Retracing Our Steps: An Interview with Jackie Amézquita

Jackie Amézquita is an artist and activist originally from Quetzaltenango, a city in Guatemala’s western highlands. In 2003, at only seventeen years old, she left her hometown, driven by the yearning to be reunited with her mother who had migrated to the United States in need to cover her son’s expensive medical treatment. Amézquita traveled by foot, bus, and car. She arrived in the U.S. undocumented after her second attempt to cross the border, not without experiencing many of the dangers and common threats that immigrants, particularly women, have to face on their passage to this country. Seventeen years after her arrival, she and the family she left behind in Quetzaltenango are living together legally in the U.S. But the journey has not been easy. It involved a difficult process of becoming “lawful permanent residents” of this country. Informed by all of these experiences, Amézquita’s artistic practice has allowed her to develop a body of work that examines the physical, political, and emotional implications of her own personal journey and migration identity. Art has been an outlet and, better yet, a healing process for the artist who has also turned to activism in collaboration with other artists, communities, and groups, including her work with the bi-national project AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides) founded by Mexican artist Tanya Aguiñiga. I reached out to Jackie Amézquita back in June and we started this conversation during a pandemic that we both hoped would be over by the time I posted this interview. We talked about the journey of embodying an active political instrument of memory, her past and current projects, and the need of healing to keep moving forward.


Claudia Pretelin: How and when did you decide to use performance and your body as a medium for your artistic practice?

Jackie Amézquita: Between 2015-2018 my family was undergoing a big transition. My grandmother and brother had to flee Guatemala due to persecution. This happened during my first year as an undergrad at ArtCenter College of Design. In November 2015 my brother was granted asylum after being in a detention center for almost nine months. This was a challenging transition, especially for my brother, who was released a day after his first daughter was born. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit him because I was undocumented at the time. Here is where I started feeling the physical need to use my body in performance art, but I had cultural and political factors holding me back.

In June 2015, after more than twelve years of waiting, I was finally granted my residency interview. It was a bittersweet situation as the National Visa Center had scheduled my meeting in Guatemala as a consequence of entering the country undocumented. I had to leave the U.S. National Visa had already approved my return to the U.S. due to my family circumstances in Guatemala; however, leaving the country for the first time in 12 years had my feelings and emotions going in all directions.

I was excited to see my dad for the first time in 12 years. At the same time, I was also feeling anxious about leaving behind my brother and pregnant sister-in-law in a detention center, and my grandma and my mom. Now I was trading places with my family that I had worked so hard to reunite with. It was hard for my body to deal with all of this at once. I had to be resilient and find room for the strength within my pain.

Going back to Guatemala for the first time was something I dreamt about for years, but nothing was like I pictured it. My grandma and my brother weren’t part of the landscape. I had a fantastic support system. My ex-husband and in-laws were with me on every single step I had to make. I wanted to speak about my story in my art, but the pain was resisting language. To process the pain, I had to channel the past. I had to connect who I was before I came to the United States with who I was as a recently married woman working to gain legal residency. And layered on all of that was my need to work through our brown bodies’ socially constructed ideology and history of labor.

Jackie Amézquita. “De Norte a Sur/From North to South.” 2019

My interest in border politics continued growing. In 2016 I had the opportunity to study abroad in Jerusalem at Bezalel University of Art and Design. Travel opened up so many possibilities. During my time In Jerusalem, I was interested in the border politics between Palestine and Israel.

After studying in Israel, I went to Guatemala to learn back-strap weaving. I wanted to recalibrate myself and explore my family history of migration. I was interested in how my intergenerational family stories intersect as first-generation migrants from Central America. I began internalizing a journey of change and transformation, which was a very uncomfortable place to be in. I started thinking about my responsibility as a documented citizen and the privileges that come with it. I started questioning my ideas of what are the things that define us. How has displacement created advantages and disadvantages? How much can our bodies endure? What does it mean to be resilient?

