Alyssa Yamamoto, the fire behind socially and ethically conscious brand, Hiptipico. Empowering Maya artisans, families and communities in Panajachel, Guatemala. As artisans partner with Hiptipico, the stories of their deep-rooted culture come to life through vibrantly, beautiful handcrafted pieces and textiles. Hiptipico has created fair wages, promising opportunity and a chance for these artisans’ voices to be heard. I had the opportunity to work closely with an artisan and the Hiptipico team! We originally planned on driving to Maria’s house, (the woman who inspired it all) where I would learn the ins and outs of their creative process. But, the day took a slight detour due to heavy traffic along the winding roads. It was rainy season and roads were covered in rocks from the heavy storms days before. (typical in Guatemala) So, we ended up making our way to Teresa’s home. (another artisan) where I witnessed the magic of Maya traditions unfold.
A conversation with Alyssa
The inspiration for Hiptipico stems from the encounter with Maria (Maya artisan) on the streets. Can you tell me about that moment?
A: Yeah, I remember Maria was one of the street vendors from San Antonio. She would bring her whole bundle to Panajachel and walk the streets. She didn’t have enough to buy a stand, stall or a physical store but she would walk the streets, looking for tourists and things like that. You know, some women can be quite pushy and sometimes in the way when you’re trying to enjoy an afternoon. As a tourist, it can be a bit frustrating. I wasn’t a tourist, I was working in Panajachel and living there for a couple months at least and I would always see her on the street and she was always like, “Hey, how are you?” and I guess because I spoke Spanish unlike some of the other tourists who would be like, “No no no” I, on the other hand, would be like, “Hey how are you? I don’t need anything today. I’m not gonna buy today. I’m living here and I just don’t need it.” We would see each other on a regular basis. I would say, just like everyone else, “Buenos tardes.” Then my parents came to visit once in 2011 when I first moved here and I had seen Maria on the street and she said, “Hey are these your parents? It’s so nice to meet them.” She was really thoughtful and nice. She wasn’t even trying to push her products, she genuinely wanted to meet my parents and talk to them. She did try a little bit to sell and then my mom ended up buying some stuff from her. We had a new relationship after that. She was like, “Hey, remember when your mom was here and she bought something?” I was like, “Oh yeah, hey Maria!” *laughs*
M: That’s adorable!
A: One day she came up and talked to me and I finally was like, “How old are you? What’s your story? Where’s your husband? Where are your children? I see you almost every single day!” She was around the same age when I asked her those questions and she’s a year or two older than me. We’re very similar in age! Then she goes, “Oh no I’m not married.” Then I say to her, “You’re 27 and you’re not married?” In Guatemala, that’s unheard of. Even in the states, by the age of 27 someone can start to ask you, “Are you married?” or “Are you not married?” People here are married and have children by the age of 18, 20, 22. It’s unlikely to see something like that. So, I’m like, “Oh so you have children then?” Because even if you’re not married, you’ll have children. Most rural areas they’re having children 16, 17, 18.
M: Yeah, super common.
A: Yes! So, she says, “Nope, no children!” And I go, “You’re not married, you don’t have children and you’re 27, why? Why did you make that decision? Are you looking for somebody?” And she’s like, “Nope, as soon as I get married or have children, I can’t leave the house anymore. I can’t come to the streets and I can’t come and sell. My husband will not let me leave the house. If I can’t go out and sell, how am I supposed to support my parents? Every day I come down and sell. I get to meet people like you, say hi to my friends. I have the other women I work with and we eat lunch together and sit down by the lake. So, really I don’t want to get married or have children and I want to be able to support my family.” I think it’s really important to have that freedom. She told me this story while in the beginning stages of my thoughts about Hiptipico and helping women. I realized that’s the type of woman I wanted to support. She made a conscious decision to not get married and not have children, with the culture that she lives in, it was a very different type of mentality to have made that decision on her own.
