend drove off onto the freeway. This man began to rape me in the backseat of his car.

One day, I came home from the river and my mother and I got into an argument and she chased me upstairs. I ran into the bathroom and locked the door. When she finally entered the bathroom, she grabbed me and threw me into the bathtub. She grabbed multiple cleaning chemicals and started to pour them into my mouth and all over my body. I screamed and begged her to stop, so she finally did and she turned the shower on. While I sat there with the shower washing the chemicals away, she said, ‘You are pathetic.’ I finally had the courage to call law enforcement and they came but did not arrest her. They left me there after referring us to a social worker. I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t even trust law enforcement.

I was eventually placed in the foster care system. I ran away from everything at 15 years old and was finally dropped off at my father’s door step in South San Francisco. My father was an alcoholic, and I was a broken, suicidal, and traumatized child. One day, I met an older man and he told me he was nineteen years old; this man was really twenty-seven years old. He told me I was beautiful and he would take care of me. I fell in love, instantly. This man was my first trafficker. He started to take me to hotel rooms and gave me 2-3 ecstasy pills each time to get me loaded, which is called the grooming process. I would be so out of it and couldn’t get out of bed or walk. This is when he would sodomize me and make me perform on him. This was a form of attention for me, so I considered it love.

I dropped out of high school and ran away with this man. He took me back to his family’s house, a dope house. He kept me in a room while everyone was partying in the living room. I introduced him to my uncles and cousins, and they sold dope to him and to the people at the dope house I was staying at. I eventually became hooked on meth for about 12 years. It hurts my heart that my own family was supplying my trafficker with drugs that got me hooked on meth. My family knew I was in the dope house but did nothing to help me.

Young traumatized and suicidal teen involved in human trafficking gets arrested
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

At sixteen years old, this man had me on the corner of 16th and Mission in San Francisco. He was part of a prison gang called ‘Kumi,’ so I did as I was told out of fear. I was his mule and I would have crack cocaine hidden in my mouth and in my private areas while he sold dope to the streets. He eventually got arrested and he sent an older woman to me to help me make money. She was my second trafficker. She was about fifty years old, and she was also a part of the same prison gang he was from. She told me I needed to make money to support my boyfriend, so I needed to sleep with Johns (men). I begged her to not put me out there, but I had no choice.

She started to sell me on 17th and Capp and 20th and Shotwell. I was sold into multiple cars and she was collecting all the money. One night, she left me on the streets and a John pulled up to me and asked me for a date. He told me he had $200, and I was being sold for $60 per car. So, I got into his car and became desperate. I grabbed him by his hair and put a knife to his neck and demanded him to give me the $200. I was sixteen years old; teenagers are supposed to have sweet sixteens and sleep overs, but I was being sold to multiple men, repeatedly.

My boyfriend got out of jail and I told him what happened because I felt so guilty. He cried and told me, ‘Well if you did it for her, then you will do it for me. You love me, right?’ I cried and said, ‘Of course I love you.’ So, he took me back out to the streets and sold me to Johns in cars and in shacks. At the end of the night, my trafficker would put me into the bathtub and wash my body down. He would tell me, ‘I love you.’ It felt like everything I just went through was erased because he gave me the attention I was desperately seeking. I remember there were mornings where the task force would kick down his door looking for him; I would wake up screaming and he would take off through the back door. The task force would ask me, ‘How old are you?’ I would say, ‘Eighteen years old.’ They never once asked for an ID. Why would I tell them the truth in the first place? I believed they could not be trusted.

Woman addicted to meth and being trafficked gets arrested
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

When I was around 20 years old, I met my third trafficker. He started to give me large amounts of methamphetamines to sell for him. I was an addict, so I would smoke my own supply or people would rob me because I was a female drug dealer. My third trafficker was also a gang member, so I was in fear for my life when I was working for him. I would get arrested for his drugs, and I would get out and be in debt with him, which is considered labor trafficking. Throughout the years, I was in and out of correctional facilities and went to Valley State Prison. There was a time my trafficker was looking for me because I owed him money, he found me, kidnapped me, and said, ‘You better cash these checks and pay me, or I’ll take you to the hoe stroll to make my money.’ I did as I was told, and I paid him his money. I tried to tell him I was done, but he gave me more dope to sell, and then before I could get out of his car, I was forced to give him oral sex.

When I was 26, I was arrested for the last time. I left my son at a dope house, and the task force told me I needed to tell them who I was working for because I was going away for a long time. I told them, ‘I will tell you who I am working for if you take me to see my son before you take me to jail.’ They agreed. I told the task force who my trafficker was in total fear and felt betrayal because the codes in the streets are you don’t ‘SNITCH!’ They got the info they needed from me and took me straight to jail. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son. I called the dope house my son was at from the holding tank, and he screamed when he heard my voice. I woke up that night, I felt like a human again and my heart shattered. I broke down crying because I was no longer dead, and I felt pain.