These questions were asking me to use my body. I decided to explore them in a durational performance. Huellas que Germinan/FootPrints That Sprout(2018) was a performance piece where I walked in silence starting from the border of Tijuana, Mexico, and continued for eight consecutive days until I arrived at the gallery space at 936 Mei Ling Way, Los Angeles. The performance took place every day from sunrise to sunset. During this walk, I walked along with other people who met me throughout the path, including close friends who have inspired me, teachers, and other artists. Some of my friends joined me after the immigration checkpoint in San Clemente. During the performance, I shared my location with a group of friends and other group members showed where the performance piece culminated.

CP: You’ve worked with Tanya Aguiñiga and her project Art Made Between Opposite Sides (AMBOS) first as an intern and subsequently as a collaborator.  For these projects, you’ve explored issues related to borders, immigration, and transnational identity. Can you tell us more about these collaborations and how they have informed your own personal practice?

JA: Tanya founded AMBOS in 2016. After I returned from learning back-strap weaving in Guatemala I connected with Tanya. Upon my arrival, she invited me to join AMBOS in Tijuana. I wanted to be part of this as a way to face the stereotypes that have labeled my identity. I had to recalibrate those ideas that were imposed on our society to dehumanize migration.

Doing this for the first time was uncomfortable. I had so much anxiety during the project. I was confronted with a hurtful reality, but I was choosing to explore that. I had to start processing some of the pain I didn’t allow myself to feel because it was too much to face at once. Doing these interventions with AMBOS allowed me to weave my past with my present to understand a social, humanitarian crisis. I started questioning my position and my responsibility as a survivor and as a woman of color empowered by other women. 

These interactions allowed me to be more vocal. They allowed me to open up to tell my story. I always had a resistance to language. I was very private and sometimes had a hard time communicating because the pain had a lot of anger and I didn’t want to act out of anger until I decided to interrogate my frustration.

During my work with AMBOS, I started reconnecting to the land and the community that I was part of. However, my undocumented status prevented me from fully connecting it to my own experience. Walking back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico made me think of how my mother had to go back and forth to visit us in Guatemala and how walking takes a form of resistance. Walking was taking me into a meditational space of questioning the path that had led me here. I was a brand new legal resident of the United States of America. I left everything behind, my family, friends, favorite dishes, hikes, and home. The only thing I had was my physical body, spirit, and intellect. AMBOS was a reintroduction to a hard past that I didn’t want to face. I was taught not to talk about it and to forget about it. It was here that I started to regain my power and transform the pain into healing. I had to be brave to come back to a place of trauma, but I was willing to do the work for my family and me.

Huellas que Germinan (Foot Prints That Sprout), 2018

CP: As you’ve mentioned, two of your recent projects have involved lengthy walks crossing borders, going back and forward, north and south. First, in your 2018 performance “Huellas que germinan/FootPrints That Sprout” you walked 176 miles from the border in Tijuana to Los Angeles in 7 days. You’ve said before that part of your motivation to do this performance comes from your own family history. Can you tell us more about this motivation and the interest in exploring your roots through your art practice?

JA: Structuring this in my practice comes from a family history of migration. My maternal grandmother Josefina Solis migrated from Mexico to Guatemala in late 1920. Her family had to migrate from Mexico to Guatemala due to Mexico’s Revolution and the Cristeros. All their identification papers were burned and their identities were erased. They were able to settle at the border of Tapachula and Tecún Umán. I have been able to put pieces of our family history together with the little information I have from my grandma. Talking about the past in my family is not a comfortable subject of discussion. I’m sure it is painful for both my mother and my grandma.

On my dad’s side, my grandfather had to walk for about seven days from his hometown and find a job after his mother passed away due to a pandemic in Guatemala during the ’20s. He was about eight years old when he started this trek. I wasn’t told family stories until I started asking around. My family wanted to forget about it because talking about it was considered weak. I saw it the opposite way. I see my mother and grandmother as strong, brave, and resilient, but my way of thinking can be problematic to them. These conversations are something new and unknown to them, confronting someone’s family history is intense emotional labor. Especially for us with generational trauma.

