Film

Did the Satanic Panic of the ’90s Send Four San Antonio Women to Prison?

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Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four compellingly tells a maddening true story that touches on many of America’s most enduring hypocrisies.

In the 1990s, four young Latina lesbians — Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh — were convicted of raping Ramirez’s two young nieces. An awful crime, but also one the women insist they didn’t commit.

The territory here is prickly — when a child comes forward with a serious allegation it’s instinctual to believe them — but the film, painstakingly reported, presents one piece of evidence after another that suggests the four women’s innocence, including the girls’ on-camera recantation of the original claims, and the doctor’s later acknowledgement that key physical evidence of abuse actually was a form of “junk science.”

These are marginalized women — gay, working-class, Latina — and the accusations came during the national panic over so-called Satanic ritual abuse. Director Deborah S. Esquenazi offers an overview of this epidemic, but she avoids sensationalism in favor of intimacy.

Rather than relying on the dramatic voice-overs and ominous re-enactments of so many true-crime docs, she lets the women tell their stories and further humanizes them through the use of home video footage. The perfect storm of homophobia, racism, and moral panic that sent the San Antonio four to prison is almost too much to cover in a ninety-minute documentary, but Esquenazi paints a tragic and humane portrait of the women who ended up in its center.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

Directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi

Motto Pictures

Opens September 16, Cinema Village

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