Let them forget about me | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
There are places where we could stay forever and others where we would not want to spend a single night.
There are places where we choose to be and others we cannot leave.
If we’re very lucky, our place is also our home. And that’s what we always hope for, right? To feel at home.
But sometimes, the places where we live in are temporary. Non-permanent residences. A stop at a hotel in the middle of a long trip, or the campsite we set up near the river. Well, and there are very dramatic cases … A temporary home after a flood. The cell of a prisoner waiting to get out.
Our story today is about a woman and a place. And about how she, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, was forced to remain there in order to continue being, in some way, at home.
Producers David Seth Miller and Patricia Serrano reported this story.
After the break, Patricia will tell you more.
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[Daniel Alarcón]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Here is Patricia.
[Patricia Serrano]: Well, Juana, this is your . . .
[Juana Tobar]: This is the dining room . . .
[Patricia]: Please tell us a little about your life here . . .
We visited Juana Tobar on a Saturday in early March, 2021, outside Greensboro, North Carolina, a town at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Her house—or rather, where she lives—is an isolated, silent place. Surrounded by cedars, away from the road. There are no neighbors; there is nothing, really. But the door is always locked.
[Juana]: Well . . . It’s boring, but . . . and tiresome, but . . . This is the dining room where we spend most of our time with the family when they come to visit me.
[Patricia]: Which doesn’t always happen, or not as frequently as she would like . . .
[Juana]: We are always together here, eating and talking. Come . . . I’ll show you the bedroom. (steps)
[Patricia]: There is a long and eventful journey behind why Juana is living in this place, and it’s precisely what we’re going to tell you about today. But for now, let’s start with this: Juana is 49 years old, and although she was born in Guatemala, she has lived in the United States for 30 years. That morning her black hair was tied back and she wore a loose-fitting dress. She moved slowly, with a little white dog barking at her feet, while she gave us a tour of the place.
[Juana]: Well, this . . . this little room was a living room. Since I got here, and now, it is my . . . it . . . it . . . it is my room, my living room and my bedroom.
[Patricia]: On the walls, on the dresser, on the bedside table and shelves . . . almost everywhere, there are photos, posters and drawings. There’s a painting of a seascape above the bed headrest because Juana misses the time when she could go on vacation to the beach. And, above all, there are messages of encouragement . . .
[Juana]: My granddaughters painted those things for me and they put them there on the wall so that . . . I remember them when I am alone, they say.
[Patricia]: Can you tell us a little what they say?
[Juana]: Sure, one says, “My grandma.” “I love my grandmother.” “My grandmother has a big heart.” “I love you, my grandma.”
[Patricia]: Juana’s bedroom is like a tribute to her life. In addition to the loving messages from her grandchildren, there are copies of articles that have been written about her story, images of Guatemala with green mountains and clouds passing through. Journalists, photographers, volunteers leave things for her, and her family sorts them out in the few empty spots that remain.
When we visited Juana, she had been in this place for 3 years and 9 months, a place she couldn’t leave.
Her first home was a very different one. Juana grew up in a rural town in the volcanic mountains of Guatemala, near the border with El Salvador, in a hamlet called El Coco.
[Juana]: It was a small house; we just had a living room, a hallway. And a very small kitchen, with a dirt floor; the house was made of adobe. We were poor, but we were happy.
[Patricia]: Juana is the fourth of seven siblings. As a child she loved to spend her time with the animals her parents bred. Her family lived on what they could plant, harvest and sell. She had almost no toys and in general she did not have a lot of things, but that didn’t matter very much—her favorite game was cutting grass every day to feed the rabbits.
But suddenly everything changed when Juana was 10, and her father and mother, like so many others, left to find work in the United States. From the moment her parents emigrated, Juana became the head of the household.
[Juana]: I was the one who cooked for them, I was the one who washed, the one who, well . . . they were like, like my children. I was like a mother to them.
[Patricia]: The seven siblings lived under the care of their grandparents, who gave them money and things their parents sent from the United States. Juana’s life at the time boiled down to just that, working at home and waiting for news from her parents. She missed them more and more every day.
[Juana]: Oh, I dreamed of them coming back. My dream was they would return.
[Patricia]: The dream took five years to come true. Juana was 15 when they finally came back. As a teenager, she was dating Oscar, a neighbor from her village, and they planned to live together. The parents accepted.
[Juana]: And when I got pregnant, I really worried because I was facing . . . poverty. And I said, what am I going to do?
[Patricia]: In June of 1988 Lesvi, her first daughter, was born. Two years later Yeimy would arrive. At that time, Juana lived in her parents’ house with her partner, but despite the fact that it was a very isolated place, in the middle of the mountains, the violence that was taking place in the country was getting closer and closer.
In recent decades, Guatemala had experienced difficult years, between military dictatorships and guerrillas. Caught in the middle, ordinary people—the vast majority of them indigenous, poor and peasant—were the most affected. Village-to-village massacres were common, and people lived at a crossroads of violence.
