They have lost 15 precious years of their lives because of various expressions of homophobia that penetrated the American legal system, and they have won their lives back in part because of the persistent struggle of one filmmaker and a team of lawyers and gay rights activists who have never given up.
Elizabeth Ramirez, a handsome young woman from San Antonio, Texas, was in the first weeks of her pregnancy. The year was 1994. She was single, and had a romantic relationship with both women and men, and had prepared for the great change in her life that would be the birth of her eldest child. One day, when her brother-in-law approached her with a strange offer – he would marry her and be a white father – she rejected him without thinking twice. She was independent, living in an apartment of her own, and had to cope alone with the upheaval in her life and relied on her friends to be there beside her.
But Ramirez did not know that her son’s birth was about to diminish in the face of another, unexpected, change that would shake her life. When her brother-in-law asked her to look after his two nieces for a week, she did not hesitate. She took them under her wing, and together with her partner and a couple of good friends she took care of the girls with the proper devotion. Shortly thereafter, when the girls filed complaints against her and her three friends about sexual abuse, Ramirez did not understand how it happened to her. Before long the four young women found themselves sitting on the bench in the courtroom, listening in astonishment to the testimonies of the two girls who claimed that they were sexually abused and threatened with a knife and a pistol and molested.
Three days after giving birth to her son Ramirez was thrown into jail. The court sentenced her to 37 years in prison, and three of her partners for a crime that was never committed – 15 years behind the bars. As it was, another chilling case in which the legal system had sentenced innocent civilians to prison. But “Southwest Of Salem” – a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year, and is now available on Netflix and Amazon Prime – manages to turn the insides out, not only because of this terrible injustice, but partly because of the disturbing truth that the documentary is flooding to the surface: one of the main reasons that these four women were unjustly imprisoned for 15 years was the fact that they were lesbians.
Deborah Esquenazi, the director of the film, heard about this story for the first time a few years ago, from her mentor when she made her first steps in the world of journalism. She offered her a look at the legal case of the “San Antonio Four” – that’s the term they used to call the four defendants in the case – and recommended that she make a film about it.
Esquenazi, investigated and was surprised to discover that TRIAL proceedings was contaminated WITH homophobia, and soon realized that the women in prison had not committed the crime attributed to them.
At one point, she also sat down to watch the VHS tapes her mentor passed along with the investigation files. “I was very surprised to find beautiful, simple photographs of a family on this tape,” says Esquenazi in a video interview from her home in Texas. “Two women who had a family in San Antonio were seen there (two of the defendants, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, raised Rivera’s children from a previous marriage), which was quite radical in Texas in the 1990s. They were poor, kicked out of their homes and ostracized by their families, and raised the children together-which, of course, was hard enough. But then, in addition, they had to deal with these accusations as well. Then I realized that it was not only a beautiful story, allegory and of course dark, but also a real opportunity for me to act in order to correct the injustice and free them from prison. As a journalist, this case presented me with a challenge and made me want to examine whether it was possible. ”
Indeed, when “Southwest of Salem” presents the sequence of events, and it is hard to remain indifferent. Even before the trial of the four women began, the defense found it difficult to find jurors who were not homophobic. In the preliminary meeting with the jury, the issue of the sexual orientation of the accused was highlighted, and in the trial itself, the district attorney, who claimed that it was a group rape, said it was part of a ritual associated with the Satanic cult and explained to the court that such an event was somewhat typical of lesbian sex. “Inserting objects into a vagina is part of a lesbian sexual activity, isn’t it?” he asked, in relationship to the girls’ accusations that the defendants pushed objects into their genitals.
The film throws at viewers homophobic quotations taken from the court’s protocols and combines sections of interviews with the four women – interviews filmed a few years later in prison – all four of them serving the heavy prison sentences imposed on them. “The DA tried to portray us as a bunch of lesbians that’s what we do, sexually exploiting little girls,” says Kristie Mayhugh, Ramirez’s partner. “He claimed that the girls were allegedly attacked when we brought them up because we are gay,” Ramirez notes in a broken voice of someone who was trampled by the system and whose life was taken from her.
