This Guinness World Record Athlete Runs To End Human Trafficking: BUST Interview

by Jessie Askinazi

The definition of the word ‘hope’ is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. It kept families alive during the Holocaust. It made that mountain-climber from 127 Hours trapped underneath a boulder dismember his own arm so he could live to see another day. Stories of hope are essentially stories of our survival as a species.

As of May 2014, Norma Bastidas became the Guinness World Record-holder for the longest triathlon. Her journey included 3,762 miles from Cancún, Mexico to Washington D.C. (a known human trafficking route). Needless to say, the kind of tenacity it takes to complete a race of such extremities is certainly rare. Bastidas also ran across the seven continents within seven months, becoming the fastest female in history. What pushes a person to achieve such outrageously vigorous feats?

From the time Bastidas was eleven years old, she experienced sexual abuse by a blind relative. She was kidnapped in her hometown, human-trafficked, and brutally assaulted on multiple occasions. In 2013, her oldest son was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy —an incurable disease that causes blindness. This omen seemed to bring the cycle of abuse back around, full circle. But rather than being swallowed whole by her misfortunes, Bastidas fought and flew, grabbing both survival tactics by the horns.

During human trafficking awareness month, Bastidas was in Los Angeles to share her unfathomable story with the East Los Angeles Women’s Center’s Ambassadors of Peace network: a group of volunteers who are passionate about educating communities, and creating change for violence against women. She will be honored at the ELAWC’s 40th Gala on Friday, May 20, 2016. 

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What inspired you to become a part of the East Los Angeles Women’s Center’s “Ambassadors of Peace” program?

My husband works with (actress) Constance Marie, who is strongly affiliated with the cause, so she asked me if I could become involved. A lot of the women at East Los Angeles Women’s Center can relate to me, being of Latin background. You always want examples of people where they can identify themselves- that’s important- that they can see themselves getting through all of these things. When I decided that I was going to speak out publicly about my story, it was with the intention that organizations doing amazing work can benefit.

When you wanted to take on a significant challenge as an example to other abuse survivors, why did you decide on something so physically demanding such as marathons/triathlons?

We’ve been trying to fight these issues for so long — domestic violence and rape — that it gets to a point where people lose hope that this is something that will ever end. People have all of these barriers. The best way I can inspire them is by breaking another barrier for them. When you meet somebody and you tell them, “I broke the Guinness World Record for longest triathlon,” and they understand that I swam 122 miles, they go, “How is that even possible?” And you show them that it is. You just take it one day at a time. If I woke up every day saying, “Yay! I have 4,000 miles to go!”, no, but all I have to do is concentrate on that section; that day, that hour, whatever it is. And any issue, like ending human trafficking, or ending violence against women- it’s like that. You just tackle it one issue at a time, one a day at a time, one victory at a time, because it does seem daunting. So an ultra-marathon, an ultra-triathlon, they’re all symbolic of the fight. 

Did you have a moment where you decided, “Okay, this is what I am going to do. This is how I will declare war on the things I have been through.”

For me, I started running because I needed an outlet for the stress. I couldn’t breathe. In my twenties, I didn’t deal with my past well. Now, I understand that was due to the inability to talk about what I had gone through because it was a secret — it was something that was frowned upon, like it was shameful. But keeping it in gave me terrible, terrible, terrible, problems. I suffered longer than I should have, probably, or to a greater extent. My way of coping was self-medicating with alcohol; and of course, the problem was, it never helped. I was dealing with being a single-parent to my son, who was going blind, being and an immigrant who lost my job. All of a sudden my life seemed to be again going into a spiral. I needed to be present for my kids — I needed to find a solution, not a distraction. My kids were home, and I didn’t want them to hear me crying in the middle of the night. So I would just lace up at 3 a.m.

The running gave me a time, a space, to think. It cleared the thoughts. This condition of my son’s was permanent, and I couldn’t ignore my past anymore; just based on the fact that, the first person that I ever suffered sexual violence from was somebody who was blind, a relative. I felt it was still that person trying to hurt me. I took it personally. I made a decision that once were my kids were born, I was gonna get healthy. And it was a decision that no matter how hard, I was going to stick to. I also got to a point where I would not let any of the people who hurt me take any more of my life. Within six months, the difference between being non-athletic to athletic was significant. It gave me something positive. In the world that I was thrown into, I couldn’t predict my son’s condition, I couldn’t predict if I was gonna have a job six months from now, but I could predict that I could get up, I could lace up, and I could train. So when I tried to find a marathon, I found what is known as “The Canadian Death Race,” and it was 82 miles. 

So you were like, “I’ll take that one! Give me the death race!”