One morning in 1992, Juana’s mother found a message outside the house.
[Juana]: And she said, here is a letter. It had my name and it said there I had to join them because they knew where I was and if I did not go, they would kill me. They claimed they had all the information about us.
[Patricia]: They were the Guatemalan guerrilla. The letter was typewritten and demanded that Juana join the guerrilla group in retaliation for an uncle and cousin who were part of the Army.
[Juana]: And . . . it mentioned their two names. If they were serving the . . . the Army, well, I had to serve them. So, I told my parents, right? What are we going to do? I am not going to go with them.
[Patricia]: Juana received two more letters with the same threat. She was not willing to join the guerrilla. It wasn’t even an ideological decision; it was one of survival. Murders of the civilian population were common on both sides. She would have to make a decision, the most difficult of her life: leave the country or stay and live under the constant threat of being killed.
[Juana]: I did not want to leave my girls. I remember I used to tell my mother. But my mother told me not to worry about them, that she was going to take care of them. They were young. It hurt because . . . I had already been away from my mother for a while. And we missed her so much. I did not want my girls to go through the same thing that I had already gone through.
[Patricia]: But she felt there was no choice but to leave. Juana spoke with Oscar, her partner, and they agreed that only she would travel to the United States. The girls would stay with him and Juana’s parents. They contacted a coyote who would help her make the trip. He charged her $3,000 dollars. Juana managed to borrow the money, and a few days later she got up at dawn and left while it was still dark.
[Juana]: I left them asleep. I got up and didn’t wake them up so they would not know. When they woke up that morning . . . they no longer found me.
[Patricia]: Juana traveled 8 days from her town in Guatemala to California. She crossed all of Mexico, hiding in different houses and traveling by night, hidden in cars. It was a long and dangerous journey. When she finally arrived, Los Angeles seemed like a nice city but too big, too far from her daughters. She was just 20 years old and didn’t speak a single word of English.
[Juana]: It seemed pretty, but I think that because of the sadness I felt, it did not look so pretty to me.
[Patricia]: The first thing she did was to reunite with two of her brothers, who were living undocumented in Los Angeles. They had also escaped from Guatemala, but in their case, it was so they would not be drafted into the Army.
The second thing Juana did was look for a job.
[Juana]: Everything was different. I often felt desperate. I found a job babysitting and thought, “I am taking care of other people’s children and mine are probably suffering.”
[Patricia]: But she wanted to do things right: get a work permit, raise money to pay the debt for her travel, and also send money to raise her daughters.
She inquired at the Immigration Office about her options and decided to apply for political asylum based on the situation of violence that had forced her to flee. But she needed to show some proof. In her case, it would be the threatening letters from the guerrilla.
[Juana]: “And you have no proof?” And it is true, you don’t bring anything, because when you come like I did . . . as a wetback, you don’t bring anything.
[Patricia]: “Wetback.” In other words, crossing the Rio Grande or the desert with nothing. But even without that proof, Juana was able to begin the process of political asylum. It was a time when thousands of Central Americans migrated to the United States because of the violence in their countries. A time when immigration laws were less restrictive. Juana obtained her work permit shortly after. She would have to renew it once a year. And although it could be a long time before she got a residence permit as a refugee, at least she was no longer undocumented.
Almost a year after arriving in Los Angeles, Juana decided to move to North Carolina, a state on the other side of the country. An uncle lived there and had told her that everything was cheaper and there was plenty of work. Juana arrived in Asheboro, a rural town in the southern United States, toward the end of 1993.
[Juana]: And this place did look ugly to me (laughs). And on top of that, there was a lot of snow at the time. I realized I didn’t like it at all.
[Patricia]: But her uncle hadn’t lied to her. Within two days she was hired at the furniture factory where he worked. She would be in charge of sewing upholstery.
[Juana]: Since I didn’t know how to sew, I had never sewn in my life, they said they would send me to a small school where they would teach me and I would be paid as if it were a job.
[Patricia]: It had been a year of many changes, but finally she felt better. Her work was stable, with a good salary, and she could start sending money to her daughters. This was more important than ever because there was another big change in her daughters’ lives. Juana’s partner, Oscar, also emigrated to the United States, and they had decided to end their relationship. The girls—motherless and now fatherless—depended only on their maternal grandparents.
From a distance, and as best she could, Juana tried to maintain a bond with her daughters. It was very difficult because phone calls were very expensive and because in her hometown there was only one house with a telephone. Talking to Lesvi and Yeimy was quite an odyssey.
[Juana]: I had to call somebody. And that person who answered the phone had to go look for my family and let them know that I was going to call on such a day and at such time, like an appointment.
[Patricia]: When she managed to talk to them, she asked them how they were, what they needed. But the girls, who were 5 and 3 years old by then, didn’t tell her much.
