Dinner in Sanctuary

For a North Carolina woman, cooking offers connection—and escape.

By Tina Vasquez

For more than a thousand days and a thousand nights, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega has lived in what she calls “the golden cage.”

The cage is both a physical place and an uncomfortable in-between status. An undocumented Guatemalan immigrant at risk for deportation, Ortega took up sanctuary in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, to avoid being forced to leave the United States. Even as the country’s well-oiled deportation machine, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has drastically ramped up deportations across the nation, the agency observes its 2011 “sensitive locations” memo, which outlines churches, hospitals, and schools as places immigration enforcement should not take place.

Ortega knows what it’s like to be technically safe but stuck inside indefinitely. A short walk around the block or a quick grocery-store run isn’t an option; ICE could pick her up the moment she stepped off the property and deport her to Guatemala, where she fears for her life.

But at least her gilded cage has a kitchen.

While Ortega is able to spend time with her family, she spends much of her time alone in the church that has been her home for more than three years. Photos by Lauren V. Allen

For Ortega, a mother of four in a mixed-status marriage, cooking has been her saving grace and source of income. Ortega’s husband and their two youngest children are U.S. citizens, and the couple’s two oldest daughters are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Obama-era program gives undocumented people who came to the United States as children the
abilities to legally work and obtain a driver’s license if they meet certain requirements. Broadly, DACA offers protection against deportation, but it is currently being challenged by the Trump administration.

A short walk around the block or a quick grocery-store run isn’t an option; ICE could pick her up the moment she stepped off the property and deport her to Guatemala, where she fears for her life.

Until recently, Ortega lived in the church by herself, her bedroom a former vesting room and storage area. While Ortega’s family can visit any time, they have school and jobs. Ortega’s husband, Carlos, works long hours in maintenance, but he comes to dinner on some weeknights and stays with her each weekend.

Those meals at the church have allowed Ortega and her family to have a semblance of normalcy now, in the latest chapter in a lifetime of separations. Ortega fled Guatemala in the early 1990s after receiving politically motivated death threats, leaving behind her two eldest daughters. She applied for asylum in 1998 and was denied, as was her appeal. She returned to Guatemala in the late 1990s to care for her ailing daughter, using a fraudulent visa to return to North Carolina in 1999. Here, Ortega built a life for herself. She married Carlos in 2006, had two more children, and worked as a seamstress for a furniture company in High Point. In 2011, ICE targeted Ortega for enforcement at her workplace. She was detained, but eventually released. Years passed without incident, but then President Trump took office. In 2017, ICE gave her just thirty days to leave the country.

“When my family is here with me and I can cook for them, it’s like the day flies by.… I don’t feel sad anymore because I’m with them and we are doing the same type of things we used to,” Ortega said with the help of an interpreter. “When I’m cooking for them, my mind is where I am. It’s like a good distraction.”

Family time is pupusa making time.

Many immigrants report that cooking in sanctuary calms them and serves as an antidote to the what-if questions that plague them. It’s not just a mindless way to occupy their hands or pass the time—it is a tangible connection to their preconfinement lives. They can control this one, small thing during a massive upheaval that can last years.

Ortega’s oldest daughter, Lesvi Molina, said her mother’s skill in the kitchen has always been a pivotal part of their family.

“Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Christmas—Mom was cooking. People at church, family members, they all look forward to her cooking. … She feels a lot better if she’s cooking,” Molina said.

“When my family is here with me and I can cook for them, it’s like the day flies by.… I don’t feel sad anymore because I’m with them and we are doing the same type of things we used to.”

As the eldest child, Molina was raised by her grandparents on their farm in Guatemala while Ortega lived and worked in the United States. It wasn’t until Molina was almost ten years old that Ortega was able to send for her. It felt like living with a stranger at first, Molina said.

“When I got here, I already knew how to cook. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I learned from helping my grandma,” Molina said. “What broke the ice for my mom and me was making tamales together. I was taught by my grandma one way, and my mom taught me another way. It was that time in the kitchen together that made me feel like we were getting to know each other.”

Molina essentially became her mother’s sous chef. Many nights, Molina prepped so that when her mom got home from work, dinner was easy to assemble. This symbiosis continues in sanctuary. Before COVID-19 and before she gave birth to her own child, Molina went to St. Barnabas three or four times a week to cook and eat with her mother. They focused on family favorites, like pupusas.

“I don’t think my mom has ever understood the effect her cooking has on us. I know it makes her feel good, but eating with her in sanctuary has made us feel good too, like we’re all a family again,” Molina said.

Daughter Lesvi Molina has long acted as her mother’s sous chef and continues to do so in sanctuary.

Ortega’s two youngest children came to live with her at St. Barnabas in March 2020, when classes were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. One graduated high school this year, and the other is attending college.

