When filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi watched home videos of Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez taking trips to the beach, making dinner and playing video games, she felt compelled to tell their story. Along with Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh, the women made up the so-called San Antonio Four, Latina lesbian women accused of gang raping two little girls -- Ramirez's nieces -- in San Antonio, Texas in 1994. Esquenazi's investigation into their story led to the documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, opening Monday as part of Frameline40.
“It illuminated something for me,” Esquenazi says of the VHS tapes. “Why was it omitted that they were a loving family raising two kids? It made me feel like people have to see this -- not just that the case is so horrific, the way the women were railroaded by the state, but they’re so joyful on camera.”
Horrific understates it. The women were accused of pinning down and sexually assaulting Ramirez’s nieces in what one investigator speculated was “Satanic–related sexual abuse.” Ramirez, considered the ringleader, was sentenced to 37 years, 6 months in prison, while the other women each received 15 year sentences. Maintaining their innocence throughout, all the women refused plea bargains.
Over a decade later, the accusations -- unlike anything he’d ever heard -- caught the attention of Mike Ware, an attorney who works with the Innocence Project of Texas. Even though his office gets about 120 letters a week from people claiming to have been wrongfully convicted, he made time to visit each of the women in their different prisons.
“The accusations were so preposterous,” Ware says. “These women were lovely, intelligent, solid people who notwithstanding had already served 12 or 13 years for a crime that had never taken place.”
The women cooperated with the police from the start, believing they had nothing to fear. In Esquenazi's film, Vazquez quietly says this may have been their biggest mistake. Because of the negative media attention they experienced during the trial, Vazquez didn't trust Esquenazi when the filmmaker first showed up at the prison.
“She was part of the media, and when the charges first occurred in 1994, they were completely against us,” Vazquez says. “She made me comfortable though and got somewhat into her personal life, and when I realized she was a lesbian, it made me feel she was the right person to tell our story.”
In the process of making the documentary, Esquenazi caught one of Ramirez’s nieces recanting her childhood accusations on tape, a major break in the case. Allegedly, the girl's father was obsessed with Ramirez and pressured his daughters into making the accusations.
Anna Vasquez was released from prison on parole in 2012. Cassandra Rivera, Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh were released from prison in 2013 based on Ware's work with the courts.
It’s staggering, watching Southwest of Salem today, to comprehend how the women were convicted at all; the evidence against them consisted of contradictory testimony from two young girls and medical evidence that was later determined to be inconclusive. One reason they ended up in prison is because of who they are, Ware says.
“The four women were openly gay,” he says. “That emboldened the prosecution into ridiculous charges they would not have dared attempt with a less marginalized group.”
Esquenazi says she usually tries to experiment stylistically in her filmmaking, but with Southwest of Salem (a reference to the 17th-century colonial witch trials), she just wanted to make the complicated story as clear as possible. Her subjects love the movie, and that’s one of the things she’s proudest about.
“I try to ask the question of who gets to tell their own story in my work,” Esquenazi says. “This case was all tied up with mythology and misogyny and homophobia, and if I can just show the pattern of behavior, maybe we can ask ourselves what we’re so afraid of.”
Years after their release, the women now hope to have the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declare them innocent as a matter of law. Vazquez chokes up talking about it.
“I never even had a chance to make a name for myself,” she says. “This is a chance to have this lifted off of me once and for all. We’re out of prison, but it’s like being in a prison without bars.”
Southwest of Salem screens Monday, June 20, 6:30pm at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and Thursday, June 23, 7pm at Landmark Theatres Piedmont in Oakland. For tickets and more information, visit frameline.org.