Growing Up In Miami, Staying Safe Meant Staying Smart

Though​ ​I’m​ ​19​ ​years​ ​old​ ​and​ ​living​ ​away​ ​from​ ​home,​ ​my​ ​mom​ ​still​ ​gives​ ​me​ ​the​ ​“stay​ ​safe” speech​ ​every​ ​time​ ​I​ ​go​ ​out.​

​“​Text​ ​me​ ​every​ ​2​ ​minutes​,​​ ​don’t​ ​get​ ​in​ ​a​ ​car​ ​with​ ​someone​ ​you don’t​ ​know,​ ​don’t​ ​meet​ ​up​ ​with​ ​anyone​ ​who​ ​invites​ ​you​ ​to​ ​a​ ​club​ ​or​ ​party.​”

Growing​ ​up​ ​in​ ​Miami,​ ​all​ ​of​ ​my​ ​friends’​ ​mothers​ ​told​ ​us​ ​the​ ​same​ ​things:​ ​“​Stay​ ​in​ ​a​ ​group, don’t​ ​take​ ​drugs​ ​from​ ​strangers,​ ​please​ ​don’t​ ​go​ ​downtown​ ​tonight​.”​ ​And​ ​they​ ​were​ ​right. Everyone​ ​has​ ​a​ ​close​ ​call.​ ​Mine​ ​happened​ ​when​ ​I​ ​was​ ​15.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​weekend​ ​of​ ​my Quinceañera,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​was​ ​spending​ ​a​ ​weekend​ ​in​ ​South​ ​Beach​ ​with​ ​some​ ​close​ ​friends.​ ​While sitting​ ​on​ ​the​ ​terrace​ ​of​ ​our​ ​small​ ​hotel,​ ​my​ ​friends​ ​and​ ​I​ ​were​ ​approached​ ​by​ ​a​ ​tall, extremely​ ​handsome​ ​man​ ​on​ ​a​ ​bike.​ ​He​ ​pulled​ ​up​ ​to​ ​where​ ​we​ ​were​ ​sitting.

“Do​ ​you​ ​beautiful​ ​ladies​ ​like​ ​to​ ​party?​ ​I​ ​just​ ​moved​ ​here​ ​from​ ​California​ ​and me​ ​and​ ​my​ ​friends​ ​are​ ​throwing​ ​a​ ​party.​ ​Would​ ​you​ ​like​ ​to​ ​come?”​ ​He​ ​said.

His​ ​accent​ ​was​ ​definitely​ ​not​ ​Californian,​ ​unless​ ​California​ ​had​ ​suddenly​ ​become​ ​part​ ​of Eastern​ ​Europe.​ ​Ani,​ ​my​ ​more​ ​outspoken​ ​friend​ ​immediately​ ​spoke​ ​up.

“No.”

“Come​ ​on,​ ​how​ ​old​ ​are​ ​you​ ​guys?​ ​Are​ ​you​ ​twenty-one?​ ​You​ ​look​ ​twenty-one.”

We​ ​most​ ​certainly​ ​did​ ​not. “We’re​ ​fifteen.​ ​Sorry.”

“Hm,”​ ​he​ ​paused.​ ​“Well,​ ​do​ ​you​ ​like​ ​my​ ​bike?”

“No.​ ​You​ ​can​ ​go​ ​now.”

He​ ​rode​ ​away,​ ​and​ ​we​ ​all​ ​laughed,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​confirmed​ ​to​ ​me​ ​the​ ​reality​ ​of​ ​what​ ​our​ ​parents had​ ​warned​ ​us​ ​about.

Due​ ​to​ ​its​ ​huge​ ​tourism​ ​industry,​ ​​Miami​ ​is​ ​a​ ​hub​ ​for​ ​human​ ​trafficking​,​ ​both​ ​for​ ​importing​ ​and exporting​ ​victims.​ ​Thankfully,​ ​I​ ​grew​ ​up​ ​with​ ​a​ ​mom​ ​who​ ​warned​ ​me​ ​and​ ​constantly reminded​ ​me​ ​about​ ​the​ ​very​ ​real​ ​danger​ ​of​ ​becoming​ ​a​ ​victim.​ ​I​ ​grew​ ​up​ ​exposed​ ​to​ ​books, magazines,​ ​and​ ​articles​ ​that​ ​gave​ ​out​ ​out​ ​lists​ ​of​ ​signs​ ​to​ ​look​ ​out​ ​for.

Not​ ​everybody​ ​did​ ​though.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​friends​ ​who​ ​I​ ​know​ ​would​ ​have​ ​100%​ ​attended​ ​that “party,”​ ​thinking​ ​they​ ​were​ ​just​ ​signing​ ​up​ ​for​ ​a​ ​good​ ​time.​ ​And​ ​it’s​ ​not​ ​just​ ​absent-minded friends​ ​who​ ​can​ ​fall​ ​victim​ ​-​ ​a​ ​huge​ ​target​ ​for​ ​traffickers​ ​are​ ​undocumented​ ​immigrants.​ ​A lack​ ​of​ ​papers​ ​coupled​ ​with​ ​not​ ​knowing​ ​the​ ​language,​ ​and​ ​a​ ​fear​ ​of​ ​going​ ​to​ ​the​ ​police​ ​if​ ​a relative​ ​or​ ​themselves​ ​are​ ​approached​ ​by​ ​human​ ​traffickers​ ​makes​ ​for​ ​a​ ​very​ ​vulnerable population.

Ending​ ​human​ ​trafficking​ ​begins​ ​with​ ​a​ ​conversation.​ ​Educating​ ​those​ ​who​ ​​just​ ​don’t​ ​know.​ ​​It can​ ​be​ ​telling​ ​a​ ​friend​ ​what​ ​to​ ​look​ ​for​ ​when​ ​out​ ​by​ ​themselves,​ ​or​ ​sharing​ ​articles​ ​and resources​ ​with​ ​people​ ​who​ ​may​ ​not​ ​have​ ​access​ ​to​ ​them.​ ​Forwarding​ ​a​ ​quick​ ​safety presentation​ ​or​ ​awareness​ ​article​ ​to​ ​an​ ​underserved​ ​school​ ​district​ ​might​ ​change​ ​a curriculum​ ​(and​ ​a​ ​life)​ ​forever.


Valerie Toledo is from Miami, Florida. She’s a Communication major at the University of Pennsylvania, and enjoys singing, reading, and writing in her free time. The secret to her friendship is quoting classic vines to her face.

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