They’re settling into a regular routine and, like the rest of us now confined to our homes, it largely revolves around food. Breakfast is often quintessentially Guatemalan, consisting of fried plantains, scrambled eggs, beans, and tortillas. Sometimes it’s pancakes, ham and eggs, and cheese omelets. Dinner is frequently a variation of her favorite fail-safe meal: roasted chicken, a simple salad, and rice.

Pulling together those meals has gotten harder lately. Food preparation can be tricky in sanctuary; so much depends on the congregation, the church, and what’s available on the grounds. Sanctuary seekers enter protection usually after negotiations between immigration advocates and a church, and they don’t have a preexisting relationship with the congregation. Most don’t meet church leadership until immediately before they move in. The congregation gets a say on whether the church offers sanctuary, mostly because people in sanctuary will rely heavily on church volunteers to help provide security, food, child care, and other crucial services.

“I don’t think my mom has ever understood the effect her cooking has on us. I know it makes her feel good, but eating with her in sanctuary has made us feel good too, like we’re all a family again,” Molina said.

To provide sanctuary, churches usually have to have living space or room that can be converted into a temporary residence. If there is no kitchen, volunteers from the congregation may provide every meal to the person in sanctuary. Sometimes those in sanctuary cook their own meals, but rely on the church to help provide ingredients. In other cases, it’s entirely on the person’s family to sort out how to feed them three times a day.

Volunteers and St. Barnabas leaders made grocery trips and provided Ortega with staples—eggs, rice, bread, beans, masa. But then the pandemic hit.

“The coronavirus has affected the food and resources we usually have. People can’t go to church, or they are afraid to go to church. The volunteers are afraid. They don’t want to come here,” Ortega said. “The pastor and copastor have really been helping us, and anything else I need, my kids can get me when they’re not studying or when they get out of work.”

The pandemic has also sliced into Ortega’s already meager income. Undocumented immigrants often turn to their cooking skills to make ends meet—whether it’s working in kitchens, renting a food stall, or street vending. To different degrees, families in sanctuary use their culinary skills to stay afloat financially. Clive and Oneita Thompson, a Jamaican family in sanctuary in a Philadelphia church, spend a few days cooking each month—making pumpkin soup, curry goat and chicken, Jamaican bread pudding, and about half a dozen other dishes—in anticipation of their monthly fundraising dinners. At $15 a plate, those dinners pay their mortgage and other bills, as they work to hang on to the home they’ve built in the United States.

Until the COVID-19 crisis, Ortega sold pupusas, tamales, and stewed pork over rice to members of St. Barnabas.

“These are just the things I’ve always cooked and eaten,” Ortega said. “No one taught me how to cook. I don’t remember ever learning. Where I come from, we were just raised to do it. Learning to cook is part of being responsible, especially for me because I came from a big family. There were seven children and as the middle child, I always had to help our mom.”

But this income stream has come to a grinding halt, and Ortega is unsure how she will make up this gap or how long she’ll continue to be in sanctuary. Ortega is the first person in North Carolina history to have publicly entered sanctuary. For a time, North Carolina had more people in sanctuary than any other state, hitting six at its peak. But some of those people have since left the protection of sanctuary, including Minerva Garcia, a mother of three who was in sanctuary five miles from Ortega.

Even with her children now keeping her company, Ortega still looks forward to each weekend when her husband stays at St. Barnabas. When her family is together and Ortega is making her roasted chicken, it’s almost as if there is no order of removal, no ICE, no threat of deportation. She knows it’s not real, but it’s nice to pretend.

 Even when Americans can leave their homes again without fear of coronavirus, Ortega will not be able to safely leave the church.

No doubt, the feeling resonates with many U.S. residents. At the time of this writing, all fifty states were under disaster declarations for the first time in U.S. history. Like Ortega, we are roasting chickens and trying to pretend that everything is okay. Or at least that it will be soon. But even when Americans can leave their homes again without fear of coronavirus, Ortega will not be able to safely leave the church. Experts the world over are trying to stop the pandemic. Meanwhile, the broken immigration system grinds on, with little meaningful governmental action from either political party.

Ortega is sad and frustrated for herself, and she empathizes with everyone who struggled under shelter-in-place orders.

“It’s very difficult to be trapped inside. I hope that maybe this will help people who were against sanctuary understand a little bit of what we go through. We do it because of love; I do it because I love my husband and my family, and I don’t want to leave them,” Ortega said.

In the meantime, she cherishes coronavirus confinement with family and daydreams about where she will eat when she departs her gilded cage.

“Every Friday night, my husband and I would go to America’s Roadhouse in Asheboro, North Carolina. That is the first restaurant I want to eat at,” Ortega said with a laugh. “I want the fried shrimp and french fries.”

Tina Vasquez lives in North Carolina and reports on immigration and gender issues for Prism and other publications.

Photos by Lauren V. Allen

SIGN UP FOR THE DIGEST TO RECEIVE GRAVY IN YOUR INBOX.