South West of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, a documentary directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi, chronicles the journey of four Latinx, Texas lesbians who were wrongly convicted of gang raping two little girls. In 1994, 20-year-old single mother Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayugh were all accused of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s two nieces. The allegations started after the two little girls spent a week with Ramirez and the other three women. Anna and Cassandra or ‘Cassie’ were in a relationship at the time. Cassie as well had two small children of her own. Elizabeth had an infant son, but also dated women. All of the four women were close friends, and all were found guilty.
A part from unpacking a case that took a turn for the worse fueled by false testimonies and inaccurate unjust court decisions, Esquenazi delves deep into a bigger theme here that deals with the engrained homophobia and misogyny these women endured in the conservative city of San Antonio at the time. Not to mention, there was an overwhelming current of reports on the Satanic Panic, a theory that said adults were raping, abusing and killing children in demonic rituals during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In 2001, journalist and author Debbie Nathan wrote the book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, which explores and explains the cultural phenomenon that was reportedly happening with the Satanic Panic. Nathan was also responsible for introducing Esquenazi to the San Antonio Four case. Later, Esquenazi would be compelled to direct this film because she personally, like the four other accused women, is a lesbian. And at the time of the trial, she was still in the closet. In hindsight, not only was she interested in these women’s complex stories, but she also got involved to help herself come to terms with her own sexual identity.
In the film, you’ll see the dichotomy between the women’s lives before and after these accusations happened. Anna came from a seemingly supportive family, while Cassie and Elizabeth did not.
“Try and keep me laughing, ok?” Anna says as the film opens up, showing her dressed in a light colored prison jumpsuit. Visually, Esquenazi excelled at portraying the harsh realities the women experienced—their sentiments of remorse infused with confusion are palpable through the screen, and their smiles captivate you as each of them speak on heartwarming things like when Cassie and Elizabeth first fell in love after meeting at a Little Caesars.
Amid the slew of prison interviews, there are cutting scenes with images of court documents from their trial serving as a back drop that read things like: “I am positive there was no sexual activity going on in the apartment while Stephanie and Vanessa were there. I am talking about sexual activity between me and Anna, I’m really not sure between Kristie and Liz,” Cassie’s testimony in black ink on white paper reads off the screen. “I am positive that nothing happened in front of Stephanie and Vanessa while I was there. I never touched Stephanie or Vanessa. I wouldn’t do anything like that. I’m not sick like that. I have small children of my own and I would never want anything like that to happen to them.”
There are also interludes of low-quality, vintage VHS home videos of the girls just enjoying life circa 2000, before getting locked up. Anna describes the time before going to jail as a trying one, where they just attempted to live as normal as possible.
“I would say I never knew how much strength and endurance I had,” Anna tells VIBE VIVA over the phone. “I can’t say enough about how difficult it was for me. And to try and keep a brave face really, by not letting the charges actually consume my life. I tried to do the best I could in my relationship with Cass. We had two children as well that we had to take care of. “
To the naked eye, these women led very conventional lives before all these accusations happened. It would seem absurd that anyone with kids would do harm to others, especially if they are your own flesh and blood. Javier Limon, which happens to be the two girls’ father and Elizabeth’s brother-in-law at the time, is apparently the man responsible for all of this.
Elizabeth claims back then Limon would try to pursue her, and send her dozens of love letters. Naturally, that being her sister Rosemary’s partner and children’s father she wasn’t going to entertain such advances. And because she rejected his advances, it’s speculated that he fabricated the whole story, and made his two daughters testify against the four women.
While Esquenazi won’t blame Limon for being responsible for the women’s incarceration, she professes how challenging filming him was. “Filming Javier was definitely tricky,” she admits. “Then obviously at that point when I met Javier, I had already met the women and clearly they were innocent. We did about a two-hour interview with him, and I found it very confusing, and very difficult because I was just never sure if what he was saying was true or not. And then he said a couple of things that he said on camera when we transcribed the interview. And then when we went back to look at his police statement—the things that he said camera that he did in his police statement were the opposite.”
Because her case and future are still pending, Anna could not comment on Javier Limon. But others as well have questioned Javier’s motives, and have tried to pluck the honest truth from what appears to be a pile of lies.
An article in The Texas Observer, published in 2014 by Maurice Chammah titled “The Mystery of The San Antonio Four” explores this same conundrum. It paints Limon as someone who is vindictive and uses the law to get back at those who have done him “wrong.” Apparently, he also had issues with his ex-partner Rosemary, and used the kids against her in a custody battle, and then her sister Elizabeth along with the other women.
Rosemary recounted years later that Javier threatened her family. “He knew what was going to hurt me the most,” she told us. “He had already taken my kids, so he couldn’t hurt me there. What was next? My sister,” Chammah writes. “The more I interviewed the estranged couple, ferrying bits of information between them, the clearer the duality became: Javier was either a vindictive, wrathful man or a caring father who was being smeared by Elizabeth’s family.”
#throwbacktuesday via @thisfunktional #rp #FreeTheSA4 – Four #Brave #Latina #Lesbians share their story of #Injustice as they are dubbed the #SanAntonio4 – Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez – for being accused of a disgusting crime, convicted with no real evidence and continue their fight for justice. Their story is told in documentary #SouthwestOfSalem directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi opens in theaters Sept. 16 in NY and Sept. 30 LA. Interview coming soon to Thisfunktional.com.
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Being caught in the middle of such allegations is definitely challenging, but luckily Anna and the four women were released. Anna was the first one to be freed, but it felt rushed with no explanation why she was freed as we saw it on film. Esquenazi explains it seems this way, because she just followed what was really happening during the case in real time with her camera. Eventually, Stephanie Limon, one of the accusers recanted, and said all those accusations were false. Not to mention, there was also The Innocent Project of Texas’ involvement in the case with lawyer Mike Ware. (The Innocence Project, is a non-profit organization based in Texas, made to give low-income innocent prisoners a second chance.)
“At the time it happened the experience for everybody was kind of a shock,” Esquenazi explains. “I got a call from Mike with him saying ‘I just heard that Anna is going to be paroled.’ And it was after the recantation. So in the film it comes exactly in the way we experienced it. Stephanie recants, and then a few months later Anna is released. And when we asked in interviews with The Innocence Project to tell us why the women were released, Mike Ware said ‘I can’t tell you definitively, but I can tell you what may or may not be. It could be that they may have taken these lie detector tests and may submitted those. It could be that Stephanie’s recantation did something.’”
Anna says it might have been the accuracy of the polygraph tests she was subjected to taking. Soon after, she comes out of jail, we see her exercise her voice and speak out against the injustice she was served. The case isn’t over, and their future is still uncertain.
Will they be exonerated, or will they have to go back to prison? They can’t even go 75 miles outside of San Antonio without permission. But one thing is for sure: The San Antonio Four are strong resilient women.
“When we work together and just do the best we can in our simplicity, there is something extraordinary,” notes Esquenazi. “And you can see that when those four women come together. The power that they can wheel as a collective is so much stronger than even the state of Texas.”