Believing in the agency of human beings
I was drawn to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala - a serene turquoise lake surrounded by magnificent volcanoes - for its breathtaking natural beauty and spiritual energy. Little did I know that I would spend the next two months living amongst a culture where the indigenous Mayan women continue to wear traditional dress produced by local artisans who use traditional dyeing and weaving methods passed down through the generations.
“It’s a magical place flooded with creativity.”
The quote above is from US expatriate Alyssa McGarry who founded online retailer Hiptipico to sell handicrafts produced by local Mayan artisans. While Alyssa knew little about Lake Atitlán before arriving she held a Masters Degree in Economic Development specialising in Latin-America and spoke fluent Spanish (the second language spoken by some of the lakeside Mayan villages after their native dialect). During this time she discovered and began to gift beautiful bags, table runners and other handicrafts made by the traditional Mayan artisans to her friends and family. Soon others were asking how they too could purchase these fine wares.
At the same time Alyssa witnessed the surrounding poverty; that many of the artisans were living hand-to-mouth as they struggled to make a living through unpredictable sales from transient tourism. She realised that the artisans could achieve a more secure income if they reached a larger global market online, but that they were yet to acquire the skills and technological resources to do so. She founded online retailer Hiptipico with the aim of supporting the creativity, ingenuity and passion of the local artisans by increasing their income security. Her first trade show in NYC confirmed a product-market fit when she sold her first order to Free People (she has also supplied to Forever21, Urban Outfitters and Asos). Alyssa explains the origin and significance of her business name:
“Around the lake we use the word “típico” a lot. The main use is “trajes típicos” which translates to “traditional wear” when discussing the Mayan wardrobe.”
While Alyssa initially knew nothing about founding and managing a clothing business, it evolved naturally as she formed trusted relationships with the artisans and was eventually recognised as a community member. Hiptipico runs on the basis of trusted relationships which have taken a long time to develop because of the lack of trust for “gringos” (a Spanish term for “foreigners”) who are known to make empty promises of work opportunities, but don't reside in the community or later ‘disappear’. In contrast, Hiptipico is run full-time from Lake Atitlán providing income for local businesses and their families. For instance, Hiptipico's leather labels are locally sourced and then hand-made by a Mayan pyrographer. Paper hanging tags are printed locally and hung using a locally handmade bracelet. Hiptipico also hires local Mayan employees to help with daily operations and local Mayan models for marketing campaigns.
I gain a sense for the importance of community as Alyssa and I walk together along the main street of her local town Panajachel, stopping every few metres to greet or be greeted by another community member. We climbed into the back of a pick-up truck (local public transportation) and drive up a winding mountainous road to remote village San Antonio Palopó to meet with Maria (who prefers not to share her last name), an artisan who supplies to Hiptipico. I notice that the traditional Mayan dress is different here compared with other towns. Alyssa informs me that each village has their own unique style of traditional embroidered “huipul” blouse and she can identify which of the 13 lakeside villages a Mayan woman belongs to based on her dress. Women continue to wear the same outfit for approximately a year until the fashion trend changes, at which point they weave new ones.
Hiptipico artisans collect and recycle discarded textiles into bags and other products.
We arrive at Maria's house and are warmly welcomed by Maria, her sister and her mother who is busy weaving. I am also greeted by Maria’s father. It’s unusual for women to have the freedom to showcase their craft skills to guests in their homes as women are generally subordinate to men in public and domestic matters, but he allows it because he sees how these craft tours bring income to the family. Maria asks if I would like my hair styled traditionally, which involves wrapping a long Palopó beaded headband into my hair. I agree as it looks beautiful and learn that it also serves a more functional purpose as Mayan women don't cut their hair.
Maria demonstrates the advanced technical skills involved to make the beaded headbands and other products on a mechanical back-strap loom which she learnt from her mother from a very young age. While large clothing businesses design products and outsource production to Guatemalan artisans, Alyssa explains that Hiptipico sells products that have been designed and produced by the artisans themselves:
The finely beaded Sanik clutch featured in this post is a perfect example of the their exceptional skills. It was designed, hand-woven and hand-beaded by Juana Xoch, an artisan who lives in the remote village of El Triunfo. A bag with this level of detail takes around five to seven days to produce. One side is beaded and the other is a black fabric woven on a back-strap loom. “Her beaded clutch design is one of our most spectacular pieces, but time is a constraint as the women can only make a limited quantity per month” says Alyssa. The clutch is named after a group that Juana founded comprised of 18 women from her community who call themselves “Sanik” which means “ants” in the Mayan language of Kaqchikel. Just like ants, they work together to build things.
“She started a women’s group in her community because nobody had work. The women in her town didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t complete much school and their only ability was weaving” explains Alyssa. While it's very uncommon for women to leave their villages, Juana left her community to try and sell the groups' handmade scarves, bracelets, and huipiles weavings at a larger market. From there she made connections with a few international organisations and foreigners in the area. Alyssa works closely with Juana to help calculate a competitive and fair wage to support their families but shares with me that:
“While Juana has been incredibly courageous, resourceful and entrepreneurial, so far she has not had a lot of success and has had a very difficult life.”
With such a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial approach I begin to wonder: if these artisan families were offered small business education, funding and access to technological resources could they not be self-sufficient and run their own online retailer selling direct to the public? I ask Alyssa whether she would be willing to eventually fulfill her social mission making Hiptipico obsolete, at least in Lake Atitlán. She explains that the very purpose of the Hiptipico's non-profit Scholarship Program - which allows the artisans' children to attend an international 'American' school - is to empower the local artisan communities to sustainably reach global markets on their own. That is the hope for Juana’s five-year-old son Jonathan who “is going to be a change maker in his community in the future!” says Alyssa.
A desire to keep her business dynamic and a love of travel to foreign places means that once Alyssa achieves her social mission in Lake Atitlán she wants to transfer the business model to another country. Peru, Bolivia, Thailand or Vietnam are possibilities, with African being the final destination: “I can see myself finding a community and spending a long time working with artisans there” she says. I admire Alyssa's honesty as not all social enterprises are willing to pack-up and move on once their mission is fulfilled, but Alyssa tells me that for her “the concept of accepting change and growth is a really important aspect of life. Escaping your bubble is the only way to grow as a person.” And it makes sense to move on when the time is right as one of Hiptipico's core values is to:
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Photographs one and eleven taken by Alastair McCann. Photographs six, seven and nine taken by Hiptipico. Photographs two, three, four, five and eight taken by me (Nerida Lennon)
Transparency: I was not paid to write this post. Alyssa gifted me the 'Santik' beaded clutch.
Share your thoughts
I'd love to hear about any experiences you've had with artisans and their products, perhaps on your travels. Where did you travel to and what were the artisans producing? What products did you find?