San Francisco Chronicle
When the verdict falls short of justice
Rodrigo Reyes has long had an interest in social justice. The grandson of migrant farmworkers, he grew up in both Mexico City and Merced.
In 2012, while serving as a court interpreter in Merced County, he met Sansón Noe Andrade, a 19-year-old Mexican immigrant facing a murder trial. Andrade was the driver when his brother-in-law shot and killed a person in what was deemed a gang slaying. Andrade said he was innocent, that he’d been asked for a ride by his brother-in-law and did not know his brother-in-law’s intent. He declined a plea deal that would have limited his sentence to 15 years in prison and went to trial. He lost and was sentenced to life without parole.
“He was my first murder case,” Reyes said. “So the emotions and the intensity and the pressure were so high on my end. Of course, for him, it was devastating. All I could see was like, ‘Man, this is just a regular kid. He was just driving this car. How can life in prison without parole be an adequate sentence?’ It just felt so wrong.”
Andrade, now in his early 30s, is incarcerated at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi (Kern County). Reyes, a filmmaker who explored issues at the U.S.-Mexico border in “Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border” (2013) and the brutal legacy of colonialism in contemporary Mexico in “499” (2020), decided to make a film about him, despite the fact that he could not film the inmate because of prison rules.
His solution: cast stand-ins for Andrade and his family, mostly with members of Andrade’s family in Tecomán, Mexico (much of the film describes his childhood and upbringing). His sister, Débora Andrade Maraveles, plays his mother, and his uncle, Ramón Gómez Mejía, plays Andrade’s alcoholic father, a fisherman
who died when Andrade was young.
“Sansón and Me,” which premiered at Tribeca in June and was featured at SFFilm’s Doc Stories in November, is powerful and poetic. It opens Friday, March 17, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and will be broadcast nationally on PBS’s “Independent Lens” in September.
Reyes, who moved to the Bay Area six years ago, spoke via video chat from his home in Richmond.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How’s Sansón doing?
A: I went to see him three weeks ago, and it was snowing up there. He’s doing OK. He is getting more services, and he’s very excited about all this. He likes the fact that we’re talking about him — it’s been very energizing for him. (The film) makes him feel like there’s a layer of resistance there for his story where he’s not being controlled by the system.
Q: In the film you speak of the boundaries you have to observe as a court interpreter. Can you describe that?
A: I’m just an instrument of the court. I’m there to relay information. I can’t turn around and say, “Hey, how do you feel about that?” Or: “Maybe you shouldn’t say this.” I have to be neutral. That’s important for the court. But for me as a human being, you’re left wondering, “Who is this kid? What happened to him?”
I felt compelled to reach out to (Sansón), and he also wanted to be in touch with me. Now, I would never be allowed to interpret for him again in a legal proceeding because I’m completely biased. I’m his friend now.
Q: The film obviously brings up many issues pertaining to the justice system. What do you think needs to change?
A: I think in America we have a hard time really thinking about justice. We often confuse punishment with justice. You’ve got these mandatory minimums. Justice would mean to really look at what happens to people in their lives. Some suffered a lot of trauma and that trauma should have given perspective to this case.
Q: Why didn’t Sansón take his plea deal?
A: When you’re a 19year-old kid and you’re faced with the biggest decision in your life and you haven’t had a chance to really have a stable life, to be educated, to learn, you make some dumb decisions, right? I don’t think he really understood the implications of going to trial and that he needed to really look after himself.
I think most folks who watch the film will say, “Well, you know, is that fair?” Is that really fair to just let a kid sink himself like that? I hope people don’t walk away thinking the film is just an activist film. It’s not about getting him out of prison and proving that it was wrong. It’s about deeper thinking about justice and fairness.
Q: What would be a key to beginning the process of change?
A: I think the answers have to be homegrown. We have to look at our community and ask what we are doing to take care of our kids, and not wait until they land in a courtroom.
The courtroom is just the place for cleaning things up. It’s not a place to fix a problem. I don’t have the answers. But I think part of it is it does start from listening to kids like Sansón, who are doing these crazy-long sentences and they didn’t get a break.
Q: He still has no chance for parole?
A: Not as the sentence stands, but I think there’s a push in California to try to revise that, not just for him, but for others. He’s always looking at ways to try to reopen his case. I think he’s got a shot just on basic logic. You can’t sentence a kid to life in prison for driving when that’s the same sentence that a mass shooter gets, you know? In the film, he clearly shows he has value to give to society. So I’m hopeful.