Exactly! (laughs) It was the craziest concept. When I called, they said, “Somebody just dropped out because of injury, do you want the spot?” and I could not believe it myself. I emailed a few of my friends saying, “Motivate me. I know I’m not gonna finish because I don’t know that that’s physically possible, but please donate to the Canadian National Institution for the Blind on behalf of my son, for every kilometer that I finish. That will motivate me to go farther.” People began donating and pledging for me not to go. It made me angry, because I was like, “How dare you? How dare you take away something that is pulling me away from the negativity?” People were saying, “You’re gonna die. This is reckless.” I was like, “My life is out of control and this is making me happy. You need to let me start finding my own limits from now on.” It’s enough of believing other people. And I take that attitude now when people tell me, “Rape is not going to end.” I refuse to believe it. I prefer to really die trying than to accept things. When you give people hope, they hang on to it. 

How do you cultivate the discipline it takes to endure races? What do you do to get yourself through potential moments of defeat? 

Reminding myself that what I do is a privilege. I made a choice to run 115 miles. We all try to pull ourselves, but there’s the victimization of everything, and I’ve been victimized for so long, since childhood, through my teens, through my marriage; it became very easy for me rely on that feeling of, when things get difficult, it doesn’t matter what I do, this is where I’m stuck. And switching that. Also, understanding that most people quit way before even trying. That gives me the motivation. Instead of going, “Poor me,” I go, “Look at me! I’m awesome!” And I do tell that to myself. During the times when it becomes so difficult, I say to myself, “This is the moment where most people quit. And look at you, you’re actually gonna pass that moment, and you’re doing amazing.” Success is only when you surpass when you wanna quit. Not when things are great, that’s not success. That’s simply luck. I learn more from overcoming the obstacles and hardships, whether it is an ambitious project, like for example, for the ultra-triathlon, I had to learn to swim-

Just clarifying here, you learned to swim just so you could do the triathlon?

I did not know how to before. I know it’s a great project if when I pitch it, people go, “Are you crazy?” And I’m like, “Yes! I found it!” When I first started, most people did not want to be involved with human trafficking at all. It was something they wanted to separate themselves from. There was sympathy, but not empathy. But when I came around and said, “I can break a Guinness World Record. And you can be part of it,” that’s a value to many people. The only problems I have are at the beginning when I’m thinking about it. Once I commit, it’s only a matter of being patient, training, and letting myself have a bad time. It was the comments of my inner circle that said, “You know, maybe you shouldn’t be talking about this anymore. You just need to get over it.” I remember going to the pool and using that as a drive. Because this is something that is being still taught to people: “We’re not gonna do anything about it, we’re not gonna solve it, you’re just gonna need to get over it.” I just used that every single time I pushed through the water: “Why can’t you just get over it?” It became my mantra for swimming. I came home, and I was like, “I can do it. And I will do it.” I still feel the humiliation, because that’s what sexual assault, that’s what human trafficking is. It is a violation. It is the indignities of it. And I use that as a motivator to overcome anything. I will never again allow someone to take my dignity.

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In regard to re-victimization, it’s suggested that it is common with abuse victims because their understanding of boundaries is compromised, and that they may present themselves in a certain, vulnerable, light due to PTSD. What do you think about the high numbers?

If it’s not 100%, it’s very, very high. The younger the victimization happens, the more. Everybody forgot that by the time I was a troubled twenty-five year-old woman: beaten up, drugged, waking up unconscious at the hospital, that I had been an eleven year-old who was assaulted- that nobody helped. You’re not told that you are valuable, you’re not told that your boundaries are not to be broken. If somebody came and said, “We’re gonna put that person in jail,” they would have told me that I was a valuable person. That I had the right to tell people they couldn’t do that to me. I didn’t go into treatment. Nobody came and said, “How can they do that to you?” It was more like, “What were you doing in there?’ It was my fault. And it was, “Don’t tell anybody.” Most of the time it’s somebody who you know or a family member at that age. I still had to kiss that person, my grandfather, on the cheek, every single time we went there. So boundaries are optional for women like me. You have no right to tell anybody that they can’t do that to you- because everyone around me was telling me that, not with their words, but with actions. It’s not on a conscious level. I really had to learn to feel good about enforcing boundaries, and being unapologetic. Also, people who have bad intentions understand manipulation very well. And that’s why women like me get trafficked, or women like me get into abusive relationships, because we’re so easy to convince that it’s us. When my son was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, it was like, okay, I can’t ignore it, it’s like my grandfather is still here. It’s still effecting me deeply. But I will beat it. And now I feel very comfortable, saying, “No.” I don’t have to elaborate. No is no- it’s a complete sentence. And that’s difficult for a woman, for any woman in society. There are so many levels regarding why I wanted to be in the endurance field. There are so few females, because we’re taught we are not capable. Women are only “allowed” certain jobs, or dreams, or roles in society. It’s not that I’m an adventurer or a tomboy, I just simply like sports. It’s not a gender thing. I’m not unfeminine because I like to spend months in the desert without a shower and makeup. It makes me happy. 

