Michy Lopez’s Brave Words

Michy Lopez is smiling, but she’s answering questions that have been asked over and over: “Horchata is a Central American drink,” she says to someone. “It’s made with cinnamon and it’s sweet.” “Chulita is an expression that means cute, or pretty,” she explains to someone else.

They stand in the space typically used by Cafe Pearl; the Benefit Street entrance of the RISD Museum is transformed for this night. Lopez was invited to host a pop-up shop as part of RISD’s Design the Night event in July, and she took over the space, making it her own. Piñatas hung above, the windows were decorated with decals of Lopez’ “Air Mamacita” design, and in one corner, a group of people took pictures of their sneakers next to a sticker on the floor that read, “Para La Cultura” (“For the Culture”). Later, Lopez admitted that she was a bit overwhelmed by the crowd, but happy to answer questions: “I got excited over it because people wanted to know.”

Her designs are bold: “Do I look illegal?” is displayed on a tote. “IMMIGRANT” reads a shirt in a university font. Others are more playful: Air Mamacita, for example, is a cartoon of a traditional Guatemalan doll in a tracksuit. Lopez, whose parents emigrated from Guatemala, credits her family and her Guatemalan roots as inspiration. It’s clear that her experiences have influenced all of her work.

“Chulita,” a video created by Lopez that is on display in the Angelo Donghia Gallery, explores this perspective. The video is a compilation of interviews in which Guatemalan-American women discuss their views on beauty as minorities in America. “Growing up, all I heard was, ‘You’re pretty for being Guatemalan,’” reads the placard beside the display. “I always heard statements like this, and instead of making me feel proud of my culture, I felt ashamed.”

Now, Lopez is proud that her work celebrates her background. “Every piece has a story,” she says, and adds that she created the “immigrant” design after Donald Trump’s comments about illegal immigrants during his presidential campaign. “I felt like immigrant was said with such a bad tone, but it’s such a brave word.”

Air Mamacita was partly inspired by a trip to Guatemala, where she saw people adding the Nike swoosh to decorate everything from handmade kites to pickup trucks. The design is a marriage between Lopez’s Guatemalan and American identities. “Everything that influences me is very Rhode Island, very Guatemalan. It’s about growing up here.”

Lopez’s video “Chulita” is on display as part of the From the Loom of a Goddess: Reverberations of Guatemalan Mayan Weaving exhibit and is open at the Angelo Donghia Gallery in RISD Museum through August 19.

For updates from Lopez about upcoming work and shows, follow her on Instagram @mich.lo