On a recent night in an aging office tower in the Wilshire District, Maria Suarez stands before a group of Latino men, all felons under court order to receive sex-offender counseling from the nonprofit center About Face. Suarez is beautiful, with black sparkling eyes and high cheekbones, her shining black hair swept into a chic bun. She speaks softly to these 20 or so sex felons. In response, the hardened men don’t glare. They listen. They nod. They respect Maria Suarez.
After all, while every man present this night arrived against his will and via torturous paths, none of those paths was more torturous or unwilling than that of Suarez, who as a teenager was brainwashed by a sexual deviant who enslaved her in his Azusa home and controlled her life for six harrowing years.
Suarez’s incredible and disturbing journey made headlines when she was convicted of masterminding the 1981 murder of her rapist and tormenter, Anselmo Covarrubias. She served 22 seemingly endless years in the California Institution for Women for her crime. Released early thanks to special rulings from former Governor Gray Davis and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, she is now on tenterhooks. She waits to learn, this very month, whether Schwarzenegger will grant her a pardon to prevent her from being deported to Mexico as an unwanted felon, per U.S. law.
There can be little doubt that the upbeat and intense Suarez, who fled Mexico as a teenager, is not among the unwanted of Los Angeles.
In prison, at first she railed against her fate. But she learned to control her anger, and became a respected counselor and teacher of English for other troubled women.
“I taught my own little classes in English,” she recalls. “I taught the women their vowels and the alphabet, and I finally felt I had done something positive.”
One day, a visitor to the prison, domestic-violence expert and counselor Sandra Baca, was so impressed by Suarez’s leadership skills and warm spirit that she never forgot her. Years later, in 2004, as Suarez awaited release from a holding cell at San Pedro Federal Detention Center, she was coincidentally sent to Baca for a psychological evaluation.
Suarez vividly recalls how “Sandra looked at me and said, ‘I know you.’ I thought she would never remember me from that day so long ago in prison. I told her I had attended school in prison, and that my passion was to be a counselor for teenagers, because they are our future. My heart was in pieces. Sandra started gluing it back together.”
On the spot, Baca told Suarez that if she wanted a job, she should apply at About Face. Says Suarez, “I came on a Friday and Sandra interviewed me. She asked me very little. She told me, ‘You’re hired, and you start on Wednesday.’”
Today, Suarez works for Baca, her dear friend and post-prison lifeboat, reaching out to abusive parents, sexually deviant men and victims.
But her story is, in the end, about a woman who saved herself. “I try to make these men see that it’s a mistake, that it’s wrong what they have done, and to stop minimizing something that is really controlling their lives,” Suarez says of the sex felons and batterers with whom she now works. “I try to show them that they are in prison too, because anger is a prison. I know that better than anyone.”