Human trafficking is a severe, global issue that often targets young girls. How do you think our society influences the continuum of this degradation?

It’s clear to me. You’re exploiting the vulnerable. With human trafficking, it’s not somebody who’s high class, who has a lot of power. You’re exploiting the people who are the most vulnerable in society, the people who have the most need. People who are escaping violence, like myself. Yes, we were poor, but poverty itself is not the problem; it’s the lack of safety that comes with being poor. If you’re wealthy, it doesn’t matter where you are- you can pay for safety. But as a poor person, you don’t have that option. Children should be at school, and if it’s an adult, they should be paid fairly and accordingly. Your products should never come at the expense of children’s dignity. I was being exploited by wealthy people in fancy hotels. It’s not a choice if it’s not a free choice. The choices that I had were I either continued suffering violence in my hometown, or I suffered violence there.

Why do you think that your captor let you go? 

Well, it’s not a captor, and that’s one of the misconceptions about human trafficking. I mean at one point, I was kidnapped. That’s one of the human trafficking stories that I did talk about, because it sounds dramatic, and it makes no fault at all on me. I didn’t want to talk about the fact that I willingly left Mexico, and signed a contract with aspirations of being a model. Most of the time, it is willingly, but they make you do something illegal. I entered the country illegally in Japan. They approached me to work as a model and said, “You can work in a bar and you’ll be a hostess. You’re beautiful enough to work as a model.” It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but they didn’t explain to me that I had to pay it back, that I had to leave with customers; like when a customer requested you go out with them, you have to, no questions asked. A lot of clients wanted coffee or dinner, but if they wanted more, and I came to the club crying, that’s when I realized it wasn’t a choice. They said, “We don’t care. This is your job, and you’re gonna make him happy. What you do there is up to him. We want you to go back because he paid for you and you left, and tomorrow, you have to do it again.” I didn’t have my passport. If I went to the police, I’m there illegally. That’s what defines human trafficking. And people really don’t understand. Yes, I was free, but I was also not free. I could walk in the streets, but when the job includes things that you did not sign up for, that’s when it is not your choice anymore. I was an immigrant and I couldn’t communicate. I was poor. Who was gonna believe me? I had to pay for the plane ticket, all the meals I was eating, the apartment that I thought they were giving me. I even sent money home when I got there. After they finally gave me my passport and I went home, I actually ended up coming back to Japan by myself — because they were breaking our windows. People who took me there were spreading the word that I was a prostitute, because there is someone local recruiting you. It’s not like a scary masked man in a trenchcoat. It’s a girl from your own neighborhood. Even my sister ended up going. My sister managed to escape, and leave and hide in my apartment. I did not say anything to anyone about the truth until they recruited my sister. And I was horrified. It is so complicated in a way, but now I understand that it was planned that way. I came back, but I had my passport this time, so every time they said I had to do something, I said “No, I’m not going to,” and then moved to another one. I didn’t have a debt to them anymore. It’s like prostitution: Sure, some women choose sex work, but there are so many who are not there by choice. That’s why it’s so complicated, because it hides in plain sight. It’s not underground where they come in the middle of the night, raiding. Now they have incredible resources and the laws have changed because we understand it more. So if you get trafficked here, you do have the ability to stay here; to be given protection, to be given a job, so that is huge. When they had broken our windows, my mom said, “I’m sorry, you can’t stay. Our life is at risk.” I understood. 

Does this all seem like some sort of horror movie to you at this point?

It does! People ask me how this could have happened, and I’m like, “Don’t ask me!” People think, “It seems too incredible,” and I’m like “You think? Imagine living it.” There were soul-crushing moments, too, because after I left the bar scene and was by myself, I was attacked and raped. He threw me on a corner and we fought, but I was beaten and my dress was torn. It was a complete stranger; he offered to give me a ride because the train system had shut down and it was raining heavily. That was a terrible moment of my life. I remember going to the police and thinking, “They’re gonna believe me, because there are signs! I don’t work at a bar, I have my passport, I’m empowered- now I have a right to tell them!” And they did nothing. They checked and said, “You’ve been here before, you worked at a bar,” and they saw the dress and said, “Are you sure you didn’t know him? Did he offer you money?” And I after that, I refused to talk to them, I just left. That told me, “Nope. You still have no right to be a victim. It’s still something I did.” When the next attack happened, I didn’t even bother. It was someone I knew. It was the roommate of someone I had dated, he gave me a drink and that was it. I woke up unconscious with two of them raping me. I remember apologizing, which seems crazy, but I did.

