Housed within a red-brick building in Carytown are the stories of the Indigenous women Guadalupe Ramirez swore to dedicate the rest of her life to — women who dissented; tore down structures that trapped them; and lived.
Each thread, woven basket, sleek wooden figure or wool rug inside AlterNatives, Ramirez’s boutique that on Oct. 3 will celebrate 25 years in business, represents a system Ramirez has built, one that ensures Indigenous women in Guatemala will receive a living wage and access to health care, healthy food and clean water.
The fabrics put together to create slip-on dresses tell the history of the widowed weavers in rural Guatemalan villages who took her in during the late 1980s, in the midst of a 36-year civil war that massacred Mayan communities like hers. The circle of women would be the catalyst to what Ramirez’s life would become — the people she would help.
Approximately 6 million Guatemalans are Indigenous, or communities of people who were native to a country later ravaged by colonizers. At least 79% of them are living in poverty, and 35% considered food insecure, according to a 2020 analysis by Refugees International, which advocates for those displaced by war and persecution.
Through this boutique — an extension of her nonprofit Highland Support Project, which she started in 1993 to advocate for Indigenous communities in Central America resisting state violence — Ramirez, 52, keeps alive the people and journey that got her here.
Like the thousand-mile trek to the Guatemala-Mexico border she took when she was a kid, it was long.
“Sometimes, I’ve been treated like I am the person who works on or maintains the building, and they ask me to move the tables,” Ramirez said. “I think they’re treating me like I am not a business owner. There’s nothing wrong with having to clean a building, you know? But that’s all people think brown people are here to do. Clean houses.”
In hourslong conversations with her two sons in their 20s, employees and customers at her boutique, she talks about life before the pandemic — life before she and her husband contracted COVID-19, before the virus shut down access to Guatemala, before the economy collapsed in 2008 and her store burned down and was rebuilt again, before Short Pump Mall and Stony Point opened and threatened the business, and before 9/11, when she was the nickname her grandmother gave her as a little girl: “Lupita.”
Growing up, she rode long hours in the shadows of the Guatemalan highlands, sitting atop heaps of prickly wheat and breathing in the wet dirt that lined the cattle truck’s path. The whack of machetes spliced through the quiet mornings, paving the roads so the tires wouldn’t stall in slippery mud.
On 72-hour journeys and thousand-mile trips to see her family on the Guatemala-Mexico border, Ramirez stuffed corn tortillas and water into makeshift backpacks to persist through the muggy heat of Chiapas that her lungs weren’t accustomed to. She jumped from cattle trucks and chicken buses to send the telegrams alerting her uncles that they’d arrived in Tapachula, Mexico, a southern border city known for the coffee plantations that once enslaved her grandparents and separated their families.
Lupita moved through villages, mountainsides and hot springs with her grandmother, whose signature coarse braids slung across her back, to heal women in crisis by day. By night, she prayed for her father’s return, signaled by lights he flickered on and off through the mountains indicating that in 25 minutes he’d walk through the door.
In the middle of a civil war that was a sinister background to Ramirez’s Guatemala and ignited a peasant revolution that resulted in the government killing 200,000 and forcing the disappearance of 40,000, it was never a guarantee — indicated by the beds emptied underneath to hide and the shoes propped by the doorway in case she needed to run.
The impact of the government’s savagery against Indigenous communities fueled an economic and political marginalization seen worldwide among the people whose land was stolen from them. Alongside her father, Ramirez taught communities how to analyze the markets and manage credit so they could sustain themselves. She purchased threads for them to weave into tablecloths, bags and accessories that could be sold in the U.S.
Following her career as a second-grade teacher to children whose parents were off fighting for their land, Ramirez worked toward being a social worker and helped build orphanages and schools in rural villages.
If there existed a patron saint of strong women, it would be her, said her husband, Ben Blevins, in a recent interview.
“She feels empowered when people take the time to actually listen to the stories,” Blevins said. “Empowerment from sharing the culture and fighting to change the perceptions of people who think Indigenous culture has disappeared or no longer exists.”
Blevins looked back on the first few months of the outbreak, where COVID-19 forced lingering fevers and the loss of his ability to taste or smell. Ramirez cut through the thickening fog of Blevins’ symptoms by whipping up a Mayan remedy of “peace and wholeness” made up of Guatemalan cactus — sent by her mother — cinnamon, ginger, eucalyptus leaf and lemon.
She now faced another trek: this one through a pandemic.
But the virus didn’t stop her from continuing to be who she’s always been, her husband said. A healer. A powerhouse.
“When you experience those things, it creates a depth of consciousness that your purpose of being becomes transformed into assisting those that are struggling and experiencing tragedy,” Blevins said of Ramirez. “It makes it hard to just walk away and forget about where you come from.”
She began adding minutes on cellphones to Mayan communities in Guatemala to send messages in native languages that disseminated COVID-19 information and prevention practices for those who couldn’t write or read. Her nonprofit provided food to sustain families in the highlands throughout the pandemic, and the organization is now building water sanitation systems across rural towns without the existing infrastructure.
Fully recovered, she now spends weekends helping mothers in South Richmond who can’t read or write in English or Spanish to navigate virtual learning and school information. She hands out masks at her storefront, organizing framed photos of the women behind the jewelry and Mayan textiles.
One woman, holding a pillow that was once for sale in the store, grins — the Guatemalan highlands standing tall in the background.