[Juana]: They just said “I love you, mom. I love you.” Especially the oldest. The other one was younger and couldn’t talk very well.
[Patricia]: Juana also sent letters and photos. She missed them very much and dreamed of seeing them again. Also, since she had come to America, she was worried.
[Juana]: My mother always told me . . . to work here, that I should not worry about them, but when I saw photos they sent me of the oldest girl, she looked sad to me.
[Patricia]: Skinny, somehow undernourished, with spots on her skin and weak, brittle nails. Juana asked her mother to take her to a doctor.
[Juana]: And my mother would say, “Well, every time I take her, they tell me that the girl has a very deep anemia. And I buy her the vitamins, I buy them here, I do things,” and yes . . . my mother, well, she did everything she could, but do you know what the problem was? I think the problem was that I was far away, and she missed me.
[Patricia]: At work Juana had met a man: Carlos. He was Guatemalan and, like her, he had also left his country because of the violence. They had a lot in common and Juana felt she could tell him about her daughters and how worried she was about Lesvi.
Shortly after, they fell in love and decided to move in together. They lived in a trailer home near the forest. And although it was not part of their plans, in mid-1994, she became pregnant. As soon as she found out she thought of her daughters . . .
[Juana]: I was worried about them. I didn’t want to have any yet. I told them that we were going to have one, but later. I had to figure out what I was going to do with the ones I already had.
[Patricia]: But she also felt her pregnancy was a blessing and began to dream of Lesvi and Yeimy meeting their little sister. In April 1995, her third daughter, Jackeline, was born, three years after she had left Guatemala.
For the first time, Juana felt something close to happiness. But with Lesvi and Yeimy thousands of miles away it wasn’t complete happiness. She was always worried. Lesvi’s health was not improving, and although they talked more and more on the phone and she sent money for them and pictures of their little sister, Juana felt bad, guilty. The years went by like this, with her and Carlos working in the factory and little Jackie growing up healthy and happy.
Until 1999, when Lesvi was 10 years old and Juana received a call from her mother.
[Juana]: And my mother told me that the oldest girl was in a very bad condition.
[Patricia]: That day she felt the sky suddenly turn black. It was seven years since she had seen her daughters. She could hardly think; she needed to make a decision and make it fast.
[Juana]: I told my husband, “I’m going to have to go to Guatemala.” “I’m going to go,” I said, “just to see what is happening to the girl, but I’m scared.”
[Patricia]: It was a double fear. On the one hand, returning to her country meant facing the guerrilla threat again. Even though many years had passed, she did not feel safe. And, on the other hand, she was afraid of losing her immigration process. Her situation was very delicate. Up to that moment, she had renewed her work permit every year, but the Immigration Service had not given her political asylum or the residence.
[Juana]: I won’t lie about it—I did not plan it very much. The decision was made on the spot. And if I don’t do it right now, I won’t . . . I am not going to do it, I thought. When I think about it, if I had thought about everything that could happen . . . No, I wouldn’t have done anything.
[Patricia]: In legal terms, the consequences could be dramatic. To leave the United States was to risk losing the entire asylum application process.
However, Juana left her daughter Jackie with her husband, bought a plane ticket, and a few days later flew from North Carolina to Guatemala. The problem was not leaving the United States. The challenge would be to return. She would have to cross the border as an illegal, like the first time.
But there would be time to worry about that later.
Meanwhile, in Guatemala, Lesvi couldn’t believe that she was going to see her mother again. She remembered her as a blurry image, a distant memory, a voice behind the phone.
Lesvi is 33 years old today and remembers the day when, after seven years without seeing her, she was reunited with her mother. She went with her grandparents and her sister Yeimy to wait for her at the airport in the capital.
[Lesvi Molina]: I recognized her the moment I saw her at the airport, and that was very exciting. To cry and hug her. And being able to do it, right? . . . . touch her face. Being able to . . . enjoy time with her. That was wonderful.
[Patricia]: The house turned into a party.
[Lesvi]: I remember when we got home, obviously we opened all the gifts that mom brought for us two, because she had brought many things to enjoy with, with, with us, with the family. She had brought us shoes, clothes, everything, dolls.
[Patricia]: It was wonderful. One of the sensations Lesvi remembers most from that day was seeing her mother and her grandmother together, cooking for her and her little sister. The smell of food, family reunited, a feeling of happiness.
[Lesvi]: That was a new experience for us. It was very, very precious to see my mother, to see our family together, to be able to feel mom’s love, to be able to see that she loved us. They are memories that stay etched in my mind, that I carry with me, because you never think . . . how much you miss mom until mom is home. There is nothing that compares to mom. There is nothing.
[Patricia]: Juana arrived determined to help her daughter once and for all. She took Lesvi to a new doctor. The anemia was confirmed. Juana got all the medicines prescribed for her, and Lesvi began a new treatment immediately. Lesvi’s grandparents had done what they could for their granddaughter, but it wasn’t enough. They lived in isolation; they had very few resources and education. Juana, who had gone seven years without seeing her daughters, had only two weeks to do everything she could for them. The factory had given her leave for only that period of time.