No, it doesn’t seem crazy. 

I apologized. They broke my teeth. They broke my nose. I had to have reconstructive surgery, and I apologized. Those were probably the moments where I had to choose whether I wanted to kill myself, whether or not I wanted to die. It seemed crazy that after all of that, leaving Mexico, learning Japanese, having my passport, that it simply kept coming and coming. I was in a horrible desperation because I thought, “It’s never going to end. It doesn’t matter what I do. It doesn’t matter if I educate myself, it’s never going to end.” Also, not only does it happen, but nobody ever does anything about it. It seemed like nobody cared. And that’s the moment when I thought, “No! I don’t want to die.”

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How would you define the power within hope?

I don’t know if you’re born with it, or if it’s something within you, or if somebody down the road maybe came and put their hand on my shoulder and said, “You don’t deserve this.” But I do remember that when all of that was spiraling, and the drinking started to make the nightmare and the pain stop, all of a sudden I got this thing inside that was like, “No!” It’s the refusal to believe that it was my fault, and that it was what I deserved. I got out of that thought cloud and quit drinking. I just kept saying, “No.” And creating plans. This is not the end, and this not my fault. I thought, I’m gonna leave Japan, and look at Universities. You go from the most unsafe place to, “I’m gonna aim for the biggest, biggest thing I’ve ever done.” And for me it was education because I’m a Mexican woman, it’s always an opportunity available to the male, but never to us. There was no money. My mom was a single parent who sold our car to educate my brothers, but for me, it wasn’t available. Everything I did is because I wanted to go to University. That’s why I went to Japan in the first place. That’s always been my dream. Nobody left our hometown, our neighborhood. You just accept that this is where you belong and this is as good as you can do. For me, I didn’t! My childhood friends were like, “We used to laugh because you would say, ‘I’m gonna do all these things!'” and they were like, “Look around: gangsters, everybody’s poor, you’re gonna marry someone who works hard, blue collar, and drinks heavily on the weekends. That’s everybody’s life.” And I was like, “No! I don’t want that! I want a profession!” I don’t know if I was always born with that desire — of not accepting limitations. 

Do you think that kind of strength was also born from enduring a long period of abuse throughout childhood?

I refuse to believe the abuse I suffered at an early age caused it, but I’m alive when I should have been dead so many times. The thing is, some people are truly born with — I call it, almost, being naive, or a dreamer, or somebody who aspires to more, or you’re the weird kid who thinks their gonna be president and everybody makes fun of you. I was always the weird kid; I believed. Weird kids are outcasts; that makes you a target, because you’re the one nobody takes seriously. I talked to animals and read too much. But it’s also the same thing that helped me overcome successfully. And now I’m 48 years old and healthy. Overcoming trauma like that helps me with dealing with long projects, dealing with the horrendous amount of pain you have to deal with to swim 122 miles, to cycle 2,000. That is because of abuse. You learn to tune your emotions, your physical pain. I have the ability to separate myself from my pain, because you’re taught that; that’s the only way you can survive abuse. You automatically leave your body. And especially if it’s for so long. When the suffering becomes too much, my brain is able to find that space where pain becomes manageable. 

How does the process of healing unfold over time? 

You have to really make yourself a priority. And that’s probably what stopped me for so long, because I thought, it didn’t matter what happened to me: I had to go to work the next day because I was sending money home. My mom was a single parent, my sister had become a single parent; that’s why the cycle of poverty continues and it’s difficult to break. I was unable to say “I’m gonna go away and take care of myself” because you can’t give yourself the time. My solutions to the problems became other problems: I accepted a marriage proposal from somebody I barely knew because I wanted to leave Japan (and I still didn’t want to go to Mexico.) And my life was terrible. The wonderful thing about that part though, was that I was able to really be isolated, because it was one of those very controlling marriages where I had no say. And that was a horrible thing, because it was the most lonely times, but it allowed me to actually take care of myself, because my family wasn’t allowed to talk to me. He traveled a lot and his family lived across the street. I couldn’t go anywhere. I had to ask permission.

