Debora Barrios-Vasquez Took Sanctuary in a Manhattan Church to Avoid Deportation

Debora Barrios-Vasquez Took Sanctuary in a Manhattan Church to Avoid Deportation

Debora Barrios-Vasquez Took Sanctuary in a Manhattan Church to Avoid Deportation

Then she wrote a play about it—and gave the story a happier ending.


In late July, Debora Barrios-Vasquez, an undocumented mother of two, stood on the stage of a small theater inside the church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A slight, magnetic woman, she craned her neck upward, toward the immigration agent staring down at her, and began directing him.

“So you’ll start telling me: ‘Where do you think you’re going?’” she explained, in English, to the man she’d cast to be the villain in a play she had written and was now directing and starring in. “And I cannot understand you. So I’m trying to say, ‘No sé que dices. No entiendo.’”

The actor nodded obediently. He was a tall, slouching man with gray-streaked blond hair pulled back into a low ponytail. Off stage, he’d long dedicated himself to immigration activism. But on stage, he was committed—bringing in props, sporting a fake Border Patrol Badge, and generally acting as brutish as possible.

“So you’ll start telling me,” Barrios-Vasquez continued, “screaming at me: ‘This is my country! Where do you think you’re going? Why did you cross the border?’” she said, throwing her hands into the air for effect.

It was the first day of rehearsal for Barrios-Vasquez’s debut production, which she was preparing to mount inside the church that has become her temporary home. Nearly two months earlier, under threat of deportation to Guatemala, Barrios-Vasquez had taken refuge at St. Paul and St. Andrew as she continued to fight for asylum. It was the height of the family-separation crisis and, to Barrios-Vasquez, deportation represented not only a risk to her own life, but also thousands of miles of distance between her and her 10-year-old son, a US citizen who was desperate to stay in the only country he’s ever known.

By taking refuge in the church, Barrios-Vasquez has become part of a growing number of undocumented immigrants who have sought physical sanctuary inside religious institutions across the United States, even as they know full well that the cost of safety is self-imprisonment. But if the church walls have offered Barrios-Vasqueza a fraught form of protection, it’s inside the church’s small theater—just down the hall from her temporary bedroom—that she has also found mental and emotional refuge, full of laughter, distraction, and an alternative reality that she has the unique power to create.

As she finished blocking the scene in the desert, Barrios-Vasquez turned to the next big sequence. At this point, she explained, the immigration agent takes her character into custody, drives her to a detention center, and conducts a brief intake. She is then placed in an ankle bracelet to monitor her movements while she waits for her immigration case to be heard at a date so satirically far into the future that Barrios-Vasquez, and her character, would almost certainly be dead.

At this moment, the actor playing the immigration agent piped in.

“OK,” he said, “so something I thought of is that, at about this time, I’ll say, ‘If you want to come into the US legally, then you have to put your name on the list!’” As he uttered the word “list,” he pulled a roll of toilet paper out of his bag and, clutching one end, hurled the rest into the air. Instead of unfurling, however, the tissue paper tore immediately, thudding gently to the ground.

Retrieving the roll, the immigration agent tried the gesture a second time—“And here’s the list!”—but to the same effect.

“All right, we won’t use toilet paper,” he conceded.

Barrios-Vasquez doubled over with laughter.

Two months after that first rehearsal, and with a heavy-duty roll of paper towels now in hand for the detention scene, Barrios-Vasquez starred in the debut performance of her original play Not Here, Not There, which was—at least geographically speaking—just off Broadway. Dozens of congregation members and activists with New York City sanctuary movement packed into the small theater for the matinee performance, as Barrios-Vasquez’s son and young daughter peered down at their mother from the balcony. Before the play began, Barrios-Vasquez flitted nervously about the backstage and dressing room, at times peeking to check whether all the seats were filling up. (They were.) After the theater erupted in applause at the final scene, she was radiant, thanking everyone for coming as she cradled a bouquet of roses.

In some ways, Not Here, Not There is a quintessential American Dream story, sprinkled with details from Barrios-Vasquez’s own life. The play’s protagonist, Pancracia, played by Barrios-Vasquez, escapes being kidnapped and tortured by a gang in Guatemala, arrives in the United States, works hard as a house cleaner and learns English and CPR at a local community center. In comparison, Barrios-Vasquez also fled violence in Guatemala (the details of which she doesn’t discuss publicly, as her legal case is still pending). And during her 13 years in the United States, she has also cleaned offices, learned English, earned her high-school-equivalency degree and a CPR certificate, and secured a job as a teacher’s assistant at a local early-childhood-education center.

