For nearly a year and a half Rotchana Sussman worked 18-hour days and slept in a room with eight other people in a makeshift garment factory surrounded by barbed wire in El Monte.
The barbed wire wasn't intended to keep anyone out — but instead to keep Sussman and 71 other Thai workers in, holding them in virtual slavery for years. The workers were not allowed to speak to one another and were threatened with physical harm if they tried to escape.
"We didn't know what to do," Sussman said. "We were scared for our lives."
Despite her hellish ordeal, Sussman had nothing but smiles Tuesday at a kickoff of events to commemorate the end of her and other workers' captivity Aug. 2, 1995, when authorities raided the gated apartment complex where she and others were being held against their will.
"It's such a great honor for me that I be part of this," Sussman said as she stood in front of El Monte City Hall, a Statue of Liberty replica behind her. "I will continue to do what is right in this society to make all of us happy and keep our smiles on our faces."
Next month, the Thai Community Development Center plans to hold commemorative events and activities to honor 20 years of work combating human trafficking and to celebrate the garment workers' resiliency. Events will include a benefit concert by Thai pop band Boyd-Nop in Hollywood, an Anti-Trafficking Symposium and a display of quilts from survivors of trafficking cases at the Museum of Tolerance.
Twenty years ago, the Thai Community Development Center joined state and federal agencies in the raid to liberate the workers from the compound. Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the center, still remembers the sign on a light pole in front of the compound reading: Welcome to friendly El Monte.
But inside, the conditions they found were anything but friendly, with sewing machines lined wall to wall and multiple workers sharing rooms where the windows were boarded up — leaving only enough space for ventilation. At the time, Martorell cried over the fact that the workers were held against their will, some for as long as seven years.
"It was pretty atrocious and horrendous and unimaginable that anything like this could be occurring in this residential community. I couldn't believe we were in the United States of America," Martorell said. "The workers were very timid, very scared. It was just traumatic for them."
The Thai Community Development Center later helped fight for the workers' release from immigration detention, avoidance of deportation and a $4-million settlement from the manufacturers and retailers who had enslaved the workers. The El Monte slavery case helped spawn what Martorell calls an anti-trafficking movement, leading to the creation in 1998 of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
"El Monte was the wake-up call back then that really shed light on the existence of modern-day slavery and human trafficking," Martorell said. "We are now going to visit this case 20 years later to see how we will now forge the future in terms of combating this problem."
Traffickers choose Los Angeles County for various reasons, including the large immigrant communities and its geography, said Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. On average, the organization handles about 400 human-trafficking cases each year in the county, Buck said.
"Los Angeles County certainly is a magnet for human trafficking," Buck said. "People oftentimes don't take note of what's happening right in their backyard."
El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero, another survivor and other representatives joined Sussman and Martorell at the Tuesday kickoff, expressing hopes that the events will raise awareness and help continue the fight against human trafficking.
Since being freed, Sussman has settled down in Pasadena and plans to open a vegan restaurant booth in Thai Town Marketplace.
"I learned to let go," Sussman said. "Forgive, but never forget."
To learn more about the commemoration, visit: www.thaicdc.org/roadtofreedom.