M: Wow, she went kinda against the grain there!
A: Totally against the grain! You know, very feminist for her. So, a lot of what Hiptipico does is support women, support mothers. At the same time, I felt like she was also the type of woman that I could see us supporting. Even based on how she treated my parents, whenever she invited us to her house, she would always be like, “Bring your parents to our house, bring your friends to our house.” Whatever it was, she always invited us over. So, I started bringing friends and teachers over to her house. It was similar to Teresa (Maya artisan), “Come and see how I weave, come and see our workshop, come and meet my parents.” And that’s kinda how the relationship formed and where the inspiration came from for Hiptipico. When I would talk to her, it was like, “Yeah this is what I need to do.” These are the types of women I want to support, these are the types of women I want to meet. These are the types of women who’s stories that need to be heard. It wasn’t always about the product, it was about these stories don’t exist at the moment, people don’t get to hear these really deep personal histories of people, especially the Maya people who have such a beautiful culture. They have zero voice. Who are these people? Who are these creators? That kinda was my moment where I thought, “I want these stories to exist in the world.”
The result of being stuck in heavy Guatemalan traffic. It’s time for a photo op everyone!
What is your personal mission in life?
A: Well, when I go through customs, when I leave the country I usually write my occupation as “teacher.” I think that it’s fitting. I’m not a teacher, I never was a teacher by profession. I did work in one of the international schools, but I do feel that my mission is to help people look at the world in a different way. I think that falls under the fact that I like to teach people. And in a general sense, I like to share different types of knowledge, help people have access to different information that they don’t normally get.
M: You evoke thought-provoking ideas…
A: Yes. I hope they change their thinking. I hope they change the way they look at the world. I want to give a different perspective. Everyone sees their world through their lens and I think I want to open their eyes to different perspectives that they may not get on a regular basis.
M: You live here. So, your perspective is as real as it gets for some people that are unaware of the social injustices that go on in Guatemala.
A: Yeah, I think the most important thing is that I used to be there and I know how you look at the world and it’s not wrong. I wasn’t a bad person when I was living there. I was kinda just ignorant to the things that were going on in the world. It wasn’t about that. I just didn’t have the exposure and any access to different types of viewpoints. Once I traveled a little bit and met people, I had a bit of an awakening. I think I need to create a channel for that to happen for more people.
M: Absolutely, that’s beautiful.
M: What’s something you learned about the Maya culture that you now embrace as your own?
A: Oh my gosh!
M: The list goes on! *laughs*
A: I think there’s a lot that I’ve changed since moving here, definitely my sense of time would be one in general. That’s a Latin American thing. If I were to go to the coffee shop down from the lake, I would walk as if I were in New York City, and that’s ridiculous. I would pass people and bump people! Now, I walk really slow and say hi to everybody. I would say, my favorite thing about living here and something that’s changed for me is the sense of community where I grew up or in the states. I mean, you don’t really talk to anyone. Maybe some small towns you do. If you’re from a small town, you definitely say hi to your neighbors or whatever it is. But living in New York, San Francisco, and DC. I would wake up, go to the subway and go to work. If I didn’t get there first, someone is going to get there before me and I would lose that opportunity, whatever it is that day. So, now the amount of people that I say, “Buenos Dias” to when I’m starting my day is my favorite thing that I’ve taken on that’s a part of this culture. I find myself even doing it in the states.
M: Ahhhh, that’s awesome!
A: What’s interesting is that people will answer you but no one does it. So, I would say, that’s the biggest thing for me, embracing the community and the way that people interact with one another. That’s something I’ve taken on but that’s more of a Latin American thing not so much of a Maya thing. In terms of the indigenous culture that I’ve taken on myself? I’m not sure, maybe an appreciation for mother nature and being careful about what I’m taking and giving back. Especially here on the lake, that’s one of the biggest things that the indigenous culture preserve.
M: Yeah, I noticed coming from Las Vegas to Guatemala, you must recondition yourself. It’s such an interesting contrast.
