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Mexican artist deported even as his art hangs at Columbia museum immigrant art exhibit

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PAWLEYS ISLAND — Araceli Maceda wheeled an empty suitcase into her brother's house where everything was exactly as he left it hours before he was detained at work and deported.

Hot sauce on the kitchen table. Hairspray and lotion on the vanity. Color-soaked wooden paint palettes on the walls of his bedroom. 

Maceda put the suitcase on the bed. She pulled button-down Oxford shirts from the bottom dresser drawer. She checked WhatsApp again. No updates. 

Her brother was likely somewhere in rural Mexico. It was a long bus ride home to Morelos from the federal holding center in Georgia where he had been detained from mid-April until last week.  

Maceda and her brother, Felix Baizabal, had not been to their childhood home in Mexico since they both left as teenagers — roughly 15 years ago. In those years, they made new lives for themselves in the Myrtle Beach area. Baizabal, who is colorblind, pursued his career as an artist. And he did so with great success. 

'Ecos' exhibit tells story of immigrant experience in South Carolina

Just months ago, Baizabal, 33, was chosen to participate in an exhibit focused on Latino artists and immigrants at the Columbia Museum of Art. 

Then he got arrested while working in a Georgetown restaurant. 

The shattering of Baizabal's American dream comes at a time when the United States government has increased a broad range of immigration crackdowns, from restrictions on access to political asylum to increased deportations of low-wage workers without papers. The controversy has spurred rallies across the country and calls for empathy from faith leaders and business owners. 

This is one story of a family separated in South Carolina. 

"He takes care of me all the time," Maceda, 31, said of her older brother. "We know we came illegally. We don't want to take American-anything. We just want to work. We want to find ourselves." 

Federal detention

Baizabal and his siblings began working around the age of 12 in Morelos, but he knew what they could earn in a week of work in Mexico was the equivalent of what Mexicans could earn in half a day in America. 

When Baizabal turned 18, he followed his older brother to South Carolina. A couple years later, Maceda arrived next.

The teenagers worked jobs typical of other Mexican immigrants — maintenance, housekeeping and restaurant work.

Maceda helped Baizabal with the first painting he made in Myrtle Beach, a portrait of a horse galloping freely through a forest. Baizabal's eye condition prevents him from seeing variations of dark colors. When Baizabal looks up at a sunny sky, he sees gray, not blue. 

Together, they built new lives. Maceda joined a local soccer team. Baizabal took art commissions.

Maceda met her wife, a Puerto Rican. The two married in 2016. Baizabal met the love of his life, his girlfriend, in 2014. 

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Felix Baizabal - painting of sister

Several paintings adorn the walls inside Felix Baizabal's Pawleys Island home. Many focus on his relationships with his family. Here, the 33-year-old painted him with his now 31-year-old sister, Araceli Maceda. Hannah Alani/Staff.

Life for both siblings finally stabilized financially.

In 2010, Baizabal began working at a restaurant in Georgetown. He worked overtime as a dishwasher, cashier and cook, his sister said, often coming in at 9 a.m. and working until closing. He was paid in cash. 

Baizabal knew that his boss, Roberto Garcia, sold antibiotics under the counter at the restaurant.

In Mexico, and in many European countries, antibiotics are commonly sold in stores without prescriptions, so Garcia's practice did not surprise or concern Baizabal, his sister said.

In December, a customer asked him for some of the antibiotics. Baizabal sold five pills marked "Amoxy 500" — amoxicillin, according to the incident report.

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Felix Baizabal - art of family

Much of Felix Baizabal's art is inspired by his Mexican roots and his love for his family. In his own words, the artist wrote that his art reflects his emotions. "In this painting, I illustrate 14 hands, 7 lives, a whole family that I love dearly!" Hannah Alani/Staff. 

He did not know it at the time but that customer was actually an agent with Georgetown County's Drug Enforcement Unit and had been working on a case that centered on the restaurant. In January, agents returned to the restaurant. That time, Garcia sold them 10 pills of Ampicillin, another antibiotic. On April 5, the agents returned for a third and final undercover buy. They purchased more Ampicillin from Garcia, according to the report.

On April 12, the agents filed a search warrant and found containers of a white powder consisting of Amoxicillin and two different types of Penicillin. The agents also found pills, which included other types of antibiotics. 

