For more than a decade, Michelle Vega and her daughter lived their lives in whispers.
Vega is a survivor of horrific abuse and human trafficking that she says came at the hands of her ex-husband. He also forced their young daughter into a life of isolation, she says, confining the girl to a hotel room for nearly 12 years and forbidding school, friends or even visits to a doctor.
At last, those dark years are behind them. Her ex sits now in a Miami jail cell facing abuse charges, mother and daughter have escaped to safe shelter and Vega herself has found a new mission in life. She wants other women in domestic violence situations to know that it doesn’t have to be forever.
“I’m proof that it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “This is the beginning of a long road to recovery for us, but I know my baby is gonna make it. And I’m gonna be one of those moms screaming and crying and shouting ‘that’s my baby’ in the front row at graduation.”
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Their counselor at Miami-Dade’s domestic violence program, which helps abused women find safety and get on their feet, nominated the mother-daughter duo for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book in hope of getting the family some help to start their new lives. They need a lot: furniture, for starters, as they settle into a new place while Vega works to get a driver’s license, find a job and perhaps a car with enough help. She also needs new teeth because the drugs she says her ex forced her to take rotted her teeth. Her daughter is learning simple tasks she never faced in the last 12 years, like tying her shoes after a lifetime of wearing slip-on Crocs.
Vega never expected life to unravel so badly.
She had met her husband, Luis Alicea, in New York when she was 16. He had held the door for her, told her she was beautiful and laid his jacket on the ground at the park. They fell in love and had a baby when she was 22.
“I thought he was going to be my knight in shining armor,” Vega said.
And everything was OK before the family moved south when her daughter was 4. Then, Florida changed everything.
Suddenly, instead of apartments, they were living in hotel rooms up and down the coast, sometimes only for a night. Vega said her husband forced her to work 12 to 16 hours a day. She said he only let her eat one meal a day. He raped her and beat her, she said.
Every day, he would tell her how much money she had to bring home, she said. Mostly, that money came from dancing at strip clubs, although she sometimes did yard work, or cleaned homes and cars. Occasionally, when she didn’t come home with enough money, she said he forced her to prostitute herself.
“I tried my best to make my money clean as often as I could, but sometimes I had to get it the dirty way,” she said.
Inside the room they were supposed to keep quiet. No loud laughing or crying or yelling. Only whispers. Worst of all, Vega said, he kept their daughter with him in the one-bedroom hotel room all day, every day.
“I only got to talk to her an hour a day. Sometimes not even that,” she said. “Even when we’re in the same room he would keep her on one side and me on the other.”
The child’s only connection with the outside world was a laptop. She rarely left the room and never went to school. She spent all her time reading and drawing anime characters on Microsoft Paint. She made friends online but there were none in real life.
“Pretty much my mom and the internet raised me,” said the girl, now 16 years old. The Herald is not naming her because she is a minor.
Vega said her ex-husband, who told his daughter he never left the hotel room because he had a terminal disease, molested her daughter regularly, although she didn’t know until it was all over.
Alicea is being held without bond in Miami-Dade County jail on charges of molesting and neglecting his daughter. Vega and her daughter recently testified against him in a hearing.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His public defender did not respond to requests for comment. Vega’s case against him for prostitution and human trafficking was dropped, she said, because prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence or medical records to make the case.
Vega says she tried to escape for years, but this year, she succeeded by making her family homeless.
She came home with less and less money every day. Within two weeks they were down to $50, not enough to pay for their room for the night. She told her husband that they’d stick out if they walked the street with a 15-year-old, so she said she convinced him to let her drop off their daughter at a coworker’s house for a couple of days until she made enough money to get back into a hotel room.
“I just ran the other way with the baby as quick as I could and didn’t look back,” Vega said.
From there she made it to a friend’s house, then a shelter and finally to Miami-Dade County’s Domestic Violence program. Detectives helped her with her case and arrested her ex-husband. They moved into transitional housing and her daughter enrolled in high school.
Adapting has been a slow process, but the teen is filled to bursting with years of repressed conversation. . She first befriended the security guards, which made her feel safer, the staffers, her teachers. And eventually, at the bus stop, she made a best friend. They bonded over their favorite animated TV show — Voltron. Although she had never been enrolled in school before, she’s in honors English with straight A’s in everything but math.
Maria Santamaria, a human trafficking survivor advocate with Miami-based Embrace Ministries, has been working with Vega for a few months. She gives her emotional support in court hearings, takes her to church and answers her midnight phone calls. She said Vega’s case is one of the worst she’s seen, but that she and her daughter are recovering fast.
“They have this great joy for life,” she said. “They really want a new life.”
Vega has had to have several surgeries to recover from her injuries. Her final one, to remove her rotted teeth, is coming up soon.
Vega said that her ex-husband would force drugs down her throat when she refused to take them. She tucked them behind her teeth so she could spit them out, which she said led to an infection. She wasn’t allowed to see a dentist for years. By the time she finally did, she was told all of her teeth had to be removed. Dentures will cost her several thousand dollars she doesn’t have.
In the meantime, Vega is studying for her driver’s license and her high school diploma. She hopes to get her associate’s degree in something to do with children, animals or plants. She would like a car when she gets her license. Spending time around crowds of men on public transportation makes her nervous.
When she and her daughter move out of their home this summer, she’ll need furniture. Both love to paint and draw as stress relief, so they would appreciate art supplies, like a canvas, an easel and oil paints. They also love to crank their radio to full volume and dance and sing. One day they want to make their own music too. Her daughter wants a ukulele so she can serenade someone.
As part of reclaiming her life, Vega is also reclaiming her own body. A tattoo parlor helped Vega cover up the tattoos on her back that she said her ex-husband made her get. One says Nicole, which was the name she used when she danced. The other is the Chinese character for ghost.
“That’s what I was supposed to be in society,” she said. “We were supposed to be living as if we didn’t exist. Only in his existence.”
Now, her shoulder features a phoenix, its outstretched wings a symbol of her new beginning.
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.)