I spot Jackie Amézquita just as she begins to cross the Cesar E. Chavez Avenue Viaduct, the Eastside to her back as she treads toward downtown. From where I stand, a few steps away from the Spanish Colonial-style arches that mark the bridge’s halfway point, Amézquita is no more than a faceless moving figure, yet her purposeful stride is surprisingly visible given the distance. She’s accompanied by a close friend who matches her pace, though with calmer, subtler movements. I’ve never met Amézquita before, nor do I know what she looks like, yet there’s no need to speculate which of the two women she is. The intensity with which she walks eliminates the guesswork.
It’s April 12 and at this point Amézquita has been walking for eight consecutive days, making her way up to Los Angeles all the way from the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an art performance piece she’s titled Huellas Que Germinan (Footprints That Sprout). The project was born of a course called Socially Engaged Art at ArtCenter College of Design, where Amézquita is currently wrapping up her senior year. The final destination of her 150-mile walk is a small, unnamed gallery space tucked away in Chinatown—a mere 1.3 miles from where we stand on the bridge—where 15 other students from ArtCenter and a local nonprofit called Art Division have curated an exhibition titled “Decentralized.” The show explores the idea of displacement among marginalized groups, and Amézquita has timed her arrival to coincide with the opening reception.
It’s around 7:40 p.m. when I greet Amézquita on the bridge, 40 minutes past her scheduled arrival time and still a 25-minute walk from the gallery. I’m there to take a quick portrait, so I repeatedly mumble that I’ll be fast, wary of further delaying her arrival. Yet Amézquita doesn’t seem worried about the time. While she doggedly keeps her pace, only pausing for a few seconds to facilitate a shot, she seems completely absorbed in the moment.
Neither of us say it aloud, but crossing the bridge feels both momentous and symbolic. It’s the last such juncture she’ll encounter on the journey and, as a piece of urban infrastructure, it links two distinctly different neighborhoods. This idea of connectivity—the experience and consequence of cultures merging and the practice of analyzing environments through a psycho-geographical lens—functions as the foundation and central theme of her piece and her oeuvre as a whole.
Amézquita was born in 1985 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala and made her way to the States on the eve of her 18th birthday. When asked about the two-week journey across the border, Amézquita’s eyes go wide as she lets out an incredulous laugh, almost as if she can’t believe the experience was real. “That was…intense,” she says. She recounts the one small knapsack she was allowed to bring, filled with nothing but snacks for the journey, no room for clothing or personal items. But the fear of assault and sexual harassment overshadowed every other hardship of the experience.
“It’s horrible. I was worried that I was going to get raped. I was wearing loose clothing all the time to not show my body because I was worried I’d be attractive to some men. And even though I was doing that, a smuggler asked me if I wanted to stay with him. I remember the night before we tried to cross [the border], I went up on the roof and I slept there the entire night, because I was worried about what would happen if I stayed inside.”
Though Amézquita made it safely across the border, she lived undocumented for over a decade, unable to return to Guatemala and living in fear of being sent back. It wasn’t until two years ago after she successfully obtained a greencard that the idea for the performance piece started becoming a reality.
Shedding light on the profuse dangers that threaten women migrants was a major motivator behind Huellas Que Germinan. The walk served as a pilgrimage to not only raise awareness to these injustices, but also to showcase the resilience and tenacity of the immigrant experience. It was both a call to action and a commemoration.
Amézquita’s walk was also deeply personal. As she marched along in silence and solitude, repressed memories from her childhood resurfaced. Various vignettes—many revolving around the absence of her mother who immigrated to the United States when she was just 2 years old—vividly came back to her. Amézquita says these moments made her confront her past in a way she’d never done before.
“It’s really hard. It’s just you dealing with your fears, you dealing with those ghosts of the past and trying to be present too,” she explains. “It’s just a back and forth. And also thinking ahead to the future. So you’re kind of in three different screens, there’s a past, there’s a present, there’s a future, but you’re still one in the same place.”
These mental movements through time paired with the physical act of walking forward seem to perfectly embody the sentiment behind the title of the piece, Huellas Que Germinan (Footsteps That Sprout). It’s a potent reminder that our past, present, and future coexist simultaneously. In a poem introducing the project, Amézquita’s most poignant line reads: Saludo al presente en donde las huellas del pasado germinan/I greet the present where the traces of the past germinate.
“It has a lot to do with me shedding all these memories. But also realizing that I’m not the only one, this is something that is still happening,” she says. “This happens every day, every minute, every second, somebody is going through this. And we don’t see the privilege that we have. So what is our job as humans in this society? What are we doing to make a difference about this?”
Olga Koumoundouros, Amézquita’s professor, created the curriculum of the Socially Engaged Art course to address these exact questions. “I really liked the idea of setting up a philosophical program that also addressed how to be a citizen in the world and how to look at context and look at our impact. That was really the driving force behind Socially Engaged Art,” she says.
As we near the end of the bridge, Amézquita and I say goodbye, and I make my way (in the comfort of my car) to the gallery in Chinatown for her ultimate arrival. Amézquita continues down Cesar E. Chavez, now just 20 or so minutes from her endpoint.
I join a crowd of about 50 people who stand outside the space, eagerly looking in all directions for signs of Amézquita’s arrival. Then, down the stretch of Jung Jing Road, somebody spots her in the distance—steady, resolute strides carrying her down the deserted alleyway. The crowd erupts in applause and words of encouragement, “I love yous” echo down the lantern-lit walkway. The cheers continue until Amézquita comes to a complete stop and faces the crowd.
She stands next to a blue oil drum—the same kind of drum used in femicides across Mexico to burn and dispose of victims’ bodies. It’s a haunting ode to the countless lives lost, many in pursuit of a better life across the border. But instead of fire, Amézquita has filled the drum with water, a subversive declaration of triumph in the face of danger and hate. It’s a tactic Amézquita employs in much of her art—transforming negative symbols and themes into moments of celebration. Absences—of memories, of space, of security—become fertile ground for growth and creation.
The crowd is silent as Amézquita looks around the audience with a serious yet serene look in her eyes. A sense of overwhelming awe and humility permeates the space. Those with cameras drop their lenses for just a moment. Amézquita ceremoniously removes her faded overalls to reveal a hand-crocheted traje, or jumpsuit, made from Guatemalan thread. The suit is a creamy beige with two parallel wine-colored stripes that cross over her abdomen—the red tint derived from two months’ worth of Amézquita’s menstrual blood. Carefully, Amézquita props herself against the edge of the drum and submerges herself completely. It’s as if the crowd simultaneously holds their breath with Amézquita—when she re-emerges, a collective gasp fills the air.
Amézquita smiles widely for the first time. Her mother comes forward and embraces her as she still stands in the oil drum. Slowly, Amézquita pulls herself up and out, and her mother wraps a towel around her soaking body. The two walk into the gallery space, and the crowd stays still, stunned. Days later, I replay the moment in my head as I read the last lines of Amézquita’s poem. Her words the perfect description for an indescribable moment:
Es aquí donde mis piernas se vuelven mas fuertes al golpear el suelo/ This is where my legs become stronger as they hit the ground
Es aquí donde mis brazos aprenden a balancear todo el peso de mi cuerpo/This is where my arms learn to balance the weight of my body
Es aquí donde aprendo que el esfuerzo físico lo oxigenan mis ancestros, mis abuelos/This is where I learn that my ancestors, my grandparents oxygenate my physical strength
Y hoy mas que nunca mi madre./ And today more than ever my mother.