In 1997 and 1998, in the wake of the height of the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s, four Latina lesbians from San Antonio, Texas were convicted of aggravated sexual assault of two young girls. Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez were all friends and were between 19 and 21 at the time. The two young girls who accused them of the crime were Elizabeth Ramirez’s 7 and 9-year-old nieces. They alleged their aunt and her friends gang raped them at Ramirez’s apartment when the girls stayed with her for a week in the summer of 1994. The women were baffled about the accusations and maintained their innocence while cooperating with the police and turning down plea bargains. It didn’t matter, they were all convicted. Ramirez, the supposed ringleader, received a 37.5 year sentence and the rest getting 15 years each. Even though there wasn’t any hard evidence against the women, they went to prison in 2000. In addition to homophobia playing a major role in wrongfully convicting the women, investigators believed the women were involved in “Satanic-related sexual abuse” and presented now debunked forensics as major evidence against them.
Filmmaker and director Deborah Esquenazi began researching the case in 2011 and in 2012 began filming the women in prison. Her documentary, Southwest of Salem tells the story of four Latina lesbians who were found guilty of a crime they didn’t commit and how the legal and criminal justice systems failed them as queer women of color. The film follows their journey in prison and their fight to clear their names.
I had the pleasure of catching a glimpse of the film in 2013 when it was still in progress. I had recently graduated from college and the case was the first time I realized our justice system was deeply flawed. I couldn’t believe this happened to these women and was so mad that three of them were still in prison. While Anna was out on parole at the time, she was still a registered sex offender and couldn’t make it to the screening because there was a school nearby. I followed the documentary’s progression since then and finally got to watch it now that the women were released on bond and hoping for legal exoneration since one of the nieces who accused them of the crimes recanted her testimony in 2012.
The film is stellar at pointing out the flaws of our justice system and showcasing how homophobia played throughout their trials. But most importantly, it gives four Latina lesbians a voice and let’s them advocate for themselves. The documentary showcases their vulnerability and their devastation of being convicted and being ripped apart from each other, their children and their families.
I got to talk to Deborah a few months ago about her film, about coming out while working on the film, why she felt compelled to tell the San Antonio four’s story as a gay Latina, about the criminal justice and legal systems, and her friendships with the San Antonio Four women.
Yvonne: My familiarity with your film began when I saw an early screening of it in Austin in 2013 so it was still very much in progress. I think Anna was the only one who was out of prison at the time and I remember she couldn’t make it to the screening because there was a school close to the screening location. I remember I was really blown away by the case then and I’m still very blown away by it now and the film and how it has come along. I’m so glad you could tell the story.
Deborah Esquenazi: Thank you, I really appreciate that, I’m so happy you got to see it in progress. It’s really interesting to be here now. I feel like we’re about to have a really big debut soon and it’s going to be on cable and reach millions and millions of people. I remember I was thinking on my flight here to LA — god, I remember being in the car coming back from the prison from seeing Cassie and just feeling so ashamed that I could never find anybody to pick up the film or that anyone would care about the case. I had this really heartwarming moment where I thought oh my god, this is so crazy that this is happening now but back then it felt I was pulling teeth to get anyone to listen to the story. It is a pretty magical feeling, I won’t lie.
Y: How did you find out about the case and how did you start working on it as a documentary?
D: I found out about the case from my mentor and colleague named Debbie Nathan who is in the film. I call her my mentor in terms of investigative journalism. She taught me everything I know now about investigations. This was back when I was a reporter in New York. We have a very long relationship. When I moved back to Texas she suggested I take a look at this case. As you may of heard, there was a lot of resistance for me to take it because of the charges. But then when I started to really study the transcript and — of course — when I got to know the women personally in prison it was very clear that this was a story I had to tell. It wasn’t necessarily slated to be a film at all; I actually tried to pitch it as a radio story because I was teaching public radio at the time. I was teaching radio documentaries. Nobody in radio wanted to take it, so somewhere down the line I got a handle of this VHS tape. I was already making short films so I got the VHS tape that you now see in the film which is them going on the hunt for exculpatory evidence and all their home videos. It was just clear when I saw the VHS tapes that this needed to be a film. Radio wouldn’t even do it justice to how important this story was.
