Eliana Lopez, the Venezuelan actress who is married to San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, briefly considered “The Sheriff’s Wife” as the title of the play she’s been pouring hours into rehearsing every week. Instead, she decided on “What Is the Scandal?” Or in Spanish: "Cuál Es el Escándalo?"
“I made this play because I need to do it,” Lopez explained during an interview at her family’s San Francisco home. “I need to say my side of the story.”
As anyone who’s followed the news in San Francisco well knows, the scandal that dominated headlines in 2012 began with Mirkarimi’s arrest that January on charges of domestic violence, stemming from an incident in which he bruised Lopez’s arm during an argument on New Year's Eve 2011.
It kicked off a nine-month saga that boiled down to Mirkarimi pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor false imprisonment, then retaining his job as sheriff despite Mayor Ed Lee’s attempt to oust him from office on charges of official misconduct.
Lopez, meanwhile, refused to cooperate with prosecutors and condemned the actions taken against Mirkarimi as an attack on her family. She insisted that she felt she was not in danger and opposed a stay-away order that prevented Mirkarimi from contacting her.
“I could not understand at that moment why my voice was taken away,” Lopez said, explaining that she felt silenced because nobody would take her objections seriously.
After the turmoil finally died down, she said, she converted the nightmarish ordeal into inspiration for her play.
“It took me two years to be able to sit down and write,” Lopez said, explaining that the experience was emotionally painful. “When you are an actor, your life is all about your art.” An actress since the age of 14, Lopez worked in theater with her family prior to coming to the United States and starred in telenovelas in Venezuela.
She spoke a bit about what audiences can expect.
“The idea is to reflect on my experience, the person that was living that situation, the person [who] everybody was talking about, and acting [on] behalf of ... but never heard me," Lopez said. "And it’s a comedy, also. It’s like, we are going to be laughing about a painful experience. We are going to be reflecting the ironies and the big contradictions that I felt in that moment."
Alfonso Lopez, a filmmaker from Caracas and Eliana’s brother, is the writer and director of the play and has composed original music to accompany it. Eliana Lopez will be the sole performer in "Cuál Es El Escándalo?" She'll play multiple characters throughout the 70-minute performance based on real people she encountered during the domestic abuse trial.
“We will see a lot of characters that maybe you can recognize,” she hinted.
The play is scheduled to premier May 29 at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, a venue selected because Lopez and Mirkarimi have received “a lot of love and support from the Latino community,” she said. It will be performed in Spanish with English subtitles.
Lopez said she hoped the play would change people’s attitudes toward her. “Some people say, ‘She just has the [battered] woman syndrome, and they stick with their husbands.’ Like I don’t have any brain, voice or anything. … Maybe those people should come to see the show.”
Yet much of the public perception surrounding the case was shaped by a video featuring Lopez just after the argument that kicked off the ordeal. In a 45-second video released to the public in 2012 that became central to the case, she's seen gesturing tearfully at a large bruise on her biceps. In the clip, she explains her plan to document the injury as evidence in case Mirkarimi would ever seek sole custody of their son, Theo.
She’d intended for the video to remain confidential but Ivory Madison, the neighbor who filmed it at Lopez’s request, contacted authorities.
“It’s not a secret that being Latino or African-American in this country is completely to be at a disadvantage" in a custody dispute, Lopez said. "And what is terrifying to a woman is that just that fact of being an immigrant can be the only thing that they can use to take away your son."
Lopez said she had trusted Madison, who had told her making the video was "the right thing to do," but felt betrayed.
Broadly speaking, the fact that a domestic abuse trial went forward despite Lopez’s objections actually reflects a hard-won victory for domestic violence advocates. They’ve long pushed for more aggressive prosecution to break a long-standing pattern of victims remaining vulnerable to abuse after agencies would disengage, frequently allowing couples to sort out disputes under a “curtain of privacy.”
In San Francisco, advocates for victims of domestic violence campaigned furiously against the sheriff’s reinstatement.
Lopez said she didn't feel supported by them, but was approached by "several women coming close to me, saying, 'I work in domestic violence, and I do not support what’s happening to your family.' "
With a 7-4 vote by the Board of Supervisors in October 2012, Lee was unable to get the nine votes needed to uphold his bid to oust Mirkarimi on charges of official misconduct.
Lopez said she takes the issue of domestic violence seriously, but doesn’t see herself as a victim.
She also indicated that she believes things would have gone differently had her husband not been an elected official.
Mirkarimi was politically at odds with the mayor and District Attorney George Gascón long before the conflict began. Lopez said she believed the incident and video documentation was “a perfect excuse to be used against a person in power.”
Mirkarimi is running for re-election. His opponent, Vicki Hennessy, was appointed as interim sheriff by Mayor Lee when Mirkarimi was suspended without pay in 2012.