Published August 1, 2018
Christine Tjahjadi-Lopez has a clear answer when asked why she is in Guatemala, running a ballet school, volunteering as director of an indigenous women’s textile group, and generally working to make a lasting difference for people who need her help the most.
“Being here is growing my soul, as I see God move and work like I have never seen before,” Tjahjadi-Lopez, who received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography from UB, wrote in a recent newsletter under the straightforward title “Why am I in Guatemala?”
Model, entrepreneur, human rights activist, philanthropist and motivator, Tjahjadi-Lopez — whose passion for textiles matches her ardor for helping the less fortunate — has, at age 26, carved out one of the more impressive stories among the outstanding students to emerge from UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships.
“She is one of the most passionate individuals I have ever met,” says Elizabeth Colucci, director of that office, who considers Tjahjadi-Lopez — a finalist for the prestigious Truman Scholarship in 2013 — a favorite among the ranks of UB’s exemplary scholarships students. “She gives wholeheartedly to the organizations she works with.
“When I met her, she was very involved with ‘Girls Day’ at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, a program she funded with winnings from a modeling scholarship. She embraces those in need and gives her all to help,” Colucci says.
“She uses her intellect to study the disenfranchised, and she is tenacious.”
Returning to New York this summer from Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala, to visit her family in Getzville and raise money, Tjahjadi-Lopez is just getting started. She originally went to Guatemala in early 2016 to work on her master’s thesis. After starting with five students, her ballet school, Transformación Ballet, now has more than 40 students, from toddlers to adults in their 60s. Many of the children have financial-need discounts, but for those students over 7, this discount is contingent on improving or maintaining grades above 80 percent, or showing continuous improvement in their studies.
“There are the private school families and the public school families, and that’s that for social circles,” she wrote in her newsletter. “Yet in the dance studio, it is just them and ballet, and I push them hard and cheer them on equally when deserved, and reprimand them when they misbehave.
“It is very beautiful,” she wrote, “because as I have gotten to know these families, I realized that in ballet, a lot of children who would not normally mix get a chance to be together.
“So besides learning to dance, Transformación Ballet has created a space where children who would not normally mix do mix, and are treated equally, regardless of their socioeconomic class.”
Tjahjadi-Lopez also is director of a natural/eco-dyed indigenous women-owned weaving association called TEIXCHEL. When Tjahjad-Lopez (it’s pronounced Cha-hyea-dee: like cha-cha, then hyea like karate and then dee, she says) accepted the role of director/coordinator of TEIXCHEL in January 2017, the organization was on the verge of closing. She started without compensation and now gets a small commission for transportation. The organization had no online presence and very few orders. In a few months, Tjahjadi-Lopez secured a grant to buy a stove and natural dye materials, TEIXCHEL’s first grant in five years and Tjahjadi-Lopez’s first grant ever.
“It was a breath of hope,” she wrote at the time.
Today, TEIXCHEL exports to five countries and does custom orders for international clients. Tjahjadi-Lopez has interns, including one in Guatemala and Germany. The weavers have steady export orders and a website funded by a UB alumnus.
That’s two grass-roots and indigenous organizations that exist and thrive — even if inch-by-inch — because of Tjahjadi-Lopez’s efforts, vision and refusal to accept defeat.
Anyone looking at just her accomplishments would miss a major theme in her mission. Others facing her obstacles would have turned and left for home. Not Tjahjadi-Lopez.
Twice, her well-laid plans disintegrated overnight. She initially went to Guatemala with scholarship funding and landed what she called her “young adult career goal” working with artisans as a sales and design manager at an organization called Mayan Traditions. But when she went to sign her contract, she had been replaced by someone with more experience.
Instead of giving up, Tjahjadi-Lopez continued there, volunteering, training her replacement and looking for work as she continued her thesis, titled “How partnering with a non-profit affected the economic and social status of indigenous weavers.”
She had begun teaching ballet to a small group of young Guatemalan girls. And when her time at Mayan Traditions ended, she lined up an internship at Mercado Global — a fair trade bag-making company. After three months, the company offered her a job as production manager, her dream because it allowed her to work with indigenous artisans and designers.