Garcia was in the restaurant during the search and told agents he "knew what he was doing was wrong," according to the report. He was arrested and charged with dispensing prescription drugs and possession of prescription drugs. 

Baizabal had the day off on April 12. He was at home working on a painting when he got a call asking him to come to work. He left his 2-year-old Chihuahua, Luna, at home and drove to work. 

When he arrived, the agents arrested him, too, on the charge of dispensing prescription drugs. 

'We are not criminals' 

The morning after the arrest, Maceda waited for her brother outside the county jail.

One hour passed. Then another.

At some point, a white van with an "ICE" sticker drove by. Then Maceda realized: Federal immigration agents had taken her brother. Inside, the judge told her that ICE was moving her brother to the agency's temporary holding facility in Charleston.

She drove south on U.S. 17 to the Charleston County Detention Center in North Charleston, where she saw her brother for the last time. He was processed there and quickly moved to Lumpkin, where ICE houses the majority of the undocumented immigrants in South Carolina.

The Post and Courier was unable to corroborate this timeline because there is no federal register to search for people who are in immigration detention. It is unclear how many arrests U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made in the Palmetto State and how many undocumented residents are housed in Lumpkin.

Maceda and her family hired two lawyers — a criminal attorney to fight the drug charge and an immigration attorney to fight for political asylum. With the help of his Myrtle Beach-based criminal attorney Rick O'Neil, Baizabal wrote a letter in which he defended his involvement with the drug sales. 

He claimed he did not know Garcia's practice was illegal. He was told Garcia had a license to sell the medicine, he said. 

"As owners, they have the responsibility and the obligation to admit the charges and absolve me," he said. 

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Felix Baizabal - ICE drawing

Felix Baizabal drew this self-portrait from inside a federal holding facility in Lumpkin, Georgia. He was arrested on April 12 and detained by immigration agents the next day. He proceeded with a self-deportation on the Fourth of July. Hannah Alani/Staff. 

The letter didn't have the desired effect. 

While in ICE detention, Baizabal passed time by doing what he loved most. The other detainees awaiting deportation commissioned drawings of their families. Baizabal used his earnings to purchase colored pencils in the commissary. 

Baizabal sent a self-portrait to his sister in Myrtle Beach. She was planning to represent him during the May 22 opening of the Ecos exhibit in Columbia. 

The picture depicted two images of himself. One was him in an orange jumpsuit, his hands gripping the bright blue bars of a jail cell. The other was a small shadowy figure walking through a dark tunnel toward a lighted door, which stood under a Mexican flag.

At the top of the piece, he wrote:

"No somos criminales ... buscamos oportunidades!" 

"We are not criminals ... we look for opportunities!" 

In late June, after failing to secure political asylum, Baizabal volunteered to self-deport.

On the Fourth of July, he was released and boarded a bus bound for Mexico. 

In South Carolina, he left his best art behind in the state's capital.

Oral histories interpreted 

Maceda drove to Columbia on May 22, while her brother was being held in detention, to represent her brother during the opening of the Ecos art exhibit. As she stood in front of her brother's artwork, she held in her hand the portrait he had drawn of himself from inside the ICE holding center.

She teared up as she answered a reporter's questions about her brother's colorblindness. 

The oral history her brother had chosen to represent was the story of Carmen, another Mexican immigrant from the Lowcountry. Carmen's path was distinctly similar to her and her brother's, Maceda said. 

"He was writing his story," she said.

That's exactly what Marina Lopez, of The Citadel's Latin American History program, had hoped for when she came up with the idea for the Ecos exhibit. Palmetto Luna Arts, a nonprofit artist collective, assisted in finding the Latino artists who would interpret the oral histories. 

In explanation of the piece, Baizabal wrote that he identified with Carmen's story the moment he heard it. 

"From a young age, she grows corn and collects other fruits and seeds," he said. "At the end of the day, she rests her fatigue and contemplates the shade of a large peach tree ... but in her mind, she has the curiosity to know more and cross that border toward the land of opportunity." 

About 20 of Baizabal's American friends and co-workers wrote letters that Maceda hoped to use as character references in the immigration case. 

Her brother asked her to pack up his entire apartment in Pawleys Island and to ship his bed, his dresser, his couch — everything he owns — back to Mexico. 

Maceda hopes to visit her brother sometime in September. Until then, she's taking care of Luna the dog.

Jesse Naranjo contributed reporting. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.