“Sands of Silence is a film that illuminates the nexus between sexual abuse and sexual trafficking: Predators dehumanize and objectify children and women, and survivors suffer in a silence caused by fear and shame. This nexus can be severed, at both a personal and global level, when survivors choose to break the silence.”
Virginia – survivor of the cycle of sexual violence and trafficking
I had documented survivors’ stories for years, but when I met Virginia Isaias, a fair-skinned Mexican-American living in California, and learned of the unspeakable torture she and her newborn had suffered, my heart sank.
Virginia had lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years with the man her father forced her to marry until escaping years of domestic violence, she returned to Mexico to begin anew. She started selling clothes to little ranchos to make a living. “One day, I was breast-feeding my baby at a market in Guadalajara when I felt a blow on my head,” Virginia related in Spanish, the only language she speaks, as she shared the harrowing details of their kidnapping. She was transported hundreds of miles into the Chiapas jungle and, along with other young captive mothers with babies, forced into sex slavery. “They made us exchange babies so we wouldn’t escape,” continued Virginia.
After being subjected to terrible episodes of torture and several failed escape attempts, she was able to convince one of the men guarding the women (and who was also a captive himself) to escape with her to Cancun by offering him a large sum of money to pay for his mother’s surgery. Virginia managed to return to the U.S., and after years of hard work cleaning houses and laboring in factories, she began to rebuild her life. She became a U.S. citizen and a prominent advocate for sexual exploitation survivors in the Latino community in Southern California. In 2010, she founded the non-profit Fundación de Sobrevivientes de Tráfico Humano [http://fsth.org] (Human Trafficking Survivors Foundation), a 501(c)3 over which she presides.
Virginia is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the LULAC 2011 Hispanic Woman of the Year, the AIMS 2013 Hispanic Leadership Award, and she has received recognition 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.)
Lala – Virginia’s daughter
Lala was 10 years-old when I first starting filming Virginia’s story. She was a happy child and an avid student. There was no hint of the terrible background story of trafficking and separation from her mother as a baby when they were both held captive by a trafficking ring in Chiapas, Mexico. When Lala turned 11, a traumatic event altered her lively spirit and for years, as we followed her mother’s story on camera, she refused to be filmed. However, she allowed the filming of her high-school graduation, and soon afterwards she gave us her first interview. In it she speaks candidly about being probably the only known person trafficked as a baby.
Today Lala is an empowered teenager, and like her mother, she has started to speak up and is ready to change the world. In the film, Lala tells her mom, “You told me one person can change the world, and I want to be that person. I want to do the same thing you do with people, but with the planet.”
Lala works at a Cinemark movie theater while following her passion, attending college with the aim of majoring in Environmental Law. Cinemark presented Lala with a $10,000 award at a WE event at Inglewood stadium in front of thousands of people for her service, both at work and at FSTH, the foundation her mother established.
Anu – survivor of sex trafficking
In 1997, my first published reportage on child trafficking in the Himalayas featuring the story of Anu Tamang received the Planeta Humano magazine Editor’s Cash Prize. Anu was kidnapped in her hamlet in Sindhupalchowk, Nepal, and sold to a brothel thousands of miles away in Mumbai, India, where she was held as sex-slave for 22 months. The cash prize enabled Anu, who had been rescued from the brothel the year before, to attend school and start rebuilding her life. At the time, she was using the pseudonym “Anu” and did not consent to appear on camera. She knew people around Nepal called the survivors “Bombay-girls,” and she feared the stigma. In 2002, my article was turned by Canal+ Spain into TIN GIRLS (Niñas de Hojalata), a feature-length documentary film on which I also worked. By then Anu had empowered herself. She had joined Shakti Samuha, a survivor-run cooperative to help trafficking victims. Finding new strength, she agreed to be interviewed on camera.
In 2011, I learned that Anu had been invited to Washington D.C. to receive the Hero to End Modern-Day Slavery Award bestowed by Hillary Clinton. She was granted the award for being the first person in Nepal to gather the courage to take her traffickers to court.