Woman suffering from human trafficking and childhood trauma gets arrested on drug charges
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

I decided to change my life because my son needed a mom and I needed to break the generational cycle in my family. I ended up getting 5 years between San Mateo County and Sonoma County. I was angry, hurt, and full of guilt because I was missing my son’s first steps and his first words. When I was in San Mateo jail, I got into multiple physical fights. I knew I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how to. When I came to Sonoma County, I got enrolled into a program called Starting Point. This is where I learned about trauma and addiction.

I was inspired to get my GED, so every night I worked on my homework in my cell to practice for the exam. I had a wonderful teacher who sat down with me and helped me learn how to do math. I took the test and failed. I cried because I tried with all my might, and I still failed. My teacher said, ‘TRY AGAIN.’ So, I practiced and took the test again, and I passed!! When I received my GED, I cried because I never received anything in my life but trauma and hate. I graduated Starting Point and I was released from custody. I was encouraged by my counselor to do another program called ‘Women’s Recovery Services’ because I had a lot of trauma and I could never go back to San Francisco/Daly City.

I went to this residential program for women in hopes it would change my life; it did. I learned about human trafficking and how I was a victim, not a child prostitute. When I found this out, a big burden was lifted off my shoulders. I was free to share my truth without fear and shame because it wasn’t my fault. I received TRUE love from both programs and it was where I decided I wanted to help others by sharing my story. This is where I started to get connected with my higher power, God. I felt His TRUE love when I would run at lakes and the sun would shine down on my face or when I would pray, and every fear and anxiety would leave my body because I knew I was going to be OK.

In 2013, I completed the program and stayed in shelters and SLE’S. In 2014, I decided to go to college. I attended Santa Rosa Junior College and became a part of the Bear Cub Scholars for foster youth. In 2016, I became the president of The Second Chance Club for formerly incarcerated students. On Christmas Eve of 2018, The Governor’s Office called me and said, ‘You have been granted a full unconditional Governor’s Pardon from Governor Jerry Brown!’ I screamed and cried because I was finally felt the true feeling of redemption. After fighting for my son for nine years after losing him due to my last arrest, I finally received full custody of my son last December. God truly heals and restores families.

In 2019, I received an Associate in Arts degree in Social Advocacy, Behavioral Science, and Human Services, all with honors. I just graduated Sonoma State University with my B.A. degree in Sociology with Distinction. Now, I am transferring to Arizona State University for my master’s degree in Social Justice and Human Rights this month. I am the first person in my blood line to obtain a degree! I am 9 years clean, and I am breaking generational curses.

First generation college student celebrates while walking across the stage and receiving her diploma
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz
First generation college student takes graduation pictures at Sonoma State University
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

God, the programs, and the arresting officers gave me a new life. I am now a sought-after speaker and presenter on various topics, including Criminal Records Expungement, Addiction Recovery, and Human Trafficking. Among my audiences are: Sonoma County Jail GED graduates, female inmates at Folsom State Prison, the California Violence Prevention Network annual conference, the Placerville Summit view Child and Family Services, Lake County Tribal Health, the San Mateo women’s correctional facility, the 2019 SRJC Latinx graduation, and more recently I was a keynote speaker at the Santa Rosa Junior College President’s Address to the Community. I also presented at events including the SRJC Human Trafficking Awareness and Women’s History Month events.

As a mentor, I work with at-risk youth from multiple organizations including Seneca, Valley of the Moon, and Juvenile Probation. I currently serve as a member of the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force and founded and co-facilitate Sonoma County’s first Human Trafficking support group for victims and survivors. Together with my partner, Lisa Diaz-McQuaid, we coordinate a monthly street outreach program for human trafficking victims, aiming to provide them with a safe way out of the hands of their perpetrators. To support these efforts, we are the co-founders of Redemption House of The Bay Area, and we are currently working to establish a nonprofit organization to assist human trafficking victims by providing them with a safe place to live while recovering and healing from their traumatic past.

Nonprofit leaders celebrate donations to their Redemption House nonprofit, helping women out of human trafficking
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

I am married now with a blended family. I travel all over California to share my story and bring awareness about human trafficking. I won the Humanitarian Hero award from The Red Cross in 2019. I am a visionary and a path finder for the lost and hopeless. I envision myself traveling and testifying what God has brought me out of while bringing awareness about Human Trafficking. I choose these goals because God put a burden on my heart to plant seeds of hope to others and lead them to a path of freedom.

Human trafficking survivor smiles big while taking a photo with her blended family
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz
Human trafficking survivor and recovered addict wins Red Cross Humanitarian Hero award for her nonprofit work
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

I am so grateful to be able to share my story and bring hope to others that feel there is NO other way. If I can turn my pain into empowerment to inspire others, then there is hope for those who are still stuck in the grips of human trafficking. Here is a quote I live by daily: ‘We can move on with our lives and never speak of what God has brought us out of, or we can go back into the burning building and save as many souls as we can and bring them to freedom with us. This is the path I choose today.’”

Human trafficking survivor and recovered addict shows her many many mugshots and her celebrating her college graduation
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz
Woman who started her own nonprofit after surviving human trafficking stands tall and strong with a cross necklace on
Courtesy of Elizabeth Quiroz

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Elizabeth Quiroz of Santa Rosa, CA. You can follow her journey on Instagram, support her non-profit organization Redemption Bay Area , and purchase her book. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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