The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Santuario is a documentary short following the story of Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an undocumented Guatemalan grandmother who sought sanctuary in a North Carolina church when threatened with deportation. After fleeing turbulence in her home country in the early nineties, Ortega received a limited permit to work in the United States, but she was not granted political asylum. Years later, her family was able to join her here—her husband has residency, two of her children are American citizens, and two are DACA recipients. But in 2017, after annual check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Ortega abruptly received a deportation order.
Santuario was co-directed by Christine Delp, a North Carolina native, and Pilar Timpane, a Duke Divinity School graduate who also served as the primary language translator with the Ortega family. The directors realized the vital implications the story could have for church congregations and legislators. The film is an attempt to reach audiences of various political persuasions by framing the conversation about compassionate immigration reform through a portrait of peaceful matriarch threatened with separation from her family.
Reaching back to the Middle Ages, and even to the temples of Greco-Roman times, the sanctuary—from sanctus, “a holy place”—has historically been a liminal space on the periphery of legal jurisdiction, providing asylum for the vulnerable. Stressing that the ecclesial community is called to bear witness to the state’s unjust laws through solidarity with those who cannot advocate for themselves, Reverend Randall Keeney explains that his tiny Greensboro parish offered hospitality to Ortega as a Christian imperative.
Living in sanctuary is a daily act of bravery for Ortega—not a luxury, but a form of incarcerated exile. Her cramped cinderblock accommodations and humble furnishings are a far cry from the comforts of home. The heavy ankle bracelet ICE requires her to wear monitors her like a criminal, or even an animal. But Ortega holds onto her faith in the midst of perpetual uncertainty.
Despite her family’s continued pleas for the government to grant Ortega an exemption to return to her home in North Carolina after almost two years, her predicament hasn’t changed. Post-production, the filmmakers continue to advocate for Ortega, petitioning state representatives to act on her behalf and utilizing film-festival screenings across the country to bring awareness to the sanctuary movement.
Santuario demonstrates how radical action is possible by unlikely activists; the humble congregation of Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church certainly demonstrates that wealth isn’t necessary to sustain someone in peril. Rather, they meekly practice the law of love by keeping a family together in the midst of political opposition.