Soon afterwards, I visited Anu in Kathmandu. “When that day came, I did not know who Hillary Clinton was,” Anu said when I interviewed her. “When they called my name and told my story, I blacked out. Among the flashbacks, I understood why the shawl I had used to try to hang myself in the brothel broke. I needed to live till this day.”
Anu continues her prominent work with Shakti Samuha [http://shaktisamuha.org.np/about-us/staff-members/ ] and is a board member of Shanti Foundations, an organization that cares for HIV positive women, including trafficking survivors. Anu has two young daughters, and her dream is to see them attend law school so they can continue to work against trafficking.
Chelo – myself, the filmmaker
I worked for decades in the fight against sexual violence and trafficking. Somehow the issue touched a deep nerve inside. After interviewing dozens of survivors around the world for print articles and documentaries and creating projects to support them, it was the making of this film that pushed me to confront my own feelings of empathy and outrage surrounding this issue.
I then started to admit to myself how I had buried my own experience and had never talked about it. Only four years after the start of this film in 2008 did I gather the courage to face my own past.
In the film, I am confronted by the human rights activist in me who wants justice and the inner being who wants reconciliation. Through my story, audiences are encouraged to ponder the issues of forgiveness, reparation and accountability.
I live in the Los Angeles area with my husband and daughter. As I continue to develop content on gender violence, through both the SOS_SLAVES social impact game project, a micro-documentary series and other projects, I am fully immersed in our film’s impact campaign and committed to responding to invitations to present it at schools, colleges, prisons, conferences, NGOs, and audiences around the world.
Marián – my sister
Marián, like myself, embodies so many of us who minimize our experiences of sexual abuse, especially if the abuse occurred just once. Part of our film audience sees Marián as someone who decided to erase her past and move on. Others see her story and mine as denial and resistance to face an important and unresolved facet of our lives.
For several years we worked on film editing without knowing whether Marián would grant permission to use her story.
Luckily, Marián started on a path of personal work that helped her take a courageous step forward, giving her consent to be in the film. Today Marián is proud of her participation and has witnessed how countless people identify with her story and feel inspired by it.
Marián is a midwife nurse in Logroño, Spain. In her office, it is not uncommon for women to break their silence.
Miriam – my sister-in law
In an intimate conversation in a café in Spain, Miriam tries to help my sister Marián by introducing a conversation about Marián’s child abuse. Sitting at the table, I recorded the interaction with a small handheld camera. At one point, seeing how Marián keeps minimizing her story, I lose restraint and confront her. The camera captures my exasperation. It is an uncomfortable moment for the audience, but a poignant one. As the conversation progresses, Miriam’s words about the scars that abuse imprints are heart-wrenching. It is clear from the depth of her statements that she is relating her own traumatic experience.
Although Miriam allowed me to shoot the conversation, she was initially unwilling to be part of the film. We continued to edit the film in the dark, not knowing if she would ever sign a release. When years later I showed Miriam the rough-cut, she said she was “in shock, embarrassed and sad” for having pushed Marián, whom she loves dearly, so hard in the café. “I soon understood,” Miriam said, “that what moved me to put pressure on Marián was my own inability to speak out.”
Miriam is an elementary school teacher in Madrid. After the film was released, she decided to incorporate, whenever possible, a program to raise awareness against child sexual abuse among her own students.
Lola – my cousin
When my cousin Lola saw an early trailer of our work-in-progress, she felt moved by it and contacted me right away. Though we both grew up in Logroño, Rioja, northern Spain, we had not seen each other in decades. The next time I visited Madrid, where Lola lives with her family, she didn’t hesitate: “I want to tell you my story,” she said.
Lola’s story of child sexual abuse by a priest, and the fact that she did try telling her father but found him unreceptive, resonates with victims and survivors who at one point in their lives try to speak up only to find no one is listening.
Lola, a mother of two teenage boys, is currently enrolled in a self-development program with plans to be able to teach it one day herself.