Jeri Jimenez has had a lifetime of trauma. She was molested at age 4, grew up in a family with physical and sexual violence and became a victim of sex trafficking after leaving her violent husband.
Jimenez is a member of the Klamath Tribe. During the Tribal Symposium, she shared her story with tribal law enforcement and child protection leaders from across the country. Jiminez explained how her experience is part of the long history of Native Americans facing trauma, genocide and stolen lands.
“We are finding it is in our DNA,” she said. “I figured that this was what life was like.”
Jimenez left her abusive husband but had to battle him in court for custody of their daughter. “Every time we met he would beat the crap out of me,” she said.
She went back home, but did not find any job opportunities on the reservation so she moved in with a friend in Portland, Oregon. Her friend convinced her to join “the life” of prostitution so she could pay her bills.
“Prostitution happens when you do not have a choice. When you have no choices you are not making a choice. It is a lack of choice,” said Jimenez. “When we blame young women or boys and call them prostitutes that is victim blaming. If you could do anything else, you would.”
One man stabbed her in the arm and neck and then drove off with her clothes. Jimenez watched as young Native American girls were picked up by the police or human services, but found it hard to return to their families.
“The families do not know what to do with her,” she said. “She usually ends up in a shelter and calls her pimp and takes another person with her from the shelter. It was people saying ‘I see you and I care.’ That was the thing that turned things around for me the most.”
When Jimenez finally escaped her sexual exploitation and got help she went back to the reservation and met with her female relatives. She found most of them had gone through the same things she had suffered and were also in recovery.
“Our traditions taught us to only take what you need and to give back,” she said. “We have to come back to the way we were before.”
Jimenez challenged parents to keep loving their children no matter what has happened. She asked law enforcement officers to let trafficking victims know they ‘see them’ because their pimps make them feel invisible.
She also urged counselors to never give up on trafficking victims. “You need to be kind,” she said. “You may have to pick them up 20-plus times, but you try to break that shell.”
Jimenez now has 4 children and 10 grandchildren. She works with other victims of sex trafficking to help others heal, and for her own continued healing. “Without faith there is no hope,” she said. “Without hope there is no change.”