In my art practice, I’m interested in Radical softness as a boundless form of resistance. This term was introduced to me by a group of artists who collectively wrote a series of essays that speak about “The call to think of softness sensibility and vulnerability as a form of resistance challenges what has been implemented in our country for decades.” (Be Oakley, Kimi Hanuer, Alexis Ruiseco Lombera, Lora Mathis, and Noah LeBien). Practicing Radical softness in my art fuses vulnerability as a form of resistance to normalizing our intersectionality and embraces feelings and emotions as a part of our human condition.

CP: Last year, for about a month, you embarked on a performance piece called “De Norte a Sur/From North to South.” This journey began at the southern U.S. border in San Ysidro, CA, and Tijuana, BC, México, and continued to the Mexican border with Tecún Umán, Guatemala in Tapachula, Chiapas. How did you create a supportive network along your way to make this project possible? What was the physical and mental preparation for this performance and what were some of the challenges that you encountered during these days?

JA: From North to South was originally planned to be from South to North. In this performance, my father Gustavo Amézquita was going to join me from Guatemala’s border to the U.S., where my brother and dad would meet for the first time so he could meet his grandchildren. Unfortunately, that was not the universe’s plan. My father transcended on August 29, 2018. My dad’s departure was the drop that overflows the cup. I started cognitive therapy in September when I acknowledged that I was the only one that could help me. It was just me and the love of my family and friends. During this period, I was living in El Sereno by myself. I was depressed. Pretending I was ok was impossible at this time. I had to take care of this wave as it arrived. With cognitive therapy, exercise, and healthy eating, little by little, I started putting myself back together. Still a work in progress, this translates to the work I have been developing with rotating food as a medium of transformation.

In my performance, Huellas Que Germinan, I began a recalibration process with my mental state. I noticed that my physical body was used to exhaustion due to the physical labor I have performed as a nanny since my arrival. Here my body had the opportunity to realize part of the mental load, which was more substantial. In the Norte a Sur performance, I was more aware of the complexity of my body.

At the beginning, I saw this performance as a way of shedding the past and exploring the access I now have as a green card holder by using my privilege of mobility. Weaving narratives of resistance, endurance, displacement, and resilience driven by an element of catharsis are concepts that continue to drive my work.

During durational performances, I have a team of family and friends who are part of my support system. I create a text message group where people can follow my steps and navigate with me digitally. I post on Instagram my daily whereabouts. My community also helps me share my project with family and friends to try to find me places to spend the night. In De Norte a Sur, I didn’t know how I would go from place B to C. I figured all this out on the move by asking people around me. I only knew my destinations. The rest was figured out on the spot.

My mental state is different during a performance. My body weaves internal and external factors as my steps connect me to the ground. Besides experiencing physical and mental challenges, I faced different weather conditions, confrontations with racism, classism, and indigenous communities’ oppression. At the border of Tapachula with Tecun Uman, my friends from Totonicapan, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and I were confronted by locals who work and live by the Rio Suchiate border of Guatemala and Mexico. Locals were accusing my friends and me of witchcraft as we dispersed border soil that traveled from Los Angeles.

The police arrived and asked me for a “collaboration” (extortion). Because I was unwilling to pay them, the police asked us to leave telling us “No quiero que linchen a sus amigos por brujeria es mejor que se vayan y usted es mejor se cuide por que es mujer/ I don’t want them to lynch your friends, it’s better that you go and be careful because you are a woman.” This is something that I’m still processing.

Jackie Amézquita and Ajq’ij Santos (spiritual guide) at the border that connects Mexico and Guatemala in 2019.

CP: Has walking become a form of resistance for you? 

