By Anhelo Escalante
I am embarrassed to admit that, before the film Southwest of Salem was released, I had never heard of the San Antonio Four. It’s never too late to catch up, I thought after I saw it was playing at my local cinema. So I texted my friend Andy and immediately set up our next movie date. After all, as a queer Latinx of adult age, keeping myself informed about the experiences of other members of my own community simply seemed like the responsible thing to do. Moreover, to show support for the women in the story and the women behind the film, it’s exactly what sorority calls for.
To be perfectly honest, I had to stop myself from weeping every ten minutes and throughout the whole movie. It was simply impossible not to feel anger at the false conviction in spite of questionable evidence, sympathy for these women’s trials, and relief knowing that they were on their way to exoneration all at the same time. The early raw footage that the Director included in the documentary depicting the love story between Anna Vazquez and Cassie Rivera brought me back to the 90s, when, not longer after video cameras had become accessible on the consumer market, everyone became obsessed with making videos instead of taking photos. My heart felt very heavy when learning about the unjust accusations of sexual assault, and there were definitely more than a couple of reasons Southwest of Salem hit close to home for me.
I lived in Austin, Texas for about six years before moving to New York just a few months ago. As is to be expected, I often find myself in a state of homesickness. My heart swells every time the opportunity to feel closer to the Mexico-US border is presented to me in the form of history, art, or food. I miss my family in San Antonio, the people who became my chosen from the Fort Worth area, and some of my best friends who grew up in Del Rio. I can’t count the number of talented artists, poetas, and remarkable activists with whom I have shared tamales. But Texas is also a very unfriendly place for anyone who’s not a cisgender white man of heterosexual interests (with a gun fetish). Never feeling entirely safe there surely influenced my decision to leave.
Born in the 1980s and raised in northeast Mexico, I recall my upbringing as one infected by a constant religious paranoia that seemed to cloud the minds of every adult around me. Honestly, the teenaged me simply assumed that the witch-hunt approach of that time was a permanent trait in humanity – a flaw in our species – for I found the faith of my family to be fanatic in the old books and bigoted in practice. Back then, I wasn’t old enough to understand that what was known as the Satanic Panic was simply another form of old biases that ultra-conservative folks dig up and repurpose every time they feel the status quo of their delusion is under threat. I was too young to discern how treacherous, lazy, and infectious this trend was. To some of us, the Catholic teens of the 90s, the followers of the MTV cult, being perceived as ungodly and detached was simply our daily bread. If I was lucky, most adults thought I was simply a fashion curiosity of the end of the millennium – nothing that a couple of hours of therapy, or tough love if it was cheaper, could cure. However, if your identity was coated with the extra layer of being brown and, goddess forbid, being queer, you were on your own in the land of suspicion. I experienced all kinds of harassment growing up; from being called satanic for wearing black lipstick to being physically intimidated for what I chose as my gender expression and more. I was teased in the classroom and in the streets as much as I was at home. Even today, as a mature woman in my thirties, I live with the fear of running into a hypothetical person who hates me for whom I love, and for refusing to assimilate to what heteronormative society has in store for me. Heck, even my mother thinks I shouldn’t have the right to form a family if I choose a woman for a partner. So I take emotional shelter in the company of other outsiders like me and cherish the unity from the depths of my existence.
For some of us, it’s easier to find true love in the strangers we’ve chosen to share our lives with than with the members of our immediate and extended families. Perhaps because of this, seeing a group of four friends stick together, and fight for each other’s freedom, as Southwest of Salem documented, made a big impression on me. How terrifying it is to know that someone can so easily set us up for a crime? That our love lifestyle could be regarded as perverse enough to be found guilty of the most heinous crimes. To have our neighbors simply believe the whole thing. Most people can’t even imagine. Southwest of Salem could have been about me. Ultimately, Cassie, Anna, Kris, and Liz are much like my friends. I can’t fathom the idea of spending my youth living a nightmare created out of falsities, and having my loved ones endure that much sorrow. However, I find solace in knowing that sisterhood and love kept them together before being imprisoned, and alive and hopeful until they were exonerated. We are fortunate that people like Deborah Esquenazi and Cassie, Anna, Kris, and Liz are courageous enough to tell their story and bring us together to discuss it, especially because of how invisible our lives and pain can be to the general audience. The story of the San Antonio Four itself and the work of those who brought it to the screen are both proof that community matters and that there are Texans who will turn a horrific nightmare into hope amidst hate.
The Humanities Institute, in partnership with the Austin Public Library, will be screening the award-winning Southwest of Salem on February 2, 2016 at 7pm at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. Director Deborah Esquenazi will be present for a brief discussion and Q&A following the film. This event is free and open to the public.
Anhelo Escalante is a queer musician, writer, and zinester raised in Monterrey, Mexico, and currently living in NYC. She’s a published writer in the Spanish language by Samsara Editorial in Mexico City, a contributing music writer / reviewer for Bitch Media, and was recently included in the first volume of Aural Literature by the Austin Public Library in Texas.