New museum celebrates ethnic attire of Mexico

Necee Regis

THE WASHINGTON POