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  • Escape-BoundJuana Luz Tobar Ortega's Fugitive Poetics
  • Barbara Sostaita (bio)

photographs by Alex Morelli

juana luz tobar ortega's garden lies just beyond St. Barnabas Episcopal Church's tree-lined gravel driveway, past a weather-worn statue of Jesus and a vacant parking lot where birds rest in large flocks. You have to look to find it. But here, sun-warmed tomatoes twine around a trellis. A wheelbarrow rests next to a raised garden bed, where fuchsia zinnias and rosemary bushes bloom without restraint. This plot of land offers my friend respite from the confines of sanctuary, where she has lived in exile and away from her family since 2017. Patiently, she tends the soil—uprooting and unearthing alternatives to incarcerated life. Juana's fragrant herbs and lush shrubs offer her a sanctuary away from sanctuary, a haven where she can momentarily escape the psychological and emotional violence of the present.

For years, Juana was protected by the Obama administration's "felons, not families" policy, which empowered immigration agents to use discretion when processing long-term residents without criminal records. Yet, during an annual check-in with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) in April 2017, the Guatemalteca received a deportation order along with instructions to evacuate her home in thirty days, a practice that activists refer to as "silent raids." Instead of obeying the government's directive, Juana fled to St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina—participating in a long-standing tradition of seeking refuge in houses of worship.

In anticipation of her arrival, family members and parishioners repurposed a cinder block nursery into a bedroom and installed a shower in one of the church bathrooms, fashioning a home out of wooden pews and stained glass. Juana's granddaughters decorated the concrete walls of her cramped space with posters and drawings that profess their love. One stands out: [End Page 42]

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Juana tends her garden. All photographs at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina, August 2020.

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View from the road.

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a winking watermelon on a square of blue construction paper with the message "usa is a free country." Juana spends her days within sight of her makeshift bedroom accompanied by volunteers who come in six-hour shifts, though the covid-19 pandemic has limited visits to family members. She has trained her body to wake up at 6:00 a.m. because idling in bed often leads to depressive thoughts. Restricted to the grounds of the church, her absence has been felt at graduations, holidays, and even the birth of a grandchild. She has gained weight as a result of her confined lifestyle. The bulky ankle bracelet gripping her right foot is a visceral reminder that sanctuary is not synonymous with safety. Juana is surveilled at all times. Though she is protected from deportation, the state quite literally still has a hold over her.

I befriended Juana in 2019, months before travelling to the Sonora-Arizona borderlands to complete dissertation fieldwork. Interested in the Sanctuary movement that emerged in Tucson in the 1980s, I wondered about the woman living on sacred grounds in my own backyard. I sought out sanctuary because I idealized this tradition as one of resistance and refusal, a practice that could defy the violence of the state. I went searching for a garden that grows despite the Trump administration's strategies to destroy and disappear migrant bodies. I found a church repurposed into a home. I encountered a congregation-turned-conspiracy against a deportation machine. And yet, I also found a woman who is restless and eager to escape. Juana experiences sanctuary as both safety and captivity, both refuge and confinement.

Juana was the first undocumented migrant in North Carolina to enter sanctuary following the election of President Trump. Since then, she has been followed by Minerva Cisneros Garcia, Samuel Oliver Bruno, Jose Chicas, Eliseo Jimenez, Oscar Canales, and Rosa Ortez-Cruz. The latter, who lived at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill for two years before a court of appeals withdrew her deportation order, revealed the quotidian violence...