Has it gotten easier traveling back and forth from the U.S to Guatemala or do you face the same challenges?
A: I face a lot of challenges. When I go back to the states, I find it quite easy to go about my routine and get back into my flow in the states. I mean, I was there for 25 years! It’s super easy for me to hop in the car, get a coffee, get a bagel, go to my friend’s house, get a manicure, whatever it is. I find it very very easy. Then when I come back, I have this reverse culture shock of guilt. It’s a super emotional transition every time I come back. EVERY SINGLE TIME. If I go for a week, if I go for a month, I come back here and it takes me a week to adjust. I don’t know if it’s the pace of life? I don’t know that I was going so so so fast and just jumping back into my old habits? I always feel a bit guilty, a bit emotional. I’m always thinking, “where’s my home?” I go back to the states and I feel super easy. I come back to Guatemala and it’s completely different but it’s super easy. It’s a good thing but I get very emotional about it. It takes me about a week to 10 days to adjust back here and getting my brain exactly where I need it to be for this context.
M: I think it’s really interesting that even when you go back to the U.S, you still fall into old lifestyle and old habits.
A: It’s good though because I have a different perspective, like the things that used to be problems aren’t problems to me anymore. My routine is fine. The way I treat people is different. The way I view situations is different but I’m fine. I’m a better person now in the states. I am! And then I come back here and I’m like, “who am I?!”
M: *laughs* “I’m all mixed up!”
A: *laughs* Because I like it there, I shouldn’t like it there but I have to tell myself, “No, it’s alright to enjoy getting a manicure.”
M: You can see both sides of the spectrum.
A: Very much so, yes!
Any creative endeavors you participate in outside of Hiptipico? Describe your creative process.
A: I would say most of my entire life is Hiptipico. Even when I’m feeling creative, I’m finding a way for it to benefit Hiptipico one way or another. I do like taking pictures, I like being in pictures when I’m in the mood! *laughs* I have a couple of other photography friends that come into town and when they’re in town, I like to create. We’ll go out and do different types of shoots that have nothing to do with Hiptipico. They’ll be a bit more about storytelling, more about high emotions. Those are things I really like to do. If there are other types of photographers in town that have a different type of style, I love to go work with them and learn from them. I’ll bring Erica (Photographer of Hiptipico) and she’ll learn too and we’ll fall under the topic of Hiptipico so it’s hard for things to be completely separate but I do have my moments.
M: So, you do like to collaborate with other artists.
A: Yes, I love doing that!
What does it mean to live an ethically and socially conscious based life? What are some changes you made in your life to create that?
A: It’s about being true and honest. It’s about being transparent. I mean, nothing is going to be fully ethical, fully sustainable. I would have to live in a bubble. I wouldn’t be able to interact at all. So, I think it’s about being thoughtful, conscious and honest. I think just being transparent is another important thing with yourself and with other people you interact with. And some changes … I stopped being so hard on myself and I would say that’s the biggest thing. Just accepting I’m doing what I can and what fits with the lifestyle I have right now and it’s not that I can’t get better but I don’t have to force too many things.
M: Yeah, to be so harsh on yourself…
A: Yeah, I’m being thoughtful and I’m being conscious but I’m not perfect. Nobody is! I think just being the best that you can, always try to learn and grow and be better but you don’t have to rush it.
M: Yeah, I think it’s a work in progress. I know a lot of people struggle with that. Personally, I feel guilty sometimes because there’s more that I want to do but I can’t. I don’t have the resources entirely…day by day.
What is the driving force in your life? What keeps you going?
