Join our movement to end sexual exploitation

“Through the searing stories Chelo Alvarez-Stehle tells in her film, she demonstrates that  sexual abuse and sexual trafficking are but points on a continuum. In so doing, she has made an important contribution to the  national conversation about sexual assault and rape culture. This film is part of the new movement of independent documentary films that reveal important truths about the terrible secrets we keep as a society and the toll they take on all of us.” — Jack Lerner, UC Irvine law professor, Director of the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic, member of the Board of Directors of the International Documentary Association.

- Jack Lerner,

UC Irvine law professor, Director of the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic, member of the Board of Directors of the International Documentary Association.


Sands of Silence: Waves of Courage is a personal documentary about a filmmaker who, inspired by the transformation of the sex-trafficking survivors whose lives she is documenting, finds the courage to break the silence about sexual abuse in her own life.


A­15-­year quest to expose the underworld of sexual exploitation and trafficking from Asia to the Americas leads world­-reporter Chelo Alvarez­Stehle back to the windswept beach where her childhood ended and family secrets began. As Chelo documents the transformation of sex trafficking survivors, she meets Virginia Isaias, a Mexican woman whose life is engulfed in a cycle of sexual exploitation. Escaping with her 6 months old daughter from a sex trafficking ring in Mexico, Virginia crosses the US border in search of freedom. After years of hard work, Virginia begins to rebuild her life and speaks out about her ordeal for the first time in this documentary. Virginia, who barely speaks English, becomes a US citizen and a prominent advocate for other sexual exploitation survivors in the Latino community in Southern California by setting up a non profit. Inspired by Virginia's courage, Chelo is moved to explore her unyielding desire for seeking out these types of stories in what becomes a parallel journey of introspection that shatters the silence her own family and in her own life.



Virginia Isaías

is president and founder of Fundación de Sobrevientes de Tráfico Humano (Human Trafficking Survivors Foundation, a 501(c)3). A survivor of a cycle of sexual violence and trafficking, Virginia has dedicated her life to support survivors of sexual violence in the Latino community of Southern California and beyond. She is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the LULAC 2011 Hispanic Woman of the Year, the AIMS 2013 Hispanic Leadership Award, and has received recognitions for her community service by the U.S. House of Representatives, California Senator Lou Correa (Women Making a Difference,) and California Senator Ricardo Lara (Breaking the Chains of Slavery.)

Virginia (Lala) Isaias Barajas

Perhaps the only known person who was trafficked as a baby, is today an empowered teenager, and, like her mother, Virginia Isaias, she has started to speak up and is ready to change the world. Lala told her mom, “You told me one person can change the world, and I want to be that person.”

Lala is currently following her passion, attending college and seeking to major in Environmental Law.

Anu Tamang

Founder of Shakti Samuha Charimaya (Anu) Tamang is recipient of numerous awards, among them, the Hero Acting to End Modern­-Day Slavery Award 2011, by Hillary Clinton, and the National Gorimaya Woman Genius Award. She is founder of Shakti Samuha which has been awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2013. She was sold to India when she was 16 years to work in a brothel as a sex worker. She spent 22 months as a sex-slave before the Indian government rescued her along with over 200 other Nepali women in 1996. Upon her return to Nepal, Tamang was ostracised by her community. Later in 2000, Tamang and 15 other survivors established Shakti Samuha, an anti­trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Chelo’s Siblings

Filmmaker Statement


Chelo Alvarez-­Stehle


SANDS OF SILENCE: Waves of Courage

My commitment to denounce sexual exploitation was sparked in 1997 in remote Western Nepal when as a world reporter working for print publications in Spain I met young girls that had been sold to temples as the Goddesses’ vestals or trafficked to brothels in India. Moved by this experience, I continued to write about sexual exploitation in different  corners  of  the  world,  from  the  sexual  abuse  that  most  of Australia’s Aboriginal children of the “stolen generation” were subject to after  being  removed  from  their  families  under  the  country’s assimilation  policy,  to  the  mass  rape  of  Nepali  women  caught  in Bhutan’s  ethnic  cleansing  in  1990.  In  2002,  when  one  of  my  print articles  on  child  trafficking  in  the  Himalayas  was  turned  into  the documentary  film  Tin  Girls (Niñas  de  Hojalata)  by  Canal+ Spain,  a film I worked for, I was forever converted to the art of documentary filmmaking.

These  experiences  led  me  to make  the  short documentary  Sold  in  America:  A  Modern­Day  Tale  of  Sex  Slavery,  denouncing sexual exploitation and trafficking through the stories of three  women  sold  at  an  early  age.  The  short  premiered  at  the Montreal Human Rights Film Festival and played in the international film festival circuit.

My  current feature ­length documentary Sands of Silence: Waves of Courage is  a  departure  from  the  journalist  approach  of  Sold  in America.  The  making  of  Sands  of  Silence pushed  me  into  a  new journey of introspection. As I set to tell the story of our main subject, Virginia, who struggles to break the cycle of sexual exploitation in her family and her life, I saw my own story—in a very small way—in hers. This  realization  gradually  pushed  me  to  reveal  in  the  film  my  own hidden ghosts. In this film, my story creates a link between the horrors of commercial sexual  exploitation,  which  affect  many  of  those  who  live  marginal lives,  and  the  diffuse  but  pervasive  sexual  abuse  that  our  society tacitly  condones.  One  important  common  theme  is  that  the  silence must be broken first within families. The support and understanding gained when families come together then allows women to speak out publicly.  By  interweaving  my  story  and  my  family’s  with  that  of Virginia and her family, while stressing the vast differences, this film brings  out  that  essential  step. Even  though  our  families  come  from totally  different  backgrounds,  the  same  familial  dynamic  occurred when Virginia or I tried to speak up about abuse. As we’ve seen in preview screenings, this resonates with audiences in an intimate way, inspiring  them  to  find  the  courage  to  break  their  own  silence  on sexual exploitation and moving them to take action at a societal level.

Congratulations Virginia Isaias and team for celebrating Sept. 23rd, Intl. Day against Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking at your Fundación de Sobrevivientes de Tráfico Humano 501(c)3 !Felicidades Virginia Isaias y equipo por celebrar el 23 de sept. el Día contra la Explotación Sexual y el Tráfico Humano. ... See MoreSee Less

Día internacional de lucha contra la trata de personas: 23 de Septiembre

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