Artist or Alien?
Unable to shake my hand, he embraced me instead. His palms bled from blisters smelling of sawdust and drumsticks; His shirt drenched with fervor and angst; His voice a bit shaky and his spanglish chromatic, he told me
“Man, Gracias. Thank you so much. How you say viva? Increíble? Chet. I’m alive!”
With my guitar unable to bear the weight of his clutch, he loosened up quickly.
“You were awesome. We were awesome. That was awesome.”
He turned to the crowd with a wicked smile. Amidst conversation, the sound engineer switched back to a loungy pandora radio station. Signaling a dingy, post-show, LES cocktail break, the crowd shuffled to the bar. The band staggered to the door.
“The payout is 128. That’s 32 each.”
Now, the value of this particular moment was measured not by currency, but by sentiment. For the first time since moving from Chile, Claudio Vera was able to look down at his money, knowing it was earned solely from his music. He pulled the assortment of crumpled bills close to his chest. He took a deep breath.
Vera first arrived in New York City about a year prior to this event. With mentorship and advisement from his friend and fellow musician, Juan Castro, he was able to obtain what is known as a P-3 Artist/ Entertainer US visa. To be eligible, an artist must “be coming to the United States either individually or as a group for the purpose of developing, interpreting, representing, coaching, or teaching artistic performance or presentation.” Vera fell into the category of developing, and potentially teaching, having earned a degree in music at the University of Chile back home.
To an aspiring performer, this visa looks and sounds too good to be true. Well, it is. As with most US visas, the terms and conditions of the P-3 are very strict, and realistically unachievable, given the timeline. Artists are initially allowed one year to fulfill performance requirements and are eligible for extension, pending proven itinerary. Nevermind getting settled, finding a job and somewhere to sleep. I guess those things are deprioritized when it comes to the US giving immigrants (or nonimmigrants) a false sense of hope.
Without much of a support system, it was a rough first few nights for Vera. He stowed his luggage under the subway seats and shut his eyes periodically, riding through the catacombs in pursuit of a remedy. But it was at this point where he determined that nothing would ever be the same. It was at this point that his skin became just thick enough to endure the blisters on his bloodied hands. Just thick enough to prevail.
Vera obtained a job through his mentor Castro, though not in the musical field. Because the P-3 does not allow for nonimmigrants to collect income outside of the arts, he had to be paid under the table. Although grateful, Vera had to consider his future. His attempt to balance a job that required a great deal of time and energy, while he pursued his art under strict conditions, proved difficult.
In reality, submerging one’s self into the oversaturated New York City music scene is risky business. The industry is unforgiving and the dream might be a long shot. For the US Immigration Services to then tack on an expiration date, they vastly minimize the scope of success altogether. With such unfeasible terms and regulations, most of these nonimmigrants turn into illegal aliens. Refusing to accept failure, they are persistent in pursuing the arts, while attempting to make an honest living, not unlike starving artists.
Though, these starving artists are not the only ones who have a hard time finding their way around the country. Some renowned artists even have a hard time finding their way into the country. In recent years, the USCIS has made entertainment visa processing expensive and exhaustive. Larry Rohter, from the NY Times, reported that an orchestra from Manchester, England canceled an American tour due to $70,000 in visa fees for 100 of their musicians. Meanwhile, London native artist Skepta was scheduled to perform this past April at Coachella, but was declined an artist visa, and forced to cancel his appearance.
As for Vera, he sits atop his drum throne, sticking away until his blisters resurface. In his humble queens apartment lies an artist, determined to pierce the ears of those who won’t listen.