A: I’m very very very connected to humans. Relationships and humanity are what keep me going. I believe in humans. I believe that people are here to do good. I would say it’s the women I work with. The artisans I made relationships with if I’m ever down or not creative or feeling like I don’t have anything left. I’ll be like, “Oh my god, what is Maria doing today? What kind of difficulties does she have?” And I think, “I can overcome this, get up go, and do what you have to do today.” It’s kinda like those moments where I remember how little they have and they still get up and do it and smile. Everyone here has such a good attitude. SUCH a good attitude. You’ll see today, it’s those things that keep me going. I’ll look around and appreciate what I have and it’ll give me the drive I need to continue what I’m doing.
Have you always known you would do this kind of work? What were you doing before this?
A: I always knew that I would be in some type of service work. Even when I was younger, I always felt like helping people or responding fast in an emergency situation since I was really young. I was always really calm and comfortable in those situations. My parents always thought that I was going to be a doctor or something because I didn’t care if someone was hurt or broken armed or bleeding. I would never react, I would just help. So, I didn’t know the context of ethical fashion in Latin America for a really long time. I didn’t really know Latin America until college. That was when I started exploring Latin America. I didn’t do anything specific, I did a lot with children and in schools for about 10 years before any formal job. That was through high school, college and grad school. I did know in college that I was going to live in a rural community, live and work in a village. I told myself that around junior year of college. I knew it. I didn’t know what form or context. I really thought I would be in Africa. I really was pretty determined to work where I would consider the poorest of poor communities, it was kinda my dream. But, because I spoke Spanish and I spent a lot of time learning the language. I changed my focus. I thought, “If I’m working with the people, I want to go to a place where I can speak the language.” So, I started focusing on Latin America and it’s development/poverty issues within the country. Then, I worked at USAID during grad school. I knew I didn’t want to work for IMF/World Bank USA but I was trained for it. My grad program was training me for foreign service and to work in D.C and before saying, “I definitely don’t want to do the bigger aid organizations” I wanted to try. Just to make sure I had something to backup my idea that I didn’t want to work there. So, I did a little bit of USAID in grad school. And then after that, I did KIVA (a non-profit organization). I was working with microfinance. That was something I was pretty certain about. Many people say microfinance isn’t a good tool for development and some people say it is. I think it is! So, I went to KIVA. It was one of the places I really wanted to work. But, I didn’t stay for long because I really wanted to be out into the community. And even my boss at KIVA knew that. So, then an opportunity came to live abroad, a friend had sent me this job posting here in Panajachel, being like, “This is ALL that crap you always talk about.”
M: *laughs* “Yes! This is so you!”
A: Yeah! It was all about communities, the people are helping and it’s not free, it’s not a handout. She was like, “Here, look at this job” and I looked at it and it was everything I believed in terms of development that didn’t really exist. I didn’t work for charities, I didn’t want to work for a big organization, I didn’t want to work for a Government organization, I didn’t want to work for a Religious organization. It’s called, “Pencils of Promise” and it’s this new model of non-profit where it’s a non-profit run like a business. Full community developments, not handouts. It was super cool. So, I applied and they accepted me! I moved to Panajachel to work in education. They were building schools and doing teacher training and building curriculums. So, I did that for a year and that’s when I came and never left. So, those are some of the things I was doing before Hiptipico.
M: Man, a lot of experience in that realm for sure!
What’s a piece of advice you would give your 21-year-old self?
A: Oh my god, I was such an idiot. No, I mean I wouldn’t change anything in terms of advice. I would just say, keep going, believe in yourself. Believe in what I was thinking. Don’t really listen to anyone but yourself.
M: So, when you say “idiot,” do you mean you were naive?
A: I was definitely naive and a little bit righteous. I was a little bit judgmental in the sense of whatever people were doing and I didn’t believe in their lifestyle. Right now, I can accept there are many different types of lifestyles and that I’m doing what I can. If someone else isn’t, that’s alright. I can try to educate them and sneak information to them but at the end of the day, I can only do so much in terms of that. I will try a little bit and do what I can but I don’t need to full-on judge them or think of them as bad people. I would say when I was younger and I was getting into this world of development, community development and poverty reduction, I was judging people for what they were wearing, what they were buying or the decisions they were making. That’s not right! I would say there’s a more positive route to interacting with those types of people.