The days flew by and Juana had to return. In the United States, Carlos and her little daughter Jackie were waiting for her. She had to make the entire crossing through Mexico, the border and almost half the country to get to North Carolina. A long and dangerous journey awaited her.
But saying goodbye was as difficult as the first time.
[Juana]: They were both very happy. And me too. I was very happy, but . . . I promised them that I was not going to leave them. And the oldest kept saying, “Mommy, don’t leave me, I don’t want to stay,” she said. That was the decision I made, to bring them with me.
[Patricia]: Juana kept her promise. A few days later, Juana, Lesvi, and Yeimy finally set out from their small mountain town, headed for Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. The girls had a hard time saying goodbye to their grandparents and the life they knew. The journey was even more difficult, but they made it to the border.
In Ciudad Juárez Juana hired some coyotes who would get the two girls through Migration . . . walking, with fake birth certificates, as if they were American citizens.
Juana was given a Mexican visa that she would have to use to cross the border on foot, as if she were a tourist. Her idea was to avoid the desert and soon be reunited with her daughters on the other side, in El Paso, Texas.
Lesvi was 10 and Yeimy 8 years old when they crossed the border without a problem, but things did not go well for Juana. An Immigration Officer asked her to show her visa.
[Juana]: And I gave it to him and he said, you’re not the one here. And he said, “Follow me.” He took me to the office and then he entered my fingerprints on the computer and I thought, “Now he is going to deport me to Guatemala.”
[Patricia]: However, and to Juana’s surprise, after taking her fingerprints and a photo, the officer told her to leave, to return to Mexico. The coyotes were waiting for her. This time they would try another way. Juana crossed the Chihuahua desert on foot without knowing anything about her daughters, or where they were or with whom. It was seven days in the sun until she arrived in El Paso and the coyotes took her to a house where Lesvi and Yeimy were waiting for her, frightened.
Juana picked up the girls and they traveled immediately to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she bought tickets for a bus to North Carolina. There were three more days of travel across the country until they reached her home, which from then on would also be Lesvi and Yeimy’s home.
The girls met their little sister Jackeline and their stepfather Carlos, and soon after they started school. At first it was very difficult, especially for Lesvi.
[Lesvi]: We didn’t know the language. The food was different. Mom’s affection was not the same. Mom was working all the time. Living with a family was no longer the same.
[Patricia]: Juana noticed that her daughters missed their grandparents and their village very much, but she did not regret the decision she had made. They would adapt in time, and besides, she no longer wanted to be away from them. After so many years, her family was finally reunited. With them by her side, she no longer lived in a house in a foreign country, but in a home that she shared with the people she loved most in the world.
Juana continued with her immigration procedure as if nothing had happened. She was able to renew her work permit without a hitch for two years, but deep down she did not feel safe . . .
[Juana]: I was always afraid. I was always afraid of what could happen, right? What is going to happen?
[Patricia]: Finally, something happened. In mid-2001 she received a letter from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services informing her that her asylum process had been denied and that she had to leave the country. It was a “voluntary departure,” that is, she had to leave on her own. Just when she was pregnant again.
[Juana]: They had already told me it was a boy. And so I said to my husband, “Look, I’m going to wait for the baby to be born and I’m going to leave the country,” I told him. “I think I am going to return because I am not leaving the girls again, and down there, things are worse.”
[Patricia]: Carlitos was born on November 14 of that year. And although Juana had thought of leaving, she finally decided to stay and continue with her life as an undocumented immigrant, without papers and without renewing the work permit. But everything else remained the same. She drove her car to the factory, took the girls to school, paid her taxes . . .
[Juana]: I just lived quietly. “Oh, they have already forgotten about me,” I thought. Oh, thank God they already forgot about me.
[Patricia]: And yes, it seemed they had forgotten about her. The years passed, the children grew up, Lesvi and Yeimy were now teenagers, and although Juana felt proud of having managed to reunite her family, the fear never went away completely. She felt that they could come looking for her at any moment.
In 2011, ten years later, on the morning of November 8, that fear became reality.
[Juana]: Around 8, 9 in the morning they arrived . . . they arrived at the office, at work, and called me . . . they called me; I thought it was for something else.
[Patricia]: Juana left her sewing machine and went to her boss’s office. There, two men she did not know were waiting for her. One of them asked her in English if she was Juana Tobar. She said she was, and they arrested her on the spot.
[Juana]: Oh, again I was thinking, “What is going to happen?” Today they are going to deport me . . . I thought they were going to deport me.
