LOS ANGELES — In 2014, Jackie Amézquita was looking for her brother. He had recently arrived at the US southern border with his pregnant wife seeking asylum after being kidnapped and extorted in their native Guatemala, but she hadn’t heard from him in two weeks. She contacted an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office, where an officer recommended she look for his name on an online database of detainees. She found that he had been detained and would remain so for nine months until his request for asylum was approved. (He was released the day after his daughter was born.) While searching for his name, she also stumbled upon a list of detainees who had died in ICE custody since 2003. The most commonly listed countries of birth were Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Cuba, but others had come from China, Ghana, Haiti, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
This list formed the basis of her 2022 MFA thesis exhibition at the University of California, Los Angeles, Gemidos de la Tierra (Wailing of the Land/Soil). She collected dirt from states where migrants lost their lives in detention centers and mixed it with masa (ground corn dough), rainwater, and salt. She then cast letters out of the adobe-like mixture, baked them, and used them to spell out each of the roughly 200 migrants’ names on large four-by-eight-foot white panels.
Next weekend, on March 25 and 26, Amézquita will present a two-day mobile version of Gemidos, mounting the panels on the sides of three pickup trucks that will form the lead of a caravan traveling to sites around Los Angeles that represent both systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants — “spaces that speak to the Central American diaspora,” in the artist’s words.
Curator Daniela Lieja Quintanar invited Amézquita to restage the work in this new mobile version, a joint presentation between Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND).
“Her work connects deeply with the experience of walking through the land, the struggle of sustaining life in a collective way against the repressive system that we live in,” Quintanar told Hyperallergic.
“I understand Gémidos de la Tierra as contemporary Maya estelas that inform, witness and put into evidence the atrocities of the US border politics that replicate around the world,” she added, evoking the sculpted stelae monuments of the Ancient Maya civilization. “But also as estelas that honor and present the names of those that have fought to sustain life.”
In the process of her research for the project, Amézquita discovered two records of detainee deaths in ICE custody: One listing deaths from 2003–2017 and one beginning in 2018, with a nearly year-long gap between the two. She noticed that children were conspicuously absent from the lists, a stark contrast from the accounts of child detainee deaths she found in news accounts online.
“How can I engrave into these panels the names that are not here?” she wondered. To honor these children, she shredded all the documents she had collected which mention their deaths, cast letters from them, and implanted them with chia seeds, which have just begun to sprout.
On the front grill of each truck, Amézquita will attach ears of corn, another element central to Indigenous traditions throughout Central America and Mexico. This references not only the Maya origin story of humans having been created from corn, but also represents the Maya deities believed to help one transition from life to death. She will electroplate the ears of corn with copper, so they will turn from a metallic gold to a bright blue as the organic matter decays and the copper oxidizes.
On Saturday morning at the MOCA Geffen parking lot, Amézquita will begin the performance by adding names to the panels of four adults and one child who have died since she first presented the work last year. She will then lead a caravan of about 30 cars driven by friends and supporters to sites associated with migrant detention and surveillance, including the offices of security firm G4S and the GEO Group which invests in private prisons, as well as an ICE field office and detention centers. At each stop, she will give a bilingual talk on the history and mission of each organization. On Sunday, she will lead another tour, this time visiting organizations that offer support, aid, and solidarity to migrants.
The event will end at MacArthur Park, a longtime hub for LA’s Central American communities, with a festive celebration open to the public including tamales and a performance by Dorian Wood.
Along the routes, participants can listen to a Spotify playlist in their cars in which Amézquita recounts her own immigration experience. She left her hometown of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala when she was 17, crossing the US-Mexico border on foot and arriving in Los Angeles, where she reunited with her mother, whom she had not seen since she made the same journey in 1987, when the artist was just two years old. (After several years of undocumented immigration status, Amézquita became a permanent US resident in 2015.)
It was on a trip with Ambos, an artist collective that explores issues around the border and transnationality, several years later that she began to explore ways to incorporate soil into her artwork.
“I started thinking about the bottle of water that I left behind when I had to run from immigration. ‘What happened to that bottle? Is it still there? Did someone drink the water?’” She began collecting soil from various locations in bottles, which act as vessels for the site’s history and a personal connection to it.
There is also a mail-art portion of the work, in which Amézquita will send out approximately 100 letters with information on the project and both lists of detainee deaths, the first of which has been taken off ICE’s website and is only available via FOIA request. She has also created a QR code so anyone can access these lists online, a way to extend the life of the piece beyond the physical and temporal limits. It is a way to commemorate the names of the deceased, while continuing the grim task of documenting their deaths in state custody.
“I would like to take this project somewhere else, maybe in a year, to see what has happened in that year,” Amézquita says. ”How many names do we have to continue adding to this list? And when is this going to stop?”