M: Yeah, everyone comes from different upbringings and it’s so complex when it comes to that.
M: Okay, let’s throw a fun one in there!
A: Oh, I’m not that funny. *laughs*
M: Me either, so that’s why my questions are all so serious! *laughs*
What’s an artist/genre that you listen to when you want to feel like a f****** badass? Like, I’m on top of the world. I’m ready to empower people and the community!
A: Well, at the moment I haven’t stop rapping Cardi B. She’s so nasty but it’s kinda cool because she’s a strong woman in a sense where she says whatever the f*** she wants. So, I respect that. The things that come out of her mouth, I’m just like, “Holy S***”
M: *laughs* A: But I do listen to a lot of Reggae and dance hall and a lot of Political reggae which gets me pretty pumped up.
M: What are some Reggae artists? Which artists do you usually gravitate towards?
A: A whole lot of different ones. The one that people would like, Michael Franti … a whole lot of underground reggae-like, Anthony B, Collie Buddz, he’s a little bit more dance hall but he’s pretty badass.
M: Oooh I’m taking a note of all of this, let me explore a little bit of the reggae scene.
A: I mean, I love all of the Marleys. I love Damian Marley! Stephen Marley a lot of people don’t really listen to but he’s got some pretty cool stuff.
What’s been your greatest discovery along your journey?
A: Oh, wow. In general, my biggest discovery I would say is the power of my mind. I can control my mood, my attitude, how I react to a certain situation, I can control if I’m sick, If I’m not sick. I’ve realized how my mind affects my attitude and my body, my physical self. It took me a really long time to really understand that. I really don’t control it very well but I’ve been aware of it more so lately. That’s something that I’m learning and it’s all about living here, I can control my attitude. Like, look at that lady, she’s smiling. *points to a woman walking in the streets* Do I really need to be grumpy right now? No, I don’t. And especially, when working with my team. Every morning it’s my choice to have the attitude that I’m going to have and I can control that. Whether or not I’m tired, whether or not I was woken up by the dogs barking or water dripping on my head from the broken roof. I can still put on a good face in the morning and not because I have to but because I want to. And I can control that. And I would say that the relationship between my mind, my body, and my attitude is really something I’ve learned more about recently.
M: Mmmm, the power of the mind.
A: Oh yes!
We were hit by a storm that afternoon. (none of us were surprised) As the rain poured, we swiftly made our way to Teresa’s home where she demonstrated the weaving process to me. I even got the chance to weave on my own, it was incredibly therapeutic. Also, way harder than it looks folks! One huipil (the garment she is wearing above) takes her around 3 months, a scarf takes her around 2 weeks, a belt takes 15-20 days, and a listón (the wrap they use for their hair) takes around 15-20 days. The time and soul pull into each garment is what makes each piece so special. Teresa is known for her innovation and creativity in her community, she takes traditional designs and adds a bit of a twist to them! (kinda like the garment she is wearing above)
Here, Teresa and I are separating (prepping) thread for the weaving process. I know, I look like I’m struggling, that’s because I am! It’s a lot harder than it looks, everyone! These artisans are SKILLED at what they do –I was blown away. (a bit intimidated too) Dying fabrics with natural elements is a specific traditional practice in the town of San Juan la Laguna on Lake Atitlán. This is how you get some of the beautiful colors you’ve seen above. Check hiptipico for their natural dye process!
While weaving with Teresa, I ended up meeting her entire family. This was such an honor, thank you, Teresa, for a warm embraced welcome! Despite the heavy storm and a slight detour, (life happens) my journey with Hiptipico was nothing short of incredible! It was like nothing I had ever seen and felt before…thank you, Hiptipico, for an experience that I’ll never forget. If you would like to learn more about their impact or want to support these artisans, take a look here for more information. Thanks so much for reading! ♥️
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