Out filmmaker Deborah S. Esquenazi on telling the story of wrongfully imprisoned Latina lesbians


AE: All four of the women are Latina. Did you come across anything in their case that was particularly problematic in relation to that fact?

DSE: I actually want to step back because the issue of race I think is, of course, part of it. It is definitely an intersectional thing. It’s race and identity and language and money and economics and privilege and all these things kind of in one. But I think more than race, because San Antonio is an overwhelmingly Latino town, is the issue of religion. In Liz Ramirez’s trial specifically, the jury foreman was a minister. There is a very strong Catholic contingency because this is a very Latino town. There’s also a very Evangelical contingency and a very Baptist one because it’s also an army town. I almost feel like race is collapsed into all the other elements. To me, sexuality is the primary one.

deb and four

AE: This is both an incredibly emotional story as well as one heavy with legalities. You can’t really lose either without taking away from the reality of the situation. But as a filmmaker, how did you go about balancing the two?

DSE: We edited for 18 months, which is actually quite a long time for a film, for a documentary. Standard is six to nine months or something. But one of the things that people have asked is, “Why didn’t you talk to the prosecution? Why didn’t you talk to the DA?” And my answer to that is, one, even though I did try–I did try for research. I did try to talk to them and nobody wanted to talk. I don’t blame them. A lot of them are judges now and for conflict of interest they just didn’t want to talk about the case because it is back in court. But the reality is I always wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the four women because they were the ones who were the most disempowered. The DA already got their chance. The DA is the one who brought forth the allegations. They’re the ones who pursued this. So to me it was always going to be the point of view of four railroaded young women who were just living their lives. And I feel like because they are so profound, these women, and because they’re so extraordinary, I knew that they could carry the film.


AE: Let’s talk about the recantation. I don’t know if “leaked” is the right word, but you leaked Stephanie’s video confession to the press. Was there ever a moment’s hesitation in doing that?

DSE: Definitely hesitation. I’m not sure if leaked is the right word. I feel like that’s something Snowden does. I toiled a lot. I toiled a lot between being the filmmaker and being the woman who loved these women and felt morally implicated and now like having something that could help create a buzz about their case again. Totally I toiled. And then when I made the decision, I made it. I called up one of the local press people, television station, and I gave them the audio. I allowed several journalists to come into my editing room and to actually take the transcript and transcribe the recantation.

One of the things that ultimately was the driving factor for me is I didn’t know if I would have the money to finish the film. And so I was really nervous that I had this thing that could maybe help a little bit and what would I do–“How could I live with myself if I can’t finish the film, or if it takes me five extra years to finish the film?”


AE: I think some people would be surprised by some of the individuals who actually did agree to be interviewed. What was the process like to get the girls’ father, Javier, and grandmother, Serafina, to agree to interviews?

DSE: Yeah, that was very startling for me too. I think they in their hearts, whatever they believe, they believe. And I know I’m being vague, but I mean like I don’t know what Javier thinks. Even after two hours of recording him, I still couldn’t understand what he really thinks.


AE: You can maybe make that argument for Serafina, but Javier’s such an important piece of this. And I think your idea on this is pretty clear in terms of whose side of the story you believe, so when it comes to Javier, you can’t really think that, unless he’s gotten to the point where he’s delusional, you can’t really think that he believes that this is what happened when really what’s kind of being put forward is that he’s the ringleader behind this, right?

DSE: I mean, yeah. Like I don’t know what else to say, other than I agree with you. Yes. I agree with you.

Whatever he says on camera, the opposite is true in what we saw in his testimony. That should be enough to present the possibility that he is a much more cunning individual. Whether or not he is truly, truly cunning, I don’t know. I think other people in the film say that he is cunning. Do I think that? Well, it’s certainly very curious that the testimony he gave for two hours to my cameras and the testimony he gave to detectives in ’93 are certainly different.


AE: His decision to agree to be on camera, do you think there’s some narcissism involved there?

DSE: Yeah. Oh god. Oh my god, right? I mean, of course. And I totally think it’s like the way he looks on camera, right? Like the way he’s talking to the camera. All of it is so interesting to me. But I’m looking at it as a filmmaker.

We can look at all the pieces and put them together. It is clear that one of the driving forces was Javier, and the other one is the false testimony by a medical examiner, right? So it’s all very curious to me and I do think the way he acts on camera is with a sense of machista.


AE: The one thing we can say about Serafina is she seemed less set on saying everything she said in the past was 100 percent true. She seemed to be more open to considering other possibilities. And part of her coming across as more of a sympathetic character might be the fact that now she’s an elderly woman. How did you perceive her?

DSE: I think you’re spot on. First of all, I do think you are reading those individuals kind of exactly the way I was reading them, and the way that we read them in the cutting room as we then re-watched the footage.

Serafina–we sat there. We were at a Denny’s, actually. And the woman who was interrogating her is a fabulous woman named Mary Burdette, who’s now deceased. She actually died a few months ago and I was so, so upset about that because we were very close when we started to work together reinvestigating this case. You know, I really allowed Mary to drive that inquiry with Serafina and I just stood back, until I couldn’t stand back anymore and I did lose my patience with Serafina, which is not on camera. I did ask her straight up, I said, “Are you lying? You have to be lying, and how dare you do this to four women.”

She really was kind of appalled that I had this opinion. And I think the reason is precisely the thing that you were echoing to me, which is I think she thinks that something really did happen, whereas I don’t know that Javier really believes that. Let’s just say that your assessment of it is very, very much similar to mine. And I do regret losing my patience with Serafina, but if I hadn’t done that, I would never really know. Like I would never really know whether or not she was the actual ringleader because the way that Javier presented it over and over on camera in his recorded conversation is, “My mother, my mother, my mother.” And then I met the mother. And my perception of the mother is not what he had presented. I don’t think she’s quite as implicating in all of this. Now she did, she did testify against the women and her testimony was incredibly–like it was part of the reason why the women were indicted. So on the one hand, it’s disturbing. Then on the other, I am more sympathetic.

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