The Radical Beauty of the Brave: An Interview with Southwest of Salem Director Deborah Esquenazi
Even though acceptance of people who identify as queer is growing, it was not long ago that four queer women of color were wrongfully convicted of molestation and had to fight for justice because of misinformation and ignorance.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera — also known as the San Antonio Four — were accused of sexually assaulting two children in 1994 at the height of the Satanic Panic and based on testimony that amounted to junk science. After spending nearly 15 years in prison, a Texas Court of Appeals exonerated the four women in November 2016, though their records still have not been expunged.
In the midst of their ordeal, Deborah Esquenazi directed the award-winning documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, an intimate and heartbreaking look at the treatment of the women in the criminal justice system at a time when injustices leveled against women and people of color were less talked about.
Though Esquenazi didn’t know about the Change.org petition more than 25,000 people signed calling for the exoneration of the San Antonio Four until later into the process of creating the film, when a friend told her about it, she said, “It was so exciting that it was there…Anywhere where there’s a sense of community through shared experience, especially digitally, is powerful and that’s what’s exciting for me about Change.org. The thing that’s even cooler is to know that you can let something go and other people can make it their own. That’s a dream for an artist. Hearing about the Change.org petition was like a ‘Wow’ moment.”
While tearfully receiving a GLAAD award in May for the documentary (which also won a prestigious Peabody Award), Ramirez recalled being convicted of “a hideous crime that never happened,” and how the film tells the important story of what happens when misogyny and homophobia influence court decisions. “Southwest of Salem,” she said, is a “testament to the power of filmmaking — that shedding light on injustices can create real change.”
I spoke to Deborah Esquenazi about the documentary and why she felt compelled to tell the story of the San Antonio Four.
How did you learn about the San Antonio Four? Was it connected to the petition?
The course of the story started six years before. The campaigning began and it was ongoing. I didn’t know about the Change.org petition until way later. I heard about it through a random friend of mine, who said, “Did you see the petition?” I hadn’t even read it. It was so exciting that it was there. I would hate to make it sound that I used Change.org as a way to work toward exoneration. I don’t know that I would have known to use Change.org.
The people I was trying to reach initially were more like the people here — low income, people of color. We did a lot of campaigning through wherever the women’s friends and families were. The film was really about the work that I was doing. But, I sign petitions and I know Change.org, it’s obviously an amazing resource in terms of a toolbox.
My mentor Debbie Nathan, an investigative reporter and my mentor, wrote a book on the Satanic Panic. She said I should take a look at this case. I think she also sort of understood that she was implicating me. I was coming out and I was having a tough time. She thought it would a valuable thing to write about.
As a story, at the time I was teaching radio documentary. I tried to pitch this story and was rejected. That became interesting and depressing and challenging. She sent me the VHS tape (of Anna and Cassie at the beach), which became the backbone of the film…these beautiful home videos. Anna and Cassie’s relationship and raising kids together was omitted from so much of the story of the San Antonio Four. To stereotype and stigmatize these women you remove any aspect of humanity from them as queer women of color. If I say “Southwest of Salem” is successful it’s because the women’s vulnerability. What makes the film so powerful, it’s their ascension. Their willingness to have me see that.
What was it about you that made you different from others who they may have talked to?
I think it was shared social identity. I was suffering from my own internalized homophobia. They were very clear that they were outed through the case. They had been turned into these witches or whatever was implied at the time. I was in my thirties. It never became a point of conversation. It became the first thing we talked about. They could trust that we understood each other. I probably shared Cassie’s upbringing more — my parents are first generation immigrants.
What would you say the legacy of his film will be?
These gay panics happen all the time in different capacities. We see it today. It’s ridiculous to say and people laugh when I go to talk to audiences. Pizzagate was a moral panic — the idea that Hillary Clinton was engaged in sex trafficking of children. We can’t minimize that horrible things that do happen. But it’s important to be really critical and ask the important questions about truth, especially at this time. The more we see ourselves reflected on screen, the more empowered we are to tell our stories, there’s that too.
What is it that you hope others will take from the film?
I wanted to exonerate the women and I also wanted to make a beautiful piece of work. I feel like watching these women endure, watching their bravery is really radical and beautiful. I feel like their willingness to be so vulnerable can last through time. I think there’s a kind of timeliness about two vulnerable individuals.