Y: Was there ever a moment or an aha moment or a point where you thought to yourself you just have to tell this story?
D: I wouldn’t say there was ever that feeling. I think there were hunches of my own astonishment of how railroaded these women were. I think watching the VHS tapes privately was a really big kind of collapse of emotion for me. I remember putting the VHS in, I actually had to borrow a VHS player because we didn’t have one. I borrowed a VHS player and I stuck the tape in and what I saw was this love between two women and they were on the beach and then suddenly that made me feel really empty. Seeing that tape was before I met them. I already got to know them in a way through their personal home videos. Then in terms of the moment of when I might of had a film, not just the story but the moment where I thought I think I actually have a feature film was probably at the time of the recantation when Stephanie comes forward.
Y: How did your identities as being gay and Latina factor in wanting to make this documentary?
D: In terms of being Latina, I was sensitive to some of cultural realities. I’m not from San Antonio but I’m from Houston and I’m first generation American. My parents are Cuban; they are not Mexican. But in terms of popular culture white people see Latinos as kind of all the same. Obviously, within us, we have very different cultural validities. Having grown up in Texas, I sort of understood what it meant it to be Latina.
In terms of being gay — I feel like this has been well publicized in the press — but I came out to the women before I came out to my family. It was defiantly a bond. It was really interesting because I didn’t know until I started doing press for the film that the women thought it was so important that I came out to them. I can only see things through my lens, right? But then the women, when they were asked by a journalist and asked if they trust me as a filmmaker, they were like we really started to trust her when she came out to us privately. Then we knew she was really going to understand. That was more in a way about being gay and less than about being Latina. Are you from Texas?
Y: Yes, I am from South Texas. I’m super familiar with the culture and everything in the film. Even the way people speak in the film. This is where I come from.
D: A lot of people ask me about San Antonio and ask did race play a part in the indictments? A lot of the people asking me that question come from the coast where they are thinking about the way African Americans are railroaded in our system. As I tried to explain well, of course, race always plays a part in the economics and it is always about class too. In terms of San Antonio, it’s a very Latino place so it’s a very deeply Hispanic place too. Of course these families have an identity but race, in a way, played less of a factor for all of us. We’re all Latina but definitely being gay played a role. It played a role for me because it was part of my coming out story. Apparently later I discovered it played a massive role for the women because it helped them trust me to let go and to tell me their stories.
Y: Over the years you spend a lot of time with the women. How has your relationship developed with them over time? Do you see each other as friends now?
D: We see each other a lot because we’re touring the film so we do all spend time together. The women work a lot. Most of them work one or two jobs that are incredibly demanding. Anna Vasquez works in a tortilla factory, she sometimes takes double shifts in order to make ends meet. Cassie is working in a car wash. Life is really tough for them. There’s not a lot of room for hanging out. I have my own life, I live in Austin, I have a toddler and I’m married so you know I’ve got my life. But we do travel a lot with the film. I would say we are absolutely friends.
I haven’t told people this very much but when the women were released my wife became pregnant with our son and the San Antonio four women surprised us with a baby shower. That is how loving and beautiful of souls they are. They just had been released from prison and they had known on the inside that Karen, my wife, and I were expecting a son and all the things they could of done they chose to throw us a surprise baby shower. That is how generous they are. In a way we have this incredibly profound bond that goes beyond friendship. There is a lot of trust among us.
Y: That is really touching to hear, it almost made me cry.
D: Believe me, we were so surprised. We had no idea. It was such a beautiful gesture. So unnecessary but for them they just wanted to give back. But I was like, you give back everyday to me. I found my coming out story strength through their story. They don’t realize how much they have impacted me.
Y: You eventually came out during the process of this film. How was that for you?
D: It was challenging. It’s still challenging. I still find myself dealing with a deep internalized homophobia in myself that is rooted in a lot of the conservative Latino ideals that I grew up with. On the other hand, my immediate family, my mom and my dad, have really come far. My dad shockingly was totally okay with it. I think my mom had some more tension around it. I think for her it was the dream of marrying a nice guy type of thing and having a family. I still married a nice gal and we have a family. In a way it’s still kind of the heteronormative thing — it just sort of happened in a way that was comfortable for me.