Abuse doesn’t come up like, “Hey, I’m going to abuse you,” it can come int the shape of, “I love you so much. I don’t want anything to happen to you. I’m gonna buy a house across the street from my uncle, because if anything happens to you, I’ll die.” Control. But it sure sounds caring, doesn’t it? It’s like, “Don’t worry about money, you have so much going on, I’m just going to give you cash and everything will be alright.” And that’s called financial violence. He was using my fears against me to control me. And my thoughts of going out again were of being raped, so I didn’t even want to go out. I didn’t recognize myself. I remember looking at a picture thinking, “Who is that person? Long skirt, no makeup, short hair,” because that was what he wanted me to look like. Everything was okay when I allowed the control to happen. But once I said I wanted to go to University, he told me, “No, you cannot. You can’t leave the house.” Then, it became my goal to leave that marriage. People were like, “Why don’t you leave?” It’s not that simple. Not when you’re living in fear of your life. When I left, I tried to rent a place, but I couldn’t rent. I had no credit history. I remember thinking, “You have to be kidding me. You’re sending me back to my ex-husband.” Because you can’t rent without income. The silver lining here is that I do have the ability to, during the most difficult situation, find a way out. That’s an ability from being human trafficked: I will. I started grieving, journaling, taking care of myself. I kept journals since I was twelve, and it’s sad how much hatred I had for myself. So I started journaling with the intention of telling myself how amazing I was. “You are enough,” was what my told myself. My kids were the best thing that ever happened, because I am terrible about looking after myself. But for somebody else, I would do anything. And that’s why my grandfather abused me for so long; until he went after my cousin. That’s when it broke the cycle. Immediately, I was like, “I will tell. I will tell somebody and you will go to prison.” For as long as he abused me, I couldn’t find that, but for my cousin, I could.” Consciously, I thought, “I will protect myself as well as I try to protect others.” It took a long, long time, but I did get better. Now I can’t imagine having negative thoughts. Any goal can be met, it just depends on the conversations that happen in your brain. It’s so funny how I’ve trained my mind so well that now it becomes second nature. But it wasn’t for so long. My teens and twenties were depression, and now I can’t believe I was ever there. I have scars from self-mutilation. I would burn myself. I don’t actually have bad days, really: I have angry days. It’s not sunshine and roses, but I don’t have depression. 

I’ll bet the running is a great help as well, as it creates endorphins.

Even just going for a walk. Air, itself. Even if it’s cold or raining. There’s absolutely something there. It changes your brain chemistry. I still suffer from PTSD, especially with the work that I’m doing. Sometimes, in order to be able to understand the topic well, I volunteer myself to talk with police officers while they’re in training. I allow them to be ignorant and ask, “Why would you do that?” I respond and make them understand. “I did this because of this. So, it really wasn’t my choice. These were the two options.” In Mexico, I was there when they were doing a case study, and at one point I just left because I was like, “That’s my life.” I just simply could not breathe. It was a huge trigger. I understand how far I can go. It’s great now, and there are guidelines, but in the beginning, we were monkeys in a circus. I still see it and shake my head when I’m at panels for raising human trafficking awareness. Some of the organizations are terrible because they need the funds, and they’re gonna parade you up there. It’s incredibly disrespectful to the victims. That needs to stop. We need to find a solution to the problem without re-victimizing. The first time I talked about it publicly, someone came up to me and asked, “Did you ever enjoy it?” And I remember breaking down crying. I was like, “This is how much I enjoy it!” (showing self-mutilation wounds on her wrist) People love other human’s pain. That question didn’t serve any purpose. We need to help move through the Hollywood version, which is presenting “the taken.” This is a human issue. This is a dignity issue. We’re not merchandise. We’re still people who were exploited.

Women in media are often flattened out into one-dimensional characters.

I think it’s the desire for people to continue victim-blaming. That’s why we grieve for the girls who were at school and kidnapped — the 200. But we don’t grieve to the girl who went the bar, who was kidnapped. They want to portray it where they’re like, “We’re going to make sure that you sympathize; that she’s the perfect victim, she’s virginal,” but nobody feels bad for the girl that runs away with her boyfriend. Rapists usually come for victims who are less credible to the public. I know so many stories: A nine-year-old, working 18 hours and sleeping on the floor. And it’s happening here. Children should be at school, they shouldn’t have to support their parents. Let’s make sure that family doesn’t starve. That town doesn’t have money? Let’s generate jobs. That way, children aren’t used as ATM’s. So many immigrants that come here to work in the fields work under terrible conditions. They don’t want to go home, but they don’t want to be paid five dollars a day for the same job that is paid 18 dollars an hour, either. Those are the things about human trafficking that people don’t understand: It is still exploiting the vulnerable.

Images via Facebook/Norma Bastidas

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