Immigrant Artists and the American Dream

From left to right: Grammy-nominated jazz guitarist Sebastian Noelle, Korean violinist Sita Borahm Chay, Dreamer and columnist Juan Escalante. Chay says immigrant artists have a responsibility to connect with other artists of color and awaken empathy. (Photo by Allyson Escobar for Voices of NY)

During Immigrant Heritage Week, New York City’s creatives of color are sharing their stories and craft, while advocating for policy change and understanding.

Tereza Lee, an award-winning pianist, was born of Korean parents in Brazil and grew up poor in Chicago. A self-taught piano prodigy, Lee’s childhood dreams of college and a professional music career were dashed after she learned she was undocumented.

In 2001, Lee appealed to Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin to develop and introduce a bill to protect out-of-status immigrant children on the path to U.S. citizenship, which after many revisions and reintroductions, eventually became the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

“Music encouraged and inspired the DREAM Act,” Lee shared. “They call me the original Dreamer, but it is my immigrant parents who dreamt, have been dreaming, and still dream.”

Lee spoke at “American Dreamers: The Immigrant Artists’ Voice in the USA,” a panel presented by the Immigrant Arts Coalition and The New York Times Latino Network, which took place at The Times on Wednesday, April 18.

Based in New York, the Immigrant Arts Coalition is a network of multi-disciplinary arts organizations and artists. The nonprofit, formed July 2017, launched this past February at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with a focus on advocacy, partnerships and programming. It now includes over 50 local organizations and nearly 100 immigrant artists.

The coalition aims to empower and celebrate immigrants’ stories and contributions in the arts, while advocating for fair representation and diversity.

Panelists were renowned artists from across the globe, including Lee, violinist Sita Borahm Chay, Dreamer and writer Juan Escalante, jazz guitarist Sebastian Noelle, and Latin singer Itawe Correa.

Escalante gave an overview of the unknown future of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and the division in Congress about immigration policy. Speakers shared how their migration stories impact their art, and the message they hope to put out.

Correa, lead singer of the Grammy-nominated Latin band Locos Por Juana, was stopped and briefly detained on his way to the Grammys by an immigration officer, who only let him go after seeing his invite to the coveted award show. The incident opened his eyes to the power of his art.

“Art is a platform to share a message. Music allows me to tell my immigrant story,” said Correa, who is Colombian and Filipino.

“Everyone here has a story,” said moderator Marlena Fitzpatrick Garcia, president of the Immigrant Arts Coalition, addressing the audience. “But in this culture of political unrest – how does fear permeate the anti-immigrant narrative?”

Itawe Correa (left) and Tereza Lee (right) at the panel discussion held by the Immigration Arts Coalition on April 18. (Photo by Allyson Escobar for Voices of NY)

The panelists contended that, while fear is perfectly normal, it should have no permanent place in an immigrant’s life. Connection and compassion, they said, is the way to overcome it.

“The fact that artists all over the world can connect through their art, it gives us so much responsibility to awaken empathy, and that’s how we overcome fear,” said Sita Borahm Chay, a renowned Korean violinist. Chay came to New York “to be among the best musicians from all over the world, with the best kind of dreams and passion.”

With the current discordant political climate, the Immigrant Arts Coalition maintains that art – and the creative, healing process – provides a safe haven for immigrant artists, especially those oppressed and/or undocumented.

“We are in a time of political unrest and uncertainty, and the nation has never before been this divided,” chairman Chris Massimine, told Voices of NY, adding that the coalition focuses on the scope of performing arts, including theater and music, and the collaboration of multicultural groups. “We want to be the bridge between the arts and politics, and to engage in more of this kind of dialogue.”

“We need to foster a path that helps out people who contribute to the cornerstone of society – people who work, who create, who are incredibly gifted – and we plan to have an active role in the pro-immigrant movement,” said Garcia.

“Arts reflect culture, culture creates ideas through identity, and identity is legacy,” added Massimine. “In unity, that legacy can serve everyone.”

Allyson Escobar is a member of the 2018 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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