JA: Walking is a learned ability that starts developing as part of our gross motor skills before age one. This ability has allowed us to inhabit the world. In my practice, I use walking as a form of resistance. Walking activates a connection between my interior and the exterior world. My footprints reclaim the space while my steps leave a mark on the surface. My feet drag particles from one place to another, tracing a line that connects us, humans, with a landscape and allows us to inhabit an environment.

CP: When asked “What can walking teach us in the current pandemic?”, artist Ernesto Pujol said recently in an interview with Common Edge that “We have walked ourselves into an unhealthy place, so we need to retrace our steps back to heal what we have violated in nature. We also need to walk on to a very different future than that envisioned by unrestrained global capitalism. But in a more immediate sense, we need to walk inside our quarantine.” Has retracing your footprints helped you to walk to a more healthy place in life?

JA: The part of the quote that sticks out the most to me is, “we need to retrace our steps back to heal what we have violated in nature. We also need to walk on to a very different future than that envisioned by unrestrained global capitalism.” We have to look back to what has been done in the past to our land and humanity, first as individuals and then as a collective. Our land has witnessed pain and injustice. Before we step outside again, we have to look inside ourselves and question our reality and those other realities.

We also have to allow our bodies to heal. Yes, we are strong, but we are also delicate. We have to honor ourselves and heal. It’s a process that may ask a lot from our psyche and emotional being. We needed this interior quarantine to check on all those internal scars that we thought did not harm us, but they did. In my experience, this is why it is so hard to talk about them. They can be so painful that they disable us.

Jackie Amézquita working in her studio.

CP: Continuing with the idea of transformation, you’ve been developing a new body of work that doesn’t involve any sort of physical mobility but it involves the same amount of patience when it comes to documenting and understanding how food and bacteria alter during the process of incubation. Can you talk about this research and experimentation with food?

JA: When the pandemic started, I lost my appetite. There were lots of changes in my life happening too fast due to COVID-19. Even though everything worked out, my body was suffering some of the consequences of the imbalance at the end. Part of my quarantine reflection is between my undocumented reality and my current residency status. This reflection took the form of a performance/installation where I incubated different produce on paper and copper sheets for 60 days—the produce was placed on the surface of these copper sheets, covered by a plastic salad box.
I am interested in the process that stillness undertakes. The action of the transformation of the produce for me represents the footprint of the labor of the people who grow, transport, and make it possible to have these fruits on our table. I will host an open studio on August 18, in my current living/working space in Glendale.

“Tomates originated from the Andes, in what is now called Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador – where they grew wild. They were first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 AD” Jackie Amézquita

CP: What other projects are you currently working on?

JA: I’m currently working on a project as part of a residency at Human Resources, Los Angeles. I’m also finalizing the details for an installation that will be presented at the Actual Size Gallery in LA. This body of work is similar to the one I previously presented at Human Resources, a series of soil narratives on drywalls. In it, I intend to embrace the lives of people who had their last breaths in ICE detention centers.

CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?

Traveling. Moving around, so I can come back to stillness.

Thank you, Jackie!

Jackie Amézquita (b. 1985) is a bi-national artist/activist. Amézquita was born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and migrated to the United States in 2003. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from ArtCenter College of Design and an Associate degree in Visual Communications from Los Angeles Valley College. She is an MFA Candidate in the New Genres program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) 2022. She is currently living and working in Los Angeles, California. Amézquita’s work explores the psycho-socio-geographical and political interactivity of different ethnic groups. She is interested in exploring the impact that two opposing cultures create on their social environment and how socioeconomic differences between cultures affect the social structure. The types of jobs people do, the amount of money they can earn, and the quality of land they occupy are factors that play a role in defining racial groups in society, each with its own concerns, interests, values, and attitudes.

If you are interested in learning more about Jackie Amézquita’s work, check out her website or follow her on social media @jackieamezquita

From August 24-28, 2020 don’t miss Jackie’s takeover for the Instruments of Memory Instagram account!

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