[Patricia]: Juana cried, protested, and begged not to be arrested, but to no avail. She was transferred to one of the prisons of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service or ICE, in the southern United States, in Georgia. There she was questioned about her exit from the country 12 years before. They showed her a photo of her trying to cross the border with a fake visa. Juana could not lie and she told her truth, that she had gone to look for her sick daughter.
After being detained for nine days, one morning they told her to gather her things.
[Juana]: And I thought, well, they were taking me somewhere else or in that short while they were going to take me to where the plane is, right?
[Patricia]: But again, surprisingly, they took her to an office where they gave her the immigration papers so that she could get a work permit again and they told her that she could go home, and to call her family to come get her.
The problem was that the Immigration Officer only spoke English . . .
[Juana]: So, I understand a little bit, but a little bit, not much English. I said, I think I did not understand her.
[Patricia]: Juana called her husband and asked him to speak to the officer because she did not understand what was happening.
[Juana]: And she said, “Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s what I told her, that she is going home. Have them come pick her up.”
[Patricia]: Juana never understood why she was released. It was the third time she was saved from being deported to Guatemala. The first time had been at the border of El Paso, in Texas, when she was allowed to walk back to Mexico. The second time when she was told that she should leave the country but decided to stay, and succeeded . . . for a decade. And this last time, when she thought that she no longer had a way out. However, there she was, returning home with her husband, where her four children, her work, and her life were waiting for her. All they ordered was for her to report to ICE once a year.
[Juana]: I was very happy all those years because every year I went there to the Immigration Office. And they gave me another appointment for the following year, come back, but they extended my work permit.
[Patricia]: Life went on pretty quietly. Juana continued to sew cushions at the furniture factory, as did her husband. The youngest children were now in high school. And Lesvi and Yeimy had started their own families. Juana, now a grandmother, enjoyed her time with her granddaughters, going to church, going out to dinner all together.
[Juana]: We had a normal life. 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. In 2017 it happened again . . . everything collapsed.
[Patricia]: In 2017, Donald Trump attained the presidency of the United States.
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[Donald Trump]: As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak…
[Patricia]: His campaign, and to some extent his political success, had been based on demonizing immigrants, promising to be tough on them.
Juana had her annual appointment at the Immigration Office on April 20 of that year. Some time earlier, her lawyer had called to tell her that he didn’t know what could happen that day, that he would have to accompany her and that she should be prepared because there was a good chance they would arrest her.
[Juana]: Well, the truth is, I started to worry because you could see it, because on the news you heard the president had set a zero tolerance, I don’t know what laws, and all that affected us, people with my same status.
[Patricia]: The night before the appointment, the whole family got together. Because they are very religious, they held a vigil until dawn. Juana fell asleep very late and dreamed of two immigration agents catching her and forcibly putting a shackle on her foot. She woke up in anguish, very early, and before six in the morning she left with her husband and her lawyer for the Immigration Office.
Before leaving, she said goodbye to her youngest children, Jackie and Carlitos, who were grown at the time: they were 22 and 15 years old.
[Juana]: It made me very sad because my daughter Jackie and Carlitos hugged me. And they began to cry. “Mom, if we don’t see you again,” they said, “don’t worry, we can go to Guatemala to see you.” Those words did . . . they broke my heart.
[Patricia]: When she got to the Immigration Office, Juana handed in the usual papers like every year. The agent looked at them briefly and then told her that, according to the records in the system, everything was ready for her to be arrested and deported as soon as possible, probably that same day.
[Juana]: And when I heard that, the truth is I could no longer contain myself, I started to cry. “My God!” I said. “Again. And knowing I’ll be deported,” I thought. And right then and there I began to pray to God in my head: “My God, help me, what am I going to do?”
[Patricia]: Juana believes that the agent somehow felt sorry for her. He asked her to wait and when he came back, he gave his decision: She would not be arrested at that time, but they would give her one month to leave the country. She had to buy a plane ticket to Guatemala and notify the day of her flight. Her passport was confiscated, and the nightmare she had the night before happened: they put an electronic bracelet on her left foot. On the day of her flight, at the airport, they would return her passport and remove the bracelet.
[Juana]: Oh, when I left there, the truth is I felt everything came crashing down on me again. We all cried. Everyone cried, my children, “Ma, Ma, what will we do without you?”
[Patricia]: Years later, it still hurts. Lesvi has not managed to forget the insult of seeing her mother with the bracelet. When she recounted the moment to me, she burst into tears.
[Lesvi]: That was terrible. It was horrible. How can it be that a person who has done nothing, absolutely nothing to anyone, who loves her family, who loves her grandchildren and loves her children, who has contributed so much to the country, who has loved the community . . . can be something like a criminal . . . someone you can discard just like that, because she is no longer useful.
[Patricia]: The following days were even more difficult. The punishment for trying to cross with a fake visa is ten years without being allowed to enter the United States again. Juana began to get used to the idea of spending a decade in Guatemala until she could return again. After completing that time, she might apply for a permanent residence through Carlos, her husband, or through her two children who were American citizens: Jackie and Carlitos.
