Felipe Baeza: An Artist and Activist Living Without Papers

In the bars and restaurants of the East Village, immigrant workers, many undocumented, toil behind the scenes cooking food, waiting tables, and doing whatever else they can to keep the nightlife abuzz. Felipe Baeza is one of them. He serves food and drinks in a hopping East Village restaurant. For Mr. Baeza, 24, the job was to be a mere stepping stone into an exciting art career, which was to begin three years ago when he graduated with a degree in art from The Cooper Union.

But Mr. Baeza, who as a young boy left Mexico for the United States, doesn’t have a work visa or Social Security number, so he cannot legally work in the U.S. Under current federal law, the jobs he studied to perform are not available to him because of his status.

As Mr. Baeza looks from beyond a bar lined with moist beer bottles and cocktail glasses, he sees his classmates finding success in the art world, at home and abroad. In a word, he is frustrated.

“My options are very limited,” he said. “I couldn’t work in a print shop. I couldn’t even assist an artist.”

Mr. Baeza arrived in Chicago when he was seven, a year after his parents migrated to the U.S. in search of work and an improved life for him and his sister. He quickly learned English and eventually earned a scholarship at the School of Art at The Cooper Union.

felipe_gallery_portraitJoshua Davis Felipe Baeza

Mr. Baeza was relieved and overjoyed to receive the full tuition scholarship. He knew his parents did not have money to send him to college, and federal law barred undocumented immigrants from federal financial aid.

By his senior year in 2009, he received unwelcome press attention when a Catholic group attacked artwork he had displayed in a public art show at the school. The group had objected to the placement of religious symbols in a sexual context.

Most recently, Mr. Baeza found himself in the news again, though this time he was more willing to embrace the attention. Saying he is “frustrated” and “angry” about not being able to work and advance his career, Mr. Baeza has turned to activism to advance his cause.

Mr. Baeza, along with five others, was arrested in June in Georgia during a demonstration, where he was demanding rights for undocumented immigrants. Since his release, he was been working with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization led by undocumented immigrant youth. The group is currently trying to advance the New York Dream Act, which, if enacted, would potentially extend access to higher education, drivers’ licenses and work authorization to undocumented immigrants in the state.

The Act is being taken up in response to the failed attempt of Congress in 2010 to pass the federal Dream Act, which would have provided work authorization and a path to citizenship for immigrants who, like Felipe, were brought to the U.S. as children and pursued higher education.

Back in the East Village, Mr. Baeza traverses the streets to pick up discount art supplies at a local shop. He stops by his work to pick up his tips, and makes a deposit at the bank.

“I feel like I have all this money, but then I have to pay rent,” he says. He is still frustrated about not being able to work in the art field, but has a new sense of empowerment knowing he is not alone.