Four women sit next to each other in the lobby of the Tribeca Marriott. No one would ever suspect them to be ex-convicts. They’re in high spirits, dressed in their weekend best, and still glowing from the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the documentary that tells their story, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four. But the glory is bittersweet. For almost twenty years their faces and names were tarnished across national media, their families’ savings were depleted by lawyer’s fees, and their lives destroyed.
Once upon a time in southern Texas, these four women had everything to look forward to. It was the summer of 1994 in Bexar County, and Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera were in love. At nineteen years old, Anna had just graduated from high school and was working and saving money for college. Cassie was twenty and raising two small children from a previous relationship. They moved in together and formed a family. “Eyes of a Stranger” by Queensryche was on the radio. “It was one of my favorite bands,” Cassie says.
Anna spent time with her best friend, Kristie Mayhugh, who was taking a break from her studies at Texas A&M. They were two stocky, mulletted, swaggering dykes, glued to episodes of Beverly Hills 90210. “We couldn’t go anywhere if it was on,” Kristie remembers, “We had to record it, or wherever we’d go, the TV had to be on that channel.” Back then, San Antonio was a challenging place to live for a lesbian, and that animosity at times even extended to their own families. The three women found refuge in their friend Liz’s apartment.
Liz Ramirez was twenty years old. She worked at Arby’s and she had her own place. She had been emancipated from her family when she was sixteen, so she was used to being on her own. At the time, she was pregnant with her first child. Kristie was Liz’s roommate and sometime girlfriend, and she helped Liz pay the bills. All four women eagerly awaited the birth of Liz’s son. “We all hung out together. The girls were all a part of my pregnancy,” she recalls.
By the fall of 1994, their lives would be forever changed. Liz’s nieces, who at the time were seven and nine years old, spent one week with their aunt and her friends, staying at Liz’s apartment. Shortly thereafter, Liz, Anna, Cassie, and Kristie were charged with the sexual assault for the alleged gang-rape of the two girls. From the beginning of the investigations, from the moment they were questioned, their sexual orientation was front and center. “If you look at the police interviews with Liz, it was always so-and-so admitted that she was gay, it was always couched in those terms,” says their current attorney Mike Ware of The Innocence Project, a national non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
The four women fought the allegations made against them in court for six years, trusting that if they cooperated and told the truth they would eventually be exonerated. But the prosecution portrayed them as devil worshippers who had used the little girls’ bodies in a satanic ritual. Though Liz’s niece smiled and waved to her aunt on her way to the witness stand, in her testimony, she spoke of being penetrated by objects and threatened with a knife. “I just could not wrap my mind around it,” Anna remembers, “For somebody to go up there and testify the way they did against us and say the things that they said, it’s almost like, ‘Where did you get that?’” In July of 2000, Liz, the alleged “ringleader” was sentenced to 37.5 years in jail and Anna, Cassie and Kristie to 15 years each.
This lesbian witch hunt and the circumstances that led to the women’s release almost twenty years later are depicted in Deborah S. Esquenazi’s documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four. Esquenazi deftly introduces us to each one of her subjects and every portrait is laden with intimacy and specificity. This allows us to get to know each woman individually, but also witness how their lives intertwined as those of high school friends who share in the simple everyday.
Esquenazi then methodically takes us through the accusations, eventual conviction, and the rediscovery of their case in 2008. The impact of these emotional moments is captured by the director’s camera, and it’s as heartbreaking for the audience as it is for the friends, family and the women who lived it. We’re made aware of the existence of Javier Limon, Liz’s former brother-in-law and the father of the two little girls. Limon, while married to Liz’s sister Rosemary, often made passes at Liz. We’re shown snippets of love letters he wrote to her. After a series of rejections and when he found out that Liz was attracted to women, Limon used the legal system as a way to punish Liz, a recourse he has taken in other occasions and against other women who have crossed his path. Limon’s claims further fall apart when in 2012 one of his daughters recants her testimony.
Given the repudiation and the admission that critical material evidence was based on “junk science,” the women were released on bond and are now awaiting a new trial. Their goal remains what it has been for almost twenty years: to reclaim their innocence. However, it’s not just about clearing their names, it’s about making up for time lost. “I have friends that I went to high school with and I see where they’re at now,” Anna says, her voice cracking, “They have good jobs and they have a house. I make pennies compared to them and we’re the same age.” Kristie goes on, “We’re all in our forties and we should be somewhere else. We don’t have nothing.” Should the State of Texas provide them with a new trial and exonerate them, they could each be entitled to approximately $80,000 per year served. There is no deadline for this however, and it is strictly up to the discretion of the district attorney whether the case will be heard again. In the meantime, the women remain in a state of limbo that does not guarantee their freedom as they could be easily returned to jail without cause, nor does it provide indemnity for the years they were without a profession, isolated from society, and away from their families.
Liz was separated from her son when he was just two years old. Now, even though she’s free from prison, Liz still can’t live with him because of financial constraints. “After seventeen years of not knowing me, I can’t even let him come stay with me,” she says. While Cassie was incarcerated, she was not allowed to touch her children when they came to visit. “I had to live without Michael and Ashley,” she says, “And that was the hardest thing I ever had to do but, yeah, I’m a lot stronger now.” All four women agree that their single biggest change is that they’re stronger now; they know better now. It’s a profound strength that does not display in anger but in their humility and dogged determination to be vindicated. “You have to be humble,” Liz says, “You don’t have a say in prison; when you strip, when the officers talk crazy to you, you have to swallow everything. So you learn to be humble because you don’t have a choice in there.” Cassie, Liz, Anna and Kristie carry with them the injustice and inhumanity of their experiences in prison, emerging to tell their story as far and wide as possible and push a broader system to change.
Four friends, their bond unbroken. Their resolve strengthened by all that they have endured. They’ve gathered around my iPhone so that I can record their voices; I can archive their testimony. They’re used to this by now. However, this time it’s different. This time the fact that they’re lesbians is merely a factor within the breadth of their character. This time they are seen. This time they are believed.
If you’d like to help exonerate The San Antonio Four, call District Attorney Nico LaHood’s office at 210-335-2311 and ask that he declare full exoneration for Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez, and Kristie Mayhugh. You can also reach out via social media to @BexarCounty and @Nico4DA.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino films at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on remezcla.com and tribecafilm.com.