Full Disclosure: Indya Finch is a Fellow with the CHSS Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
The Emmy nominated film “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four,” was screened on Sep. 21 as part of Hispanic Heritage month. The National Organization of Hispanics in Criminal Justice cohosted the event and many in attendance were Criminal Justice students.
The director, Deborah Esquenazi has been traveling with the film, and while the women who were the subjects of the documentary were not there, Esquenazi answered questions after the film.
Amanda Venta, Psychology professor, opened the event by introducing the film and the director, who did not watch the film but joined at the end for the Q&A. The documentary focuses on the case of four San Antonio area lesbian women, Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera (called Cassie in the film), Kristie Mayhugh and Elizabeth Ramirez (called Liz in the film).
The quartet were accused of gang-raping two nieces of Ramirez, Vanessa and Stephanie, in the late 1990’s.
The film follows their trial and conviction and gives interviews that were conducted in their respective prisons. The film delves into the details of the case and background information about the “Satanic Panic,” that had infiltrated the society and made people think that homosexuals and day care services were using children as sacrifices and molesting them.
There is a lack of evidence that the women committed this crime, but there is clear evidence of homophobia in how the police weaponized the women’s sexual orientation as the motive for such a crime.
The women refused plea deals and went to trial, which resulted in guilty verdicts and lengthy sentences.
The film is an important factor when considering the eventual exoneration of the women after spending many years in prison, and the struggle of proving one’s innocence after they have already been tried by a jury of their peers; and importantly after being judged by the media and the general public.
Looking around the room during the film’s more emotional moments, many students were crying. The film packs information, emotion, and delicacy into a documentary that took seven years to make.
“I want the audience to get whatever they need to get from the film,” Esquenazi replied.
Her main goal was to exonerate the women involved, and that happened. As far as opinions or ideas, it should be up to the audience.
“I think it’s about criticizing power and where it comes from. In any of its form. Whether that’s in the criminal justice system or the power within a household,” Esquenazi said when asked about the criminal justice angle of the documentary.
The film was heartfelt, and any of those who watch it can feel the vulnerability, the strength, and the struggles of those women who maintained and fought for their innocence.
“There was no objectivity. At all. Who says I wasn’t crying behind the camera?” Esquenazi said.
This is a must see documentary, and it was an extraordinary event for those who were in attendance. This is just one of many more Hispanic Heritage Events on campus created for students to learn and enjoy.
Posters on campus display the next several events going throughout October.