The white prison uniforms women wear during the interviews do not allow viewers to forget for a moment where they are, and their dazzling glamor reminds them that the four defendants – spend so many years in the prison. The quotations from the court’s protocols confirm their words, detailing them into dry, official and cruel written words, and in particular, the viewers with the unavoidable conclusion: These women were punished for a crime they did not commit, mainly because of a hodgepodge of homophobic prejudices. The court preferred to ignore the many contradictions in the testimony of the girls and the defendants’ innocence, and chose to impose long prison sentences on them.
Satanic ritual abuse
“Southwest Of Salem” belongs to a genre that has been flourishing in recent years, “real crime,” in which documentary filmmakers go out to investigate criminal cases, and often present a different narrative to that of the and justice system. Notable examples are the series “The Jinx”, and “How ‘O.J.: Made in America’s”
“To this day I ask myself why (it happened), and I have no answer,” she notes with tears in “Southwest Of Salem”, the central defendant in the trial of the San Antonio quartet. Esquenazi, the director, offers a possible explanation for this injustice from the public atmosphere that accompanied the years preceding the trial: homophobic anxiety that grew in the United States to monstrous and distorted proportions – certainly in a super conservative state like Texas that placed itself at the forefront of reactionary versus liberalism – The conduct of this trial.
“In the United States, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, the entire nation was obsessed by the idea that the devil had penetrated day care centers and kindergartens, and that its goal was to sexually abuse children to influence their brains, and then when the children grew up, they join this cult, “says Debbie Nathan, offer of “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt”. Nathan studied the phenomenon. “As insane as it sounds, this belief has penetrated into child welfare services, police units, child psychologists and prosecutors, and dozens of kindergarten and day care workers have been convicted without any acceptable evidence.” I have examined many cases from different parts of the country, Or at least “suspected” of it. More evidence of this trend can be found in the trial against the hard rock band Judas Priest, which was accused of writing satanic texts and warnings of similar content on almost every album of metal, in order to keep the children innocent from Satan.”
America raised its homophobic anxiety to the corridors of the courts and convicted a host of innocent people just because they were gay and dared to work with and care for children.
The legal opinion of the pediatrician who examined the complaining girls in the case of the San Antonio four – an opinion that had a great influence on the jury’s decision in this case – was not free from these effects. “In 1994, when the San Antonio affair broke out, most of the panic over Satanic abuse has already subsided, but in this case, because the alleged perpetrators were four women, the pediatrician who examined the little girls found fit for ritualistic abuse,” Natan says in the film. “She wrote in her report: ‘The possibility of ritual abuse is not to be ruled out.’ And it warmed the police even more. So that this sentence was the last breath of the panic of Satan’s cult of abuse. ”
Esquenazi went over the Protocols well, pointing to the many contradictions in the childhood testimonies and emphasizing the public anxiety that preceded this trial. But she realized that in order to bring the women out of jail, she had to find further support for their innocence. Darrell Otto, a Canadian researcher who had conducted a study on similar crimes of sexual delinquency, provided her with statistics that would eliminate any reasonable chance that these four women might have committed the crime they were tried and punished. “I’m doing a study of crimes of this kind, and this case just does not fit with any common sense,” he says in the film. “Only 5 percent of all sex offenders are women, most of them belong to the ‘lover teacher’ group, which is usually a mature woman with an adolescent, and when an unmarried woman attacks a young child, It just is not common.”
But Esquenazi felt that she lacked another significant stake in the story. She understood that she had to find solid evidence directly related to this case, a turning point in her investigation that would help her not only as a filmmaker but also as an activist. At the beginning of the work on “Southwest of Salem:” she set out not only to produce a fascinating documentary work, but also to release the four women, and she was determined to do so.
To this end, she began to screen footage of the material she had taken, especially the interviews with the women, before groups of gay rights activists in Texas. She knew that in order to bring about change, she needed to mobilize more and more people for the public struggle for their release, and to raise awareness of their injustice and the fact that the US criminal justice system has a longstanding and persistent bias against gays, as jurists in the film make clear. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to create momentum in this portfolio,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, the question was whether I was making a film or saving lives, and the answer was that I was saving lives, and if that means that I also have a chance to make a film about it, then great.”
Dramatic turn in the plot
But the big turn of the film caught her when she was not ready. During the six years of her work on the documentary, she fantasized about the most optimistic scenario: that the two complainants, the girls who had grown up since then, would reveal the truth, admit that the version they gave the police and the court was false and tell what happened at Ramirez’s house on those critical two days. As a documentary filmmaker, such a renewed confession could have brought her film to new heights. As an activist for the release of imprisoned women, it could have been a major breakthrough in the development of this long legal case.
