Living With Freedom | Cassandra Rivera's wrongful incarceration stole 13 years of her children's love from her and now she's slowly winning it back
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.
Back in the '90s, four Hispanic lesbian women were accused of the gang-rape of two little girls in a ritualistic manner. The accusations were catastrophic by themselves but in conservative San Antonio, which was already engulfed in hysteria about satanic rituals and witchcraft, these four became the poster women for just how terrible homosexuality is. In spite of having no evidence, everyone in the system decided to send these women to prison for more than a decade, relying on the victims' account.
A crime had indeed been committed, but not the one mentioned by the victims. The court had, in fact, put the wrong people behind bars.
And then, years later, one of the 'victims' of the assault, Stephanie, came forward saying that she had falsely testified against these four and that she had been coerced by her father Javier Limon to fabricate the story. But by this time, the four - Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez, and Cassandra Rivera — had already had too much taken away from them. Anna served 12 years, Ramirez spent 17 years in prison, Mayhugh and Rivera, both had spent 13 years of their life looking at their loved ones through a glass window.
With all that the four went through in those years, there isn't much room left for gentleness — and yet, there she is — Cassandra Rivera. Doting mother to her two kids Ashley and Michael, an ecstatic grandmother, a wonderful partner, and a paralegal, Rivera is one of those people who refused to be institutionalized. Prison and the justice system had already taken too much from her, she didn't want it to take away anymore - she refused to be lost in the system.
Life in prison for Rivera had been horrifying, uncertain and primal where all she could think about was getting through another day. However, it was when she came out that the hardest part began.
Apart from dealing with her trauma of being incarcerated, she had to re-establish her relationship with her children. Her children were eight and nine when she went in, but now, they were grown-ups whom she barely knew anything about. "It was having to learn to be loved all over again," she recalls, "My son didn't let me hug him at first you know, because he wasn't used to it. It was the same with my daughter." She had, after all, gone away for 13 years. "It was like having to come together all over again," she says.
But a mother's love is never forgotten, she says. "We are closer than close now. We have family dinners as often as possible," she says her voice filled with gratitude. She tells us that Michael is really involved in music and that Ashley is a hairdresser and she's their number one fan. "These are things I learned when I came out," she shares, "I watched them grow up through a glass and it was only whatever I could learn about them in those two hours." Now, it's like she never left.
"I tell them I love them every day, even if they get tired of it. I never want them to forget," she says laughing softly. Rivera's mom, in spite of losing her husband and Rivera's dad in 1995, soon after the accusations started, stayed as her support system, took care of her kids and made sure they knew who their mother really was. "God," she says sighing, "without that wonderful woman, I wouldn't know my kids at all," she says.
Before she went in she wanted to have her own mechanic shop and just work with cars, a passion she picked up from her late father. But after she got out, she had a different outlook on life — she knew she was needed to be elsewhere. She became the campaign manager for attorney Rosie Gonzalez, who went on to become the judge for County Court 13. After she won, Rivera went on to work for civil attorney Denise Martinez and crime attorney Natalie Rodriguez. She was offered a job at the County to work with Gonzalez, but she wanted to help people on the outside. "I hope to work with the Innocence Project like Anna, someday," she shares.
But it wasn't all rosy. Her personal life took a toll. Life in prison changed her so much that she almost lost her then partner now wife Tiffany who was with her through the whole ordeal. "I had a moment where I lashed out on her," she says, gingerly, almost still in disbelief of what had happened, "I hurt her and I hit her and she left me and I was heartbroken."
But it made her realize that she had some more work to do. "When you come home you don't realize how much you've changed - you think there's nothing wrong with you," she says, "but I was so wrong. I had ruined it." Thankfully, Tiffany came back to her while she was getting help.
The nightmare when she was indicted had been unreal and unbelievable. The four friends were exonerated in 2016 with the help of the Innocence Project of Texas, starting all over again in their early 40s.
On the day of the hearing, all she wanted to do was run and hide, she says, "I was so embarrassed. You're just out of prison, you're not presentable at all. I just wanted to stay inside." She was also afraid of being let down. Nothing had ever gone right for them, after all.
She often feels like it was a different person that was on TV that day. When they walked them out, her children were waiting for her and she met her granddaughter for the first time. "I can't even explain it," she says fumbling for words, "It was surreal. I still cry thinking about it."