The San Antonio Four: Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, Elizabeth Ramirez and Anna Vasquez, at the Frameline screening. Photo courtesy of Anna Vasquez.
After spending over a decade in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, Anna Vasquez advocates for prison reform and against wrongful conviction with Innocence Texas.
By Erica Commisso
In San Antonio, Texas, Anna Vasquez and her three friends were accused of a brutal crime. Because they had all come out as lesbians, they were wrongfully convicted for the assault of two young girls. The women are now known as the San Antonio Four, and Anna fought for her innocence for 22 years. With her freedom, she now fights to prove the innocence of other unjustly incarcerated people.
I work with Innocence Texas as the organization’s Outreach and Education Director. I speak to audiences around the world which include; schools, churches, civic groups and many others about wrongful convictions. I am also a huge advocate for criminal justice reform.
What you do, in your own terms? How has your professional life influenced your career path?
My professional life and my now, new, career path has completely changed because of my life altering experience. Fighting for my innocence for 22 years was definitely the turning point. I was completely flabbergasted on how the justice system works or how it doesn’t work! How easy it is to take one’s life. Realizing that there are actually innocent people sitting in prison. I never believed that could actually happen. Before this tragedy, I wanted to be a nurse and now I want to be an investigator for Innocence Texas and, in the next couple of years, I plan to make that a reality.
You’re currently involved with the Texas Innocence Project. What do you do?
I believe, in order for you to understand my greatest achievements, to me, you have to understand where I came from. My fight for innocence started at the age of 19. I had not even begun to have a name for myself. I come from a single mother who raised me the best way that she could and, on top of that, had a job in a hotel that paid their employees next to nothing. I lived in a poverty stricken neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. It was an area where pregnancy and dropout rates were increasingly high. It seemed to be expected or overlooked as if it was normal. My achievements may not be one of greatness to some but to me they are. Some of my achievements are being a first time home owner, being a speaker at some of the most prestigious universities, and being a part with an organization that I truly believe in and work with the most honorable people one could ever meet, Innocence Texas.
What is the achievement of yours that you are most proud of? The biggest hurdle that you have overcome?
The biggest hurdle that I have overcome is spending nearly 13 years behind bars for a crime that never occured and keeping my dignity through it all.
Issue (something going on in the world) that is most important to you right now:
The problem with immigration. We need immigration reform. Frightened children being swept away from their parents is just unacceptable and unimaginable
Currently watching/reading/listening to:
To be honest, I am still listening to music of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. I am told by many that I possess an old soul. I’m not sure what that actually means, but I listen to it because it brings back so many memories of my childhood. It was a difficult childhood and we barely had any money, but those are the memories that I cherish most.
When you’re not working with the Texas Innocence Project, we can find you:
When I’m not working with Innocence Texas, you can find me in the yard. Believe it or not, I enjoy cutting grass and simply being outside surrounded by the trees, deer, goats, and especially my three dogs. And spending time with family and my partner Denise. I have a lot to catch up on.
How was the process of making Southwest of Salem?
The making of Southwest of Salem was exciting and difficult all wrapped in one. It was exciting because I enjoyed working with the director Deborah Esquenazi and the producer Sam Tabet. They made speaking in front of the camera easy. The difficult part was to relive it, talk about it, and have a camera following you around everywhere you went.
Vasquez speaking with Southwest of Salem director Deborah Esquenazi. Photo credit Ana Grillo.
How do you hope to change the criminal justice system?
I hope to put an end to wrongful convictions. It may be an overwhelming task, but one that needs to end. An innocent person should not spend one second in a jail or prison. The only way I know how I can help this is by continuing to educate the general public on wrongful convictions and making them aware that this can happen to anyone.
How is your work making a difference?
I think that my work is making a difference because I can attest to it. I am not an attorney nor a police officer, but I know first hand how it feels to be sent to prison wrongfully. I bring a completely different perspective to the table. I can actually speak to a potential client or their family and tell them “I know what you are going through.” I lived it and I survived it.
What do you hope people can learn from your story of wrongful conviction?
What I hope people learn from my story is to know their rights and that it can happen, it does happen, and that it can happen to them.
Vasquez at the Emmys with Denise Tristan. Photo courtesy of Anna Vasquez.
Who is a Woman of Empowerment in your life (a woman who inspires you, who you look up to):
There are so many women of empowerment that come to mind but the one that really stands out in my time, believe it or not, is Emma Gonzalez. I could not even imagine being a strong voice or one to be reckoned with when I was her age. I am absolutely impressed with her courage and passion for stricter gun laws. It brings me a sense of peace to know that our young adults are out there demanding change in different aspects as it pertains to them.
How are you a Woman of Empowerment?
I believe that I am a Woman of Empowerment because I am speaking about wrongful convictions and telling my story. I am at the Capitol speaking to the lawmakers about why things need to change for the better. I am educating the public on what can happen, and why it needs to stop. I believe I am making a difference and that is what keeps me encouraged to get up every morning and do it again.
My mission is…to help others, empower others, make them believe in themselves and remind them that their voices matter.