Surprisingly, this miracle did happen. “One day, in 2012, I suddenly got a message from one of the lawyers that she (Stephanie Lemon, one of the girls who had grown up) was about to do that,” recalls Esquenazi.” She told me we had to be in Houston the next morning at eight in the morning. I live in Austin so it’s a three-hour drive away. It was a shock. And of course she was late for the meeting, so at first, we thought she was not coming. But then, when she did come, not only did she say everything she needed, but she was so brave. “
Indeed, this is one of the moments in the film. Stephanie Limon sits in the same coffee shop in Houston, in front of the camera, and admits that she and her sister plotted the plot that had been dealt with by their aunt and three friends, following pressure exerted on them by their father and grandmother. She tells Esquenazi and the lawyers who have been posted there that her father is threatening to take her children if she opens her mouth and tells the truth, but she refuses to give in to his threats.
One day, a Limon tells her, their grandmother caught her and her sister playing with their Barbie dolls and exposed their bodies. As a result, she and their father began to pressure them. “They locked us in. They looked like an eternity: ‘What happened there, you know something happened there.'” We told them that nothing had happened, but they were not convinced: Our grandmother said, ‘You know who touched you? ‘ “Someone touched you down there, there ‘s a gun in the story, and they threatened us:’ They’ll take you out of the house, you ‘re gonna be on the street, no one wants you, you’ re lying, you ‘re gonna go to jail. You will not listen to me if you do not do exactly what I tell you. ‘”
On another occasion, Limon says, she went to her father on her own initiative. “I told him I do not remember that something happened to me, and he said, ‘Yes, you did, you’re stupid, you do not know,’ I said, ‘How can I remember all the good things, but not the bad things?'”. She expresses regret, she is sorry, she tells the camera that she is still afraid of her father and what he might do to her.
“In the moments we took the confession of Stephanie Limon, I felt adrenalin, tremors of adrenaline, I was shocked, I knew that in the United States legally such admission was not enough to free the women from prison, but as a filmmaker I knew that for my film it was a matter of enormous importance. If I will not see the potential of this thing legally, then socially and culturally it is a big deal, it also gave me a boost, gave me the strength to continue, because at that point I was already very alone, I was desperate, I felt that it would never move anywhere, and I was worried about my film, and I knew that besides such a confession was a very big thing, It’s a big deal for the women – they knew of course they were innocent, but it’s another feeling when you know there’s someone out there standing by you, when someone gets up and says: “I was part of this trial and the things I said there were not true.” No doubt it was a big deal. ”
Esquenazi recited this re-admission in favor of the women’s liberation struggle, contacted local journalists, and returned the story about the San Antonio quartet to the headlines. When a new medical opinion was added that canceled the previous trial and proved that the vaginal examination done to the two girls at the time did not prove that they had been abused, the revolution was complete. The women were released from prison in 2013 (Vasquez was released earlier), the case returned to court, and in November 2016 it was decided that the San Antonio four were innocent. They have lost 15 precious years of their lives because of various expressions of homophobia that penetrated the American legal system, and they have won their lives back in part because of the persistent struggle of one filmmaker and a team of lawyers and gay rights activists who have not agreed to give up.
The power of art
Esquenazi herself began a process of coming out of the closet as she began her work on “Southwest of Salem.” “If I were still deep in the closet, I do not think I could have made that film,” she says. “They say that the artist creates the art, but art destroys the artist – I feel that this is exactly what happened to me. I know that this had a great effect on the emotional power of the film because they knew about my coming out. The moments when I interviewed them in prison, in a public place while we are surrounded by guards, have succeeded in being intimate in spite of everything, allowing us to hover over this situation and dive into some intimate space because they trusted me.”
“People are asking me if such a sentence could have happened today, and I must say, perhaps not with the same panic about the Devil’s cult, but it’s a case based on moral panic and sexual panic, and the panic about gays certainly did not go away. But in the United States, too, it could have happened – see the transphobia we face in North Carolina, for example, and in Texas – the controversy over the use of trance in public services, so I have no doubt that such an event could have happened Even today, the trial was somewhat different, because the case of these women was examined from a very sexual perspective – it was a sip”
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