Tjahjadi-Lopez signed her contract for the production manager job. She also signed a one-year lease for a house under renovation, and built a ballet studio inside thinking she would teach community ballet on the weekends. She went to New York City for training. Then her second solid opportunity vanished overnight.
“Eighteen hours before my flight back to Guatemala,” she says, “I was told that they no longer wanted to offer me the job since they thought I did not have enough experience. One reason I stayed was because I thought if people keep saying I don’t have enough field experience, I better get some.”
An artisan she met at Mayan Traditions was the president of TEIXCHEL, an organization of local Guatemalan women weavers. The organization was on the verge of shutting down because of virtually no orders. The woman offered Tjahjadi-Lopez the director’s role — without pay — and suggested Tjahjadi-Lopez work on “self-funding,” since she had some experience in grant writing.
“When I saw the eco threads and product, I was in awe at the potential,” she says. “So I began there as a volunteer director. I began praying for a way to make money. My ballet school began expanding. This is where I am at now.”
In person, Tjahjadi-Lopez is softer, gentler than one might expect. She wears a crucifix around her neck, the one her father gave her when she was 8. She says she had more of a “dictatorship-type personality” when she was in college. That has changed.
“I consider myself more a vessel than someone standing on a podium,” she says. “I like talking, but as I grow, I’m working on becoming a better listener.”
Those doubting her don’t understand. Her spirituality sets her apart. And she’s clear about this as well. That spiritual element is why she didn’t turn and run. It gave her the strength and resolve to trust the karmic timing and path she set herself on. She was already “frugal,” she says, but starting up a dance school in another country because she heard God’s calling was a “blind leap of faith, to say the least.”
“When I ran out of scholarship money, as I was volunteering with the weavers and beginning my ballet school, God provided,” she says. “When I gave to others of the little I had, God provided five-, six- and seven-fold. When I didn’t know how to pay for my next meal, friends would just happen to offer me food.
“When I was most in need financially and decided to rely and trust that God was in charge, and asked God to show me where I had to be, I was taken care of financially.”
Anyone who thinks either of these activities goes smoothly should think again.
“These stark financial affirmations are one of the many reasons why I love being here in Guatemala,” she says. “I see God working in my life and I am able to do what I love. Am I getting rich? Absolutely not. Is it easy living here? No. However, how God is moving in me and through me, and growing my spirit and awe is more than worth it.”
In a newsletter entry called “Behind the Pretty Marketing,” Tjahjadi-Lopez wrote about the “challenges” she faces matching the orders of her international clients with the artisan weavers who make the products. Previously, the weavers had no computers or access to the internet, “a huge barrier between the weavers, myself and potential and current clients.” (Recently, a volunteer agreed to pay for some internet access.)
Then there is what Tjahjadi-Lopez calls “the immediate reality for these weavers.” “With the lack of startup capital, the weavers do not want to work unless they get paid the same day, because as a local saying goes, ‘What we make today, we eat tomorrow.’
“This makes perfect logical sense to me. However, as an association, it is necessary to invest time as a group” — on such things as learning new weaving techniques — “as a long-term investment.”
The weavers who received more formal education understand this more than those who received second- or third-grade education, she says.
“This, along with lack of orders, is what is weakening the association,” she says. “I have hope. They are all brilliant women, but I think that some of the more involved weavers are looking to change the way the association is run.”
Tjahjadi-Lopez speaks fluent Spanish, but is still learning the indigenous language spoken by most of her weavers. “I am accepted,” she says, “but I am also still very much a foreigner.”
Nevertheless, Tjahjadi-Lopez perseveres while what she calls the “mini miracles” keep interfacing with her life. Recently, she became so frustrated with the lack of orders for her TEIXCHEL weavers that she prayed whether her effort was worth it. The next morning, she wrote, there were five orders, followed by a stream of orders that helped the weavers pay off their debt and save a little for startup costs.
“For me, it isn’t the actual weaving or the ballet I am passionate about,” she says. “It’s the value, which grows through people as they see themselves excel in something based on hard work and God-given talent. The ballet and weaving association are just the vessels through which this can be seen, or obtained, or uncovered.
“This world is so driven by doing and chasing,” she says. “I love to connect and help motivate people to understand their inner beauty. And more importantly for me, to understand that our value is through God, not this world.”