It is in the ending that the key differences between the play and reality lie. Not Here, Not There concludes with Pancracia saving the life of the immigration agent, who just happens to suffer a heart attack in the café where she is celebrating her completion of English and CPR classes. She then wins her freedom by successfully convincing the dazed agent to remove her ankle monitor.

By contrast, in Barrios-Vasquez’s real life, it’s hard to imagine how anything—even an act like saving an immigration agent’s life—could easily resolve her situation. She has been fighting for asylum since the first term of the Obama administration, when she was pulled over in what she describes as a racist traffic stop in Harrison, New York. Since Donald Trump took office in 2017 and made all undocumented immigrants a priority for removal, her odds have become almost impossibly long. Finally, this past June, under the threat of deportation, she took sanctuary. Exactly one week later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that makes it all but impossible for the overwhelming majority of Central Americans to win asylum cases.

It is this horror, this two-sided dread, that she hoped to capture with the title of the play. “You can’t be in your country, but you can’t be here either because you’re case isn’t resolved,” she said. “I think a lot of immigrants are feeling that way right now.”

I first learned about Barrios-Vasquez’s plans for Not Here, Not There through a Facebook message in mid-July.

“I have a proposal for you,” she messaged me. “Do you want to be a rich pineapple in my theater performance?”

I was confused—and intrigued. I knew Barrios-Vasquez through my reporting on other women who had taken sanctuary in churches in New York City as they fought their deportation, and although I hadn’t written about her or her case, I’d visited her a few times and we were friendly. Still, I hadn’t heard anything about a fruit-themed theater performance.

“A rich pineapple?” I responded, along with a pineapple emoji to ensure I wasn’t lost in translation. “Of course,” I added.

As it turned out, she’d cast me as a rich girl (a typo had changed “niña” to “piña”), which was a sobering reminder that others sum me up just as quickly as I, as a journalist, might try to distill them.

At the first rehearsal, I learned my role was, in fact, to play Mrs. Waterford: the demanding and vain housewife who hires Pancracia to clean Mrs. Waterford’s extravagant home, and then fires Pancracia out of frustration because she can’t speak or understand English. (In keeping with the fruit theme, Mrs. Waterford’s name was originally Mrs. Watermelon, but Barrios-Vasquez decided to change it at the last minute out of concern that some audience members might think she was making fun of Anglo-American names. For those familiar with the TV series The Handmaiden’s Tale, which Barrios-Vasquez says she’s not, the name Mrs. Waterford might also bring to mind the chief villainess of that show—another wealthy white woman who proves all too willing to participate in the systematic abuse and dehumanization of other women.)

At one of the early rehearsals, as we sweated under the harsh stage lights, Barrios-Vasquez explained to me: “You will tell me: ‘Pancracia, I need you to clean the floor in the kitchen, so I will be scrubbing like this on floor, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, and you will say: ¡Apúrate, apúrate!’”

Barrios-Vasquez said that apúrate, which means “hurry up,” is the first of only two Spanish words that Mrs. Waterford knows. The other is hola.

Throughout the mostly improvisational rehearsals and the final performance, Barrios-Vasquez punctuated the play with puns, defiant humor, and social critiques. After narrowly escaping torture and fleeing to the United States, Pancracia tells the ICE agent that she’s not from Guatemala (mala means “bad” in Spanish) but from Guate-peor, which means “worse.” During one rehearsal, at the point in the play when Mrs. Waterford sticks a finger in Pancracia’s face and shrilly implores her to look at “this dust!” Pancracia responded “tu dedo?”—or, “your finger?” And for the final performance, Barrios-Vasquez decorated the set of Mrs. Waterford’s home with mirrors—in homage to her vanity—and her 2-year-old daughter’s pink princess crown.

In addition to her own life, Barrios-Vasquez drew heavily on the stories of her friends and acquaintances in order to depict Pancracia’s harrowing journey to the border and her experiences in the United States.

“When Pancracia decides to cross Mexico, she will pass through the desert and in that place I will see skeletons, garbage, and snakes,” Barrios-Vasquez explained at one rehearsal, shifting, mid-sentence, to her own perspective. “I’m really scared of snakes.”

“Your character?” a cast member asked.

“No, I’m really scared of snakes,” she said.

She laughed, then turned serious and began recounting stories of her friends: the woman who discovered a snake twisted around her sleeping baby; the man and wife who were encircled by coyotes in the nearly barren desert.

