“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” is a documentary that opened today at the Cinema Village in NY on the outrageous conviction of four lesbians in San Antonio–three of whom were Mexican-American–for sexually assaulting one of the women’s two young nieces. It might seem to have little in common with “Snowden”, but they overlap on one very important issue, namely the power of film to raise awareness over the rights of the accused whether they are obscure working-class figures accused of sex crimes or a whistle-blower known across the planet either as a hero or a traitor.
“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” mostly consists of interviews with the four women and their relatives as well as the lawyers who got involved with their defense. Among them is an old friend and comrade named Jeff Blackburn who was best known for his yeoman work in defending the 39 African-Americans in Tulia, Texas that were victims of a drug sting. At one point Blackburn states that trials such as these are not decided in the courtroom but in the world at large when a mobilization to change the public’s mind is mounted. That has been the case with the San Antonio Four, the Black men who were victimized in Tulia and before that all of the major political trials of the past 100 years when dedicated lawyers like Jeff, William Kunstler and Michael Ratner proved their mettle.
In the early 1970s the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group I belonged to at the time, conducted an infelicitously named “probe” of the gay liberation movement to help it decide whether to “intervene”, another infelicitous term considering that it means the same thing as interfere. At the 1973 convention it decided to terminate the probe since it had gathered enough information to help it decide that the movement was more middle-class than the woman’s movement or the Black struggle, for example. Reflecting back on those times, I am sure that the SWP leadership thought that the gay movement was made up largely of well-off window dressers for Bloomingdales or florists. It simply lacked the political insight to understand that there were women like the San Antonio four that had more class credibility than anybody in the party.
They lived in west San Antonio, a barrio made up of people like Anna Vasquez, one of the four lesbians. She had figured out in her early teens that she was attracted to women and was reconciled to put up with homophobic abuse as the consequence of being true to her own identity. She was accepted to college but dropped out in her freshman year because of money problems. At that point she took a job working in a fast food restaurant with the hope of returning to college when she had the funds. In other words, she was the average working class youth with the exception of being attracted to her own sex.
Anna was in a relationship with a woman named Liz Ramirez, who was the aunt of the two young girls whose testimony led to their victimization. The two ran with Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh both for moral support and the type of fun that working class people enjoy together–dancing, going to the beach, playing pool, etc.. Ramirez’s sister was separated from her husband who had decided to put the make on her despite her obvious preference for her own sex. The animosity that arose out of her rejection could have possibly influenced him into coaching his daughters to lie. One afternoon when the four women were hanging out at Liz’s house in the company of the two young girls, their world came crashing down. Instead of being called witches and put to death like in Salem, the false accusations of the children condemned them to years in prison.
The story they gave to the cops was filled with the wild inconsistencies that was typical of the period when Satanic cult panics were a stain across America. During the Reagan era, day care centers became witch covens where 6 year olds were supposedly serially raped by their caretakers and often “helped” to remember what happened by psychotherapists who could extract “repressed memories”.
Debby Nathan, one of the USA’s leading authorities on the neo-Salem witch-hunts of the 70s and 80s provides insightful background on why the four women were so easily convicted. San Antonio was not that much different than the rest of Texas, a place where sexism, racism, and homophobia were nurtured by the church, government and other powerful institutions.
Based on the word of the two children and a complete lack of physical evidence except a questionable medical examination of their vaginas, Liz Ramirez was sentenced to 37 ½ years and the other women received 15 years each.
Director Deborah S. Esquenazi described how she combined filmmaking and activism:
I collaborated with LGBTQQ activists to engage in a community-driven campaign to make noise about the women. Along with the Texas QPOC organization, ALLGO, and various national / local non-profits and student groups, we held 17 work-in-progress screenings across the state in a two-year span. We showed raw, unedited interviews with the women from their prisons as well shared interviews with attorneys, journalists and investigators, who were first-responders into the reinvestigation into this case.
I have long believed that Lenin’s concept of the vanguard needs to be adapted to 20th and now 21st century realities. In my view documentary film makers like Deborah S. Esquenazi are part of an informal vanguard that use a video camera in the same way that the Bolsheviks used Iskra. Causes such as the vindication of the San Antonio Four remind me of the attitude that Lenin had toward constructing a vanguard in “What is to be Done?”:
Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.