[Juana]: It was a sad thing. My daughters arrived on the weekend. We went to church, but with that weight . . . That emptiness in our hearts, knowing we were going to have to separate.
[Patricia]: Juana bought her ticket to Guatemala for May 31, the last day she could be in the country. But Lesvi wasn’t willing to lose her mother again.
[Lesvi]: I felt like my mind was exploding because I felt responsible. My mother was going through this because of a sacrifice she had made for me.
[Daniel]: And Lesvi did not want to carry that guilt. At least, not without fighting for her mother. We will return after a break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, Juana was about to lose the home she had built, and go another decade without seeing her children. She had spent years walking a tightrope, in constant danger of being deported, and now it seemed her fate had been sealed.
According to the ICE order, Juana would have to leave the country in a month. She did not know what to do. But her daughter Lesvi would do anything in her power not to lose her again.
Patricia Serrano picks up the story.
[Patricia]: One day during lunch at work, Lesvi suddenly remembered the march for immigrant rights, in which she had taken part with Juana just a few months earlier. That day Lesvi had kept a card from an organization called American Friends Service.
Lesvi contacted them and told them her mother’s story. People from the organization told her about a possibility for Juana to stay in the country and they arranged an appointment for that same week. It was only a few days before Juana had to leave, but Lesvi felt hopeful and she immediately called her mother to tell her.
[Juana]: There is an organization that told me that maybe they can help us so that you do not have to leave. Are you willing?
[Patricia]: Of course Juana was willing, but she didn’t know what it was about, how she could stay.
[Juana]: “Oh,” I said, “and how is that going to happen?” “You have to go and talk to them,” she said. So we made the appointment and we went with my husband and them. We went to the office and he said they had never had a case like that in North Carolina.
[Patricia]: And it was then she heard the word for the first time.
[Juana]: Enter a sanctuary.
[Patricia]: Entering a sanctuary is a concept in the immigration policy of the United States that refers to places where there is protection, in a certain way. There are sanctuary cities where local authorities limit their collaboration with ICE, for example. Or sanctuary hospitals, where immigrants can be cared for without worrying about their legal status. But in Juana’s case, what she was looking for was something more . . .
[Juana]: There is a church here, they told me. It’s the only church here in Greensboro.
[Patricia]: Actually, there were many, many churches, but there was only one in her area that was part of the sanctuary church movement. It’s kind of weird, really. That is, legally ICE could enter if they wanted to detain an immigrant, but until now, they have never done so. It’s like they don’t dare. It would be viewed as deplorable, even though there’s no law that endorses this protection.
But when they told her about this option, Juana didn’t know what to think or what to do. In North Carolina, no other immigrant had entered a sanctuary.
[Lesvi]: And at first my mother said, “No! I am not willing to go into a sanctuary. Because it means I can’t go out. It means I’m going to be a prisoner.”
[Patricia]: And yes, to enter a sanctuary meant to risk staying there, as a refugee, while on the outside the family would fight the case, until one day a judge ruled in her favor or immigration policies changed. Once inside, you cannot leave church property. It was, in a way, like adopting the life of a nun.
[Juana]: Well, we talked about it a long time with my children and my husband, and they said, “You are the one who is going to be locked up.” “And it will not be easy,” my husband told me, “It’s up to you . . . if you want to.”
[Patricia]: Juana asked her family if they would visit her every week. They promised they would. And although the church where she would stay was an hour from her house, they would make the trip every weekend to be with her. That, in a way, was what encouraged her to make the decision.
[Juana]: And that’s how I decided . . . to enter the sanctuary.
[Patricia]: Saint Barnabas Church is the place where we visited her at the beginning of this story. It’s a small Episcopal congregation, with just over 100 faithful, led by the Rev. Randall Keeney.
This is Randall:
[Randall Keeney]: Saint Barnabas has had Latino members for a long time. We knew their story and knew their struggles.
[Patricia]: He says Saint Barnabas has had Latino members for a long time; they know their story and their struggles.
[Randall]: And then, when American Friends Service Committee approached us about Juana, we did it. And it’s . . . it’s purely compassion…
[Patricia]: And when the American Friends Service Committee told them about Juana, they decided to do it. That it is basically about compassion, the attempt to carry out the gospel, what Jesus spoke and taught.
[Randall]: . . . from the Old Testament in the Bible, you know . . .
[Patricia]: Juana and her family got to know the church for the first time on a Sunday, before mass. That one-story red brick building buried in the middle of the forest.
It was just two weeks before the deadline that ICE had given her.
[Juana]: So we came to speak with the pastor there at the office and he told us what it was like, that yes, they were still offering sanctuary to someone who needed it, and he showed us the church.
[Patricia]: The first thing they noticed was that there was no bathroom with a shower for her. There was no bedroom, either. They were things that needed fixing, but they didn’t have the time to do it before Juana moved in.