There was only one tree,” Debora said. “This guy climbed up into the tree. But the lady, his wife, she didn’t. So the coyotes ate her in front of him.”

Barrios-Vasquez paused. “I don’t know how it happened, but I just started thinking: ‘Why doesn’t he save his wife’s life?’ But he decided to save his life. But he turned crazy after that. Now he passed away, three years ago.”

In one sense, all of this—the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration crackdown; the sanctuary movement; even the US-Mexico border itself—can be understood as performances in which we’re all cast, or implicated, as actors. As journalist and filmmaker Michelle García explained in a recent essay for The Baffler, these dramas include viral images of children in cages and heart-wrenching TV clips of airport reunifications. The border is both stage—“a theater created in the nation’s own violent image,” she wrote—and fiction, “a collective performance of American identity…a mythology that holds the nation hostage.”

In these plays, the immigrant is alternatively cast as the criminal or the victim, but very rarely as the protagonist. And certainly she is not the director herself. In fact, as journalist Roberto Lovato reminded us during the height of the family-separation media frenzy this past summer, mainstream networks rarely even booked immigrants—particularly Central Americans—to speak about the story in which their communities were most affected. The result: “children, their mothers, and their entire communities” become “objects devoid of agency in the reporting, except for being the voices and faces of profound suffering,” he wrote.

In an interview a few days before the public performance, Barrios-Vasquez says that her initial motivation to mount the play was less political and more practical. She moved into the church reluctantly; she’d seen news stories about other immigrants in sanctuary over the previous year and had thought: I’ll never do that. But as the threat of deportation became increasingly likely, she fled her home and, two weeks later, arrived at the church with a friend. She found her new bedroom was right down the hall from the small theater.

“We were talking about what I could do to entertain myself and to avoid feeling depressed,” Barrios-Vasquez said. “I saw the theater and we talked about it, and I was like, ‘I’ve never made a play before, and I don’t even like the theater.’”

But members of the church and the sanctuary movement encouraged her, and soon she found herself drafting a script and reaching out to potential actors. What began as a distraction quickly morphed into a more profound project.

“It’s helped me stay occupied, of course, but it’s also helped me portray the types of stories that happen but most of the time aren’t considered news,” she said.

She says Pancracia’s relationship with Mrs. Waterford is an example. “I speak about a boss who is very demanding, and that’s not news at all. We immigrants know that bosses are like that.”

The conflict in Central America, she says, is another example. “The news always talks about ‘the violence’ in Central America, but there are many classes of violence,” she said.

The question of why Pancracia fled Guatemala was the aspect of the play that Barrios-Vasquez most developed over the weeks of rehearsals. What began as an off-stage allusion transformed into a full story about the heavy taxes a gang levied against Pancracia’s small bookstore, and the torturous impact of being unable to pay.

Yet, despite the horror her character survives in the play and the play’s hopeful ending, Barrios-Vasquez said didn’t want to glorify the United States. “In the play, I don’t want to give the impression that the United States is the solution. It’s not like that. The US is not the solution. But there are cases in which there is no other option, and one has to come.”

At first, Barrios-Vasquez wasn’t sure how to end Not Here, Not There.

“I thought: an ICE official simply does his work,” she said. “The government tells the agent just to do his work, and maybe even if there are times the agent wants to change the situation, he’s not in the position to do so. I thought: How do I put an official in another situation?”

So she gave him a heart attack.

“Essentially, I am putting the official in a position in which I want him to think like a human,” she said.

The play, in other words, is something of a Theater of the Oppressed for the Trump era, imagining through improvisation and Barrios-Vasquez’s careful direction a transformed reality for both immigrants and the rest of us—oppressors included. Some of these shifts are minor, stuttering. Toward the end of the play, for instance, Mrs. Waterford admits, after much prodding, that she knows a judge in town and can, perhaps, make a few phone calls to try to help Pancracia with her immigration case. That was my final line in the play, and I’ll admit it: I felt better, if a touch guilty, after delivering it.

Other transformations are operatic, over the top. Just after saving his life, Pancracia asks the agent whether he had suffered heart problems in the past, to which he replies, “Well, yes, I do have heart atrophy.” But after unlocking her ankle bracelet and throwing his case files into the air, the immigration agent exclaims: “My heart feels better!”

Still, the play’s ultimate message—that together we can recover our sense of humanity—is startling in a moment when violence and cruelty are becoming an increasingly normalized part of everyday life in the United States.

“I believe a lot in the possibility of change,” Barrios-Vasquez said. “I think the play is like a door that opens. There are many doors that open and close in a moment.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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