Y: Your film shows the injustices of the legal and criminal justice system. But it’s also about this group of gay friends and their lives and how they’ve stuck together to fight these injustices. And for the LGBT community our queer friends are so important and necessary to our survival. And I can only imagine in the 90s it was super important for them to stick together and hang out with each other. In this case, it was to the San Antonio’s four’s detriment to be friends and in relationships with each other. Can you talk about this theme in your film about them being friends?
D: Yeah, for sure. When you’re part of a marginalized group particularly when you’re marginalized by your parents, it’s so much about the families that you make. You find a lot of strength in our community and that’s a really important thing because if we can’t help each other, how do we expect anybody else to be aligned with us. It is a sad thing that four women, two of whom were raising two kids together, could have had this happen to them. And it’s totally tragic. And I’m not sure what else to say other than isn’t it extraordinary that these four women endured so much. They basically have single handedly fought a legal system that sought to destroy them. And I think they are rising like phoenixes beyond it. That’s a pretty amazing thing that these women can do that I think that is a testament to the power of their friendship.
Y: I want to go back to the home videos that you feature in your film. How did you get ahold of those videos, or how did they arrive to you?
D: The home videos came to me from Debbie Mason. I think I asked, like is there anything from the trials, or something just beyond the discovery materials from the trials. And she said Oh there’s some tapes! And I was like what tape? And she said there was a tape of them just hanging out, and I was like I want to see that. And it was really interesting when you watch and you see, of course there is a lot of footage that we didn’t show. Most of it’s quite the same like their own personal lives and what’s to come in terms of their future incarceration.
What was remarkable to me was … I started to research their case from the perspective of what the news media was reporting on, and there wasn’t a lot of stuff. But I did notice an absence of discussions of the fact that Anna and Cassie were in a relationship and were building a family together and were raising two kids together. And even that’s like in the police report, like when they were giving their statements, they do mention it. But it doesn’t really come up later. And I did want to ask myself, like why is that? Why did they not say it? It occurred to me, well, that’s a real humanizing element. If you start to tell a jury about two women who are just living their lives and they’re raising two kids, and you suddenly get to know the two kids and the kids are extraordinary and the kids are so well-adapted and there have never been any improprieties, no priors. And suddenly, you’re like wait a second, the absence of this element of the story incredibly homophobic because it’s easy to demonize single women and keep to this idea that somehow they’re sexual predators, that they are diabolical. And I feel like that was a really big turning point for the story perspective for me.
Y: Definitely. And the home videos are, I feel, really instrumental to the film. So is that why you decided to include it in the documentary?
D: Oh yeah, there was never any question about not including them. You know from a documentarian view, the things that play out in people’s lives at the height of conflict is like your gold mine. You don’t give that up, so it was always going to be the thing we came back to.
Y: The case is really complex legally so did you ever doubt the telling of the film, or developing the narrative since there were so many legal things you had to explain?
D: Yeah, for sure. In terms of the film, our editing was probably much longer than most films are edited. We took 18 months. Usually docs take 6-9 months. We were in the cutting room for 18 months because we really had to meticulously lay out the details. And we never wanted to over-tell because you don’t want to create red herrings, you don’t want people to get lost. And I remember people asking like ‘Why didn’t you interview the prosecutors’ or ‘why didn’t you interview the DA at the time?’. And I was like no, no, and no! This is the story about four women who never got a voice. So, I was never going to allow a bunch of men to once again defend themselves in my platform. My podium was always going to be for the women. So in terms of doubting the editorial process? Yes of course, it’s nerve-wracking throughout. But I think what kept me kind of feeling safe about it was the beauty of that home video footage. It was like something we could always go back to, about what was simple and true. You know the trial transcripts are very intellectual, are very didactic and they’re true crime. We’re using a genre to tell a story, a narrative. But the home video served a kind of breathing, soulful connection to the women. Like when the women are turning themselves in to start their sentences. When I first saw that I could not believe that was on tape. I was so broken after watching that footage. I felt very strongly that if I had that reaction, others are going to have this reaction.