Luckily, they were able to fix the shower issue quickly.
[Juana]: So, since my son-in-law is a plumber, and my son-in-law said that’s not a problem, we’ll make one for her. And I said, “Oh no, we are used to bathing outside with a . . . like this, with a guacal . . .” (laughs)
[Patricia]: Guacal, that is, using basins or buckets. For her room, the solution would be a different one. The church closed the space where they had Sunday school and turned it into a room.
Juana moved into the church a few days before, to begin adapting, and on May 31, exactly the day she was supposed to leave the country, she gave a press conference where she announced her decision to take refuge there. The idea was to make her case known, to gain the support of the community and state representatives.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Juana]: Quiero dar gracias . . .
[Translator]: I want to thank . . .
[Juana]: a los miembros de esta Iglesia . . .
[Translator]: the members of this Church . . .
[Juana]: a los pastores
[Translator]: the pastors
[Juana]: por su . . .
[Patricia]: That same day, after the announcement, Juana’s children and grandchildren went to the office of the then-Senator from North Carolina, Republican Thom Tillis, to ask for his intervention on Juana’s behalf. They were not received. However, both they and Juana gave interviews throughout the day.
When everything calmed down and the church was empty, Juana began to build her new world. She had taken a few things with her, hoping she wouldn’t be around too long. Some pots and pans for cooking, her clothes, photos of her family and some sewing machines that were donated to her.
[Juana]: The first few days . . . well, you do not get used to it because there are days when you don’t even want to get up, just to think of being here locked up in one place. You don’t want to do anything. Or suddenly you get depressed.
[Patricia]: She did not even feel like going out to the garden, to walk among the trees. Even though she was not completely alone.
[Juana]: There were volunteers. I had people with me all day and all night because they came to take care of me. The doors were locked to this day. They cannot be opened from the outside, only from the inside. The Church members have a key. They can come in at any time, the pastor and the members, but other people cannot . . .
[Patricia]: Her routine was simple, designed above all to make time pass quickly.
[Juana]: Well, in the morning, I get up, take a shower, make my breakfast. And well, I work on my sewing, I make little things to sell, so as to earn a little, you know? To earn a little bit of money.
[Patricia]: She made cushions, bags, aprons. She mended clothes, whatever . . . Her husband would come on Friday nights. Carlos would leave the factory and drive to Greensboro to spend the entire weekend with her. The Church allowed the family to sleep over whenever they wanted.
Also, with family close by, things were easier for her. Since she spoke almost no English, her communication with members of the Church was very difficult.
[Juana]: I think that from listening to them so much I learned a little bit (laughs), not much, but a little bit at least, and I now can get along a little, but at first it was very stressful with the language.
[Patricia]: And although her family did the shopping for her, sometimes they couldn’t, and Juana had to go to the reverend. If they couldn’t understand each other, they called one of her daughters to translate for them. Juana used to ask for pizza, cooking ingredients, or things that were missing from the church, like a new broom or something else she needed.
Juana lived the confinement counting the days until she would see her family, watching TV, sewing. What she enjoyed the most were the visits by her granddaughters Bridget and Lexie on the weekends. One Sunday afternoon, a few weeks after her confinement, Reverend Keeney saw a scene that moved him. In those early days, Juana’s fear was so intense that she would not even cross the threshold of the door.
[Randall]: And I came out of the office one day and I looked over there and there was one of her granddaughters standing outside, the doors open. And then I see the other granddaughter was holding hands with Juana inside and pulling her outside.
[Patricia]: The scene is as follows: One of her granddaughters is outside the church, the doors are open. The other one is grabbing Juana’s hand and tugging, almost forcing her out of the room. Juana resists but eventually gives in. And that was the first time since her confinement that she went out to the garden, to play ball with her granddaughters.
During those first few months, Lesvi believed her mother might be out soon. The news of her entering the sanctuary was taken up by the media all over the country, and her struggle had become an example for other immigrants in the same situation. After her, six other people entered sanctuary churches in North Carolina.
[Lesvi]: I told my mother, “There are many people fighting for you; you cannot last here more than six months. I don’t think it will be more than six months.”
[Patricia]: But time began to pass quickly and nothing changed. Her daughters had knocked on the door of the two state senators, both Republicans, begging on her behalf, with no results. The lawyers advised them that their only option was to keep waiting.
Almost a year later, the electronic bracelet on her foot began to hurt. Juana’s ankle was swollen and sore. The device is heavy and large, a thick black plastic bracelet with a battery that Juana had to keep charged. And that couldn’t be removed in any way. Her family asked a doctor to come see her.
[Juana]: And the doctor checked me and told me that I was hurting my foot. She wrote a letter for me, but they would not agree to anything.
[Patricia]: That is, ICE.
[Juana]: They said if I wanted to take it off, then . . . I should go to their office or buy the ticket and leave.
