‘The Cantinera’ exposes niche of human trafficking

A documentary filmed on location in the FM 1960 and Houston area is shedding light on a niche of human trafficking that has so far been difficult to regulater under existing laws.

The film focuses on cantineras, Latin women whose job is to sell liquor through whatever means necessary. More often than not, a woman will drink up to 40 beers a night and prostitute herself to meet an employer’s quotas, said filmmaker Ruth Villatoro.

“With the cantinas, a guy will pay $10-15 and he’ll get the companionship of a girl. As long as he continues paying, she’ll continue drinking with him,” she said. “Most of the time that leads to sex.”

Villatoro began filming “The Cantinera” five years ago after stumbling across an article in the Houston Press.

“When I started the story, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I found the story in the Houston Press about a guy who fell in love with a cantinera,” she said. “To me the story was about the girl. I wanted to know who she was and why she was drinking so much.

“When I really got into the story, I realized they’re not doing it because they want to do it,” she said. “I thought I was just going to do a story about a girl who drinks for a living, but when I found out about their lifestyle, I realized this was human trafficking.”

Women who come to the country illegally and don’t speak English are tricked into working in cantinas, she said. They are already breaking the law, so they can’t ask for help, she said.

“A recruiter is an expert at identifying vulnerability,” she said. “They sell a story to a family, saying we have a restaurant in the United States. Your daughter will work as a waitress. They end up sending their daughter, not knowing what’s going to happen. The minute the daughter is separated from her family is when the threats start.”

The majority of Villatoro’s film follows Liliana, a second generation cantinera and a U.S. citizen, who was taken out of school at 12, and forced to drink and prostitute herself. Liliana drank 30 to 40 beers five nights a week for 23 years, she said.

“You think she would be dead on the side of the road after living that way so long,” said Villatoro. “She was not in a good place. I was so fortunate she opened up. She did not have the fear of deportation like the other girls.”

In the end, Liliana had the power to change her life, but most cantineras aren’t so lucky, she said.

Villatoro’s other subjects include two human trafficking activists: Dottie Laster, a legal representative for human trafficking victims and Cat French, director of the Houston office of Exodus Cry, an international anti-trafficking ministry.

Together the trio visited more than 160 sexually oriented businesses in the Greater Houston areas and identified 600 to 700 unverified ones.

One of the worst places she found human trafficking was a strip center across from Starbucks on the corner of Jones Road and FM 1960.

“We went on a search for girls who work in cantinas and there was probably a handful or maybe 10 different places along FM 1960,” she said. “Today in just five years it has doubled.”

While cantineras can work freelance or be employed by a cantina, most cantina owners know how to protect their business from being shut down. Owners usually have legitimate liquor licenses but are not considered a “sexually oriented business,” which are subject to additional regulations, she said. A few tricks include registering businesses under different names and guises.

“If there’s a police raid, the cantinas can protect themselves by having the prostitution take place in another building,” she said. “What happens is the girls are the ones who take the brunt of the arrests.”

While unincorporated Harris County has made progress with new sexually oriented business regulations, Villatoro believes businesses and citizens will play an active role in ending human trafficking.

“The most important thing is that the community is aware of the problem now,” she said. “ Business owners need to learn the signs and watch the businesses around them. That can make a huge a difference. It can make a change.”

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