Southwest of Salem Documentary Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Premiered Investigation Discovery
Directed by Deborah Esquenazi
2016, 91 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on September 16th, 2016
Elizabeth Ramirez as Herself
Cassandra Rivera as Herself
Kristie Mayhugh as Herself
Anna Vasquez as Herself
I had never heard of the so-called “San Antonio Four” before watching the documentary Southwest of Salem. In case you haven’t either, here’s the short version: they’re four lesbians from San Antonio who were accused and convicted of gang-raping two young girls. All four pleaded not guilty, but all were convicted and spent a dozen years behind bars.
As the film has it, the women—Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez—were a close-knit group, doing their best to get by as out lesbians in a time and place in which homosexuality was hated and feared. They often spent time at Ramirez’s apartment. On one occasion Ramirez was asked to take care of her two young nieces for a few days. According to the four women, the days they spent together passed uneventfully, and the little girls went home after with no hint of there having been a problem. The four women were therefore blindsided by the sudden accusations that they had abused the two girls. Several years passed before the case finally went to trial and resulted in convictions for all four women, largely on the basis of the two girls’ testimony and a medical examiner who claimed that damage to the girls’ hymens was consistent with rape. Ramirez received 37.5 years; the others got 15 each.
In 2012, with all four women still in prison, one of Ramirez’s nieces recanted, claiming she had been forced to lie by her family. That year Vasquez was released on parole. The following year, the medical examiner recanted her testimony in light of new medical science. As a result, the other three women were also released, though the district court judge wouldn’t overturn the original conviction, and now the case is awaiting a decision in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Southwest of Salem is a fascinating film, and it makes a strong case for the women’s innocence. Much of its running time consists of interviews with the women, and these segments are emotionally powerful. At one point, Vasquez says to the off-camera interviewer, “According to the people in court, ‘This is what gay people do.’ That’s what they said. ‘This is what gay people do.’ No. No it’s not.” There is no narration: every person is allowed to speak for themselves, though of course the filmmakers assert their perspective in myriad subtle ways, from editing techniques to the choice of interview subjects. Judging from the film, San Antonio in the 1990s was a terrible place to be gay. It’s impossible to watch the film without feeling sickened by what happened to these women.
The film goes so far as to suggest that Javier Limon, the father of the two girls at the center of the case, compelled his daughters to lie in order to punish Ramirez for her lifestyle and for rejecting his advances. We learn of a series of love letters Limon allegedly wrote to Ramirez (which he denies). Limon’s own daughter, who recanted her testimony against the women, claims on camera that she is afraid of him, and suggests that her sister will never speak out for the same reason. The film presents other evidence that casts doubt on Limon’s role, including catching him in an apparent lie regarding what his daughters told him happened at Ramirez’s apartment. (He claims on camera that he didn’t question them about what occurred, but his original police statement, which we are shown, says otherwise.) This is all compelling, but there is still something unsettling about using a documentary film to level such a terrible accusation against a person. The audience has no choice but to accept what is presented on screen, and with that power comes, of course, tremendous responsibility. Given the mistakes and biases that led to the unjust imprisonment of four women for a crime they clearly did not commit, it seems better to err on the side of safety now, even in light of the new evidence.
Undoubtedly, homophobia and hysteria were factors in the trial of the San Antonio Four, and Southwest of Salem rightly labels the affair a witch hunt, taking to task the entire legal system that would allow such prejudice to influence due process. Hopefully the release of the women won’t be the end of it, and the same system that condemned them will acknowledge the mistakes and ignorance that led to their conviction and set the record straight.