[Patricia]: But the reality is that the device was getting older and the plastic had started to break down. Juana put duct tape on it so that it wouldn’t keep breaking until one night, just two days before completing a year in the church . . .
[Juana]: I was watching TV. And well, I began to see that the tape was peeling off, that it had already peeled off. And it broke.
[Patricia]: Juana got scared. She thought that with the broken bracelet she might have trouble. ICE agents immediately noticed the absence of the signal and called her home to ask about it. Her husband Carlos replied that Juana was taking refuge in a church. They left her a message.
[Juana]: To tell me that they were not going to come here to the church, but on any day they found me outside, the first thing they were going to do was to deport me. That’s what they said.
[Patricia]: Juana felt more and more confined. It had been such an effort to even go out into the garden that first time . . . and now, with this warning, she once again felt safe only inside the building. The constant threat of being separated from her children, the confinement, the loneliness, the monotony of every day identical to the others, made Juana more and more depressed.
A year passed, two . . . In 2019, everything was still the same: Juana cooked for the faithful of the Church and kept up her sewing. But despite that, she suffered from increasing anxiety and depression. She could no longer bear to be locked up. Lesvi clearly saw the effects of confinement on her mother.
[Lesvi]: A person is not made to be in a confinement for that long. Even though we come to be with her. She needs her freedom. She needs to feel that she can do things for herself, that she can take her grandchildren to the park, that she can go do her shopping on her own. That she can provide the necessary things, simple things for herself. But a human being needs to get out.
[Patricia]: After more than three years in sanctuary, Juana had missed out on a lot. She couldn’t be at her son Carlitos’ high school graduation. She couldn’t be at the birth of Lesvi’s second child or at the graduation of her older granddaughters’ elementary school.
[Juana]: That’s what hurts the most. Because it is something that remains in one’s heart and theirs as well. And not being able to be there is sad. Just because you don’t have a document. Missing out on the most important things about your children.
[Patricia]: While Juana was still in her confinement, March 2020 arrived and the whole world also faced another type of confinement . . .
[Juana]: The truth is that it affected me even more. Because now I’m a little lonelier. Because before, a lot of volunteers came to stay with me. And since the pandemic began, they have not come. Some, a few, do come by to say hello from outside.
[Patricia]: When we interviewed her in March 2021, the United States had already gone through the worst stage of the coronavirus and Juana had been living in the church for almost 4 years. She still didn’t know when she could get out. We asked if she ever felt her endurance was pointless.
[Juana]: Here we are, here we stay. But are we going to get out? Could it be that . . . that all this will be worth it?
[Patricia]: A week before our interview, as they had been doing for 4 years, Juana’s lawyers submitted another request for Stay of Removal. That is, a one-year suspension of the deportation order so that she could fight her case without needing to be a refugee in a church.
Year after year it had been denied, but this time, because of the change of administration in the United States, Juana had more faith. And mostly because at this point, she was the last to remain in the sanctuary of the group that had entered, following her example, in 2017.
While awaiting the results of her request, Juana felt somehow hopeful.
[Juana]: The only thing I want is to be with my family, not to be separated from them. That is why I made this decision. And I think that by doing this, I do not hurt anyone, really. That is the only thing I ask, to be with them. Because they are everything to me.
[Patricia]: On April 19, 2021, almost two months after our interview, Juana received the news she had waited for so long: the Immigration Service agreed to suspend her deportation order for one year.
The call from her lawyer woke her up. It was 8:30 in the morning and Juana was still in bed. She thought it was a dream.
[Juana]: My whole body was shaking, I said, “Ooh, I can go home now,” and there I was, calling my daughters, I was calling my husband, I was calling half the world. But the excitement was such that I could not even dial the phone.
[Patricia]: We talked with her a few days later, when she was back at her home in Asheboro. Juana spent that last day at the church gathering her things, waiting for her family, and answering calls from journalists. She took down the photos and posters, gathered her work fabrics, put away her pots, walked alone once more through the empty church.
Carlos went that very day to pick her up. Her daughters and her grandchildren also arrived. Her friends and the pastors. Juana, surrounded by her family, decided to wait until evening to say goodbye, to say goodbye to the church that, although it was never a home for her, was the refuge that finally allowed her to return home.
At last, when there was almost no light left in the sky, she opened the red door, which was always locked from the inside, and came out for the first time in almost four years, happy and hopeful.
[Daniel]: Juana will have to fight for her residence and wait for a pardon for having been in the country illegally. For now, she is at home and will appear again before the authorities in a year.
The church where Juana lived for almost 4 years is part of the Sanctuary Movement. There are more than a thousand congregations throughout the country that offer themselves as shelters for immigrants being pursued by ICE.
David Seth Miller and Patricia Serrano produced this story. They are both journalists and live in Asheville, North Carolina.
This story was edited by Aneris Casassus, Camila Segura and by me. Désirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with original music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Emilia Erbetta is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.