Y: The end of the documentary ends with the women still fighting to be legally exonerated. How has this impacted their lives? And how can we help them moving forward?
D: Good question. I think the way it’s impacted their lives, in terms of what I can see — I mean, in a way, it’s better for them to answer that; I don’t want to speak for them.
I feel like I have really watched them own their story, in a really amazing way. Like, I wonder what it must be like for them to have been totally annihilated throughout their youth, and then they’re incarcerated, and they’re thrown away, basically. They’re burned at the metaphorical stake. Rather than witch burning with fire, we put them in prison. It’s a kind of similar action. And people ask them about their lives, about their opinions, and about things that really matter. These are women who, once upon a time, had to deal with being reviled, and it’s extraordinary to see them reclaim their voices. That’s really magical to be able to see that.
And in terms of their case, their case is still exactly where it is when the film ends; so, it hasn’t moved. And of course we want to do anything we can to exonerate these women because they live in this horrific legal purgatory. It’s a horrible life. We have an Act Now page on our website, where you can find more information on how to help them. But we do want a critical mass of social media right now. It’s in the hand of the courts, but if the courts decide that these women have to go back to prison, or that they have to be retried, I want to assure everyone that we will rage. We will rage! And we hope that everyone who has seen the film will join our cause.
Y: That’s awesome. Will you continue to work on the documentary? To add onto it?
D: I don’t know if I’ll continue filming, per se. We’ll have to do some sort of a new ending. An epilogue of sorts if something changes, and it will. Something has to happen. I don’t think it will ever stay where it is. I will probably add an epilogue. Right now, we’re delivering it into the hands of audiences. This was my six years of love and labor, and I’m like, “Okay, audiences, this belongs to us now, as a collective. It’s not just mine anymore.”
Y: With the national conversation about police violence and racial profiling, how would you like your film to impact the conversation?
D: It definitely adds to the conversation. I feel like it’s another piece of clear evidence of justice gone awry. It’s not like we need more evidence; we know it exists. But I think the more we can show clarity about it existing — it’s not just in policing. It’s in the DA’s office. It’s in the ways juries are manipulated. All the facets of the American justice system are founded on myths, on stereotypes that we’ve perpetuated, so I feel like my goal in my career — not just in this project, but in all of them — is to pull back and unfurl all the sort of layers, to show the root. And the root is to ask a very simple question: Why does the justice system exist in the first place? Justice has nothing to do with it.
Y: I love the quote from one of the lawyers in the film who says, “If only people knew how little justice has to do with the actual legal system.” I think that’s my favorite quote from the whole film because it’s so true right now. And you definitely get angry when you hear stories like this. It adds fuel to the fire especially when we give it to audiences — like you said — and ask, “Okay, now what are we going to do?”
D: Right, exactly.
Y: What’s next for you as filmmaker?
D: Gosh, I don’t know. People ask me a lot, “Do you feel a lot of pressure because this is your first film?” It’s not really. It’s my first feature film, but I’ve made a lot of short films. I want to keep telling complex, intersectional stories. And the criminal justice system is definitely up there for me, in terms of storytelling. I want to go back to the fundamentals. We talk about band-aids: How can we fix it now? But unless we expose some really fundamental realities about how this system was born in the United States, we’re going to miss the conversation. There’s two parts of it. There’s the myth of justice, which is where my interest is, in terms of being a storyteller and a journalist. And then there’s the cases, the investigative side. I would love to find a platform to continue exploring both.
Even though the San Antonio Four were released from prison, they have not been legally exonerated and are still registered sex offenders because of their wrongful conviction. Here’s how you can help them fully gain their freedom. These tips are taken from the Southwest of Salem’s Act Now page.
2. Call 1-210-335-2311 and ask for District Attorney Nico LaHood’s office
Here’s what to say: “I am angered by Judge Pat Priest’s ruling to not recommend exoneration for Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez, and Kristie Mayhugh. I want Nico LaHood and the District Attorney’s office of Bexar County to take a stand on the San Antonio Four case to declare actual innocence and have the women exonerated for their wrongful convictions.”
3. Tweet/Facebook the district attorney’s office (@BexarCounty @BexarDA) to take a stand!