Thirty years living and working as a modern-day slave

Story highlights

  • Guadalupe Pérez Castillo spent decades in forced labor
  • Perez says her innocence was taken away
  • She finds it difficult to transition to normal life

(CNN)For a woman of 43, Guadalupe Pérez Castillo seems extremely shy. Meeting new people is still a challenge for her. She has a tendency to look down when talking to others and constantly rubs her hands while speaking, as if she were nervous.

Her therapist and her attorney say all of this is because Pérez is only now learning how to live in freedom after spending 30 years in captivity, working as a slave.
"They took away my innocence and the hope of being a self-assured person," Pérez says of the decades she spent in forced labor.
    Her story begins in Las Agujas, a little town in the municipality of Tantoyuca in the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz. Las Agujas was an impoverished indigenous community where Pérez, who was 10 years old at the time, sold fruit in the town square to help her family's stretched finances.
    One day, a woman came to Pérez's family home. Since the family only spoke Huasteco, the local indigenous dialect, the woman showed up accompanied by a local translator who spoke Spanish.
    The woman said that she was looking for a babysitter for her children, according to Pérez. In exchange, she would pay Pérez for her services and send her to a good school in the big city. She would also send the impoverished family a monthly sum.
    "I was at first elated because I was going to be able to help my family without having to sell fruit. I wanted to study. My dream was to have a career one day," Pérez said.
    Pérez's mother agreed to let her daughter go. The woman gave her some money on the spot and left with Pérez.
    But once she arrived at the family's home, Pérez says she realized the woman's true intentions. Pérez was forced to do all the housework and care for the children.
    Getting paid, the lady of the house said, was out of the question. She also remembers that the lady of the house would only give her scraps to eat. There was not a bed for her so she had to sleep on the floor.
    "She would say that we indigenous people were used to sleeping on the floor, like animals. She had a sofa, but wouldn't let me use it because she said I was going to ruin it," Pérez said.
    She escaped several times, but nobody in the new city understood her dialect and she was returned to the family. She would also be punished each time she escaped. The beatings were bad, but she testified in court that she was also molested by the lady's husband as part of her punishment.
    "After that they would tell me that, if I escaped again, they were going to kill me, chop me up into little pieces and toss them to the river so that my mother wouldn't find me," Pérez said.
    By the time she was a teenager, she stopped trying to escape; but she says the abuse didn't stop.
    "They would pull my hair. Sometimes, when I had to take frozen meat out of the freezer, they would hit me with it in the head," Pérez said.
    The forced labor, beatings, sexual abuse, lack of food, sleeping on the floor and verbal abuse eventually made Pérez numb, she said.
    "I lost the notion of time. I didn't know what the day of the week it was, or whether it was dusk or dawn. I didn't even know when my birthday arrived," she recalled.
    It wasn't until she was almost 40 and the lady of the house had become an elderly woman that she got the opportunity to finally break free.
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    "That night the lady's son, the youngest, the one I used to babysit, had an accident. She went to the hospital and that's when I escaped," Pérez said.
    Her captor was convicted on slavery and forced domestic work charges.
    But transitioning into a normal life is proving difficult for Pérez even after three years of regaining her freedom.
    María Teresa Paredes, Pérez's attorney, says that on a recent trip they took together it was obvious her client was still trapped in her old self.
    "She couldn't stop. If we went to a restaurant, she wanted to do the dishes. If we traveled and stayed at a hotel, she wanted to do the beds, wanted to do chores," Paredes said. "They really stole 30 years of her life from her."
    Pérez has now been in therapy for some time. Because she was held captive for nearly three decades, starting when she was a child, she never learned how to make her own decisions, manage her own money and have a sense of self-worth.