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Four Latina lesbians still seeking justice

Esquenazi Deborah 2

In 1994, four women were sentenced collectively to over 75 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. It’s a story we’ve become all too familiar with—the unjust justice system that, for women and people of color, presumes guilt and demands innocence be proven.

Known as the San Antonio Four, the women had three strikes against them besides their gender: they are Latina, they are lesbian, and they are poor.

By 2013, all four had been released from prison.

But they have yet to be exonerated.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is the heart-wrenching new documentary about the story of these four women, now screening at film festivals across the United States.

The film documents the trial, incarceration, and long-overdue release of Elizabeth “Liz” Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra “Cassie” Rivera, and Anna Vasquez, the latter of whom becomes the primary narrator taking viewers through 23 years of the women's lives while trapped in the throes of the criminal justice system. Out lesbian director Deborah Esquenazi deftly weaves personal interviews, court documentation, and footage from the trial and from VHS tapes from the women’s private lives before their incarceration. She contextualizes the case with secondary information about the rampant witch hunt of queer and unmarried women and men in the 1980s and early 1990s with accusations of satantic ritual abuse, which came to be known in the cultural zeitgeist as “satantic panic.”

In 1994, the four women babysat Liz Ramirez’s two nieces for a weekend. Months later, without any additional contact with the nieces, they were brought up on charges of child molestation and sexual abuse. The women adamantly refuted the charges.

The film makes it clear that these women were presumed guilty even before the trial, when they were first questioned by detectives. In an interview with the Women’s Media Center, Anna Vasquez said this discrimination was all too evident to the four. “Ever since the very beginning, when the accusations came about and we got interrogated by a homicide detective, right away he made an issue of us being lesbians,” she said, emphasizing the lesbophobia pervasive throughout their trial. “He actually put that in the statement like it was a big deal.”

Vasquez and her friends have ruminated on the myriad forms of systemic discrimination afoot in their case for over 23 years. “Myself and the three others were very young and naive, and we had no idea about all the discrimination that was going on before our case,” she said. Vasquez pointed to how discrimination works intersectionally, and how economic status is the lynchpin. “It’s us being Latinas and poor—we weren’t able to put up a good defense because of it. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve asked my attorneys for experts—for expert witnesses to refute what the pediatrician had said. We had none of that. But along those lines it deals with money as well.”

Liz Ramirez put a finer point on it: “It’s very difficult to find someone who will listen to what’s going on, because who really wants to help a minority who can’t be able to pay for anything?”

“Basically,” Vasquez explained, “we got three or four strikes against us from the get-go: we’re lesbians, we’re Latina, we’re poor, and we live in one of the poorest areas of San Antonio. Definitely, I felt discrimination from the get-go.”

As the documentary unfolds, it becomes clear that the San Antonio Four are being punished for their sexuality, and that the charges were fabricated as a type of revenge against the four, and specifically Ramirez. The father of the two nieces, Javier Limon, wrote love letters to Ramirez, sexually harassed her, and repeatedly tried to have an affair with her. She denied him and she told him she was lesbian. This, the film indicates, catalyzes the misogynistic and homophobic act of retaliation.

Thanks to an outsider’s interest in the peculiarity of the women’s case, and to the legal work done by attorney Mike Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas, in 2012 one of the nieces, now in her early twenties, first recanted on camera and later testified in court that the four women did nothing to her or her sister. The niece said that her father had forced her to tell the false story in court that the women sexually molested them. Vasquez was released first; about a year later, Ramirez, Rivera, and Mayhugh were also released. They are all currently on parole, awaiting the next court date to consider their exoneration.

“We still have to report to the city bond,” Vasquez said, “which basically is the city of San Antonio, every other month. We have to get permission to leave San Antonio anywhere outside a 75-mile radius, because the concern is that we will run, that we will try to leave and not face any more of the trial or whatever else is to come. … This is not over.”

And because it’s not yet over, both Vasquez and Ramirez describe feelings of anxiety, of fear, of future incarceration even though they are no longer in prison: “We’re still in a prison without bars,” Vasquez asserted.

Southwest of Salem proves that the witch hunt of women did not end in Salem. And in an America divided into “black” and “white,” the Latino community is frequently overlooked in discussions of civil rights and criminal justice reform. One in 45 Latina women go to prison in their lifetime. Yet, according to investigative journalist Alison Flowers, “About two-thirds of exonerated women were wrongly convicted for incidents that never occurred.”

Anna Vasquez, Liz Ramirez, Cassie Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh are part of the severely wronged 67 percent. “We don’t know what is happening behind closed doors,” Esquenazi told the Women’s Media Center. “We don’t know how many years [exoneration] could take, if they make a decision at all.”

“If people only knew how little truth and justice had to do with the legal system,” Ware says in the documentary, “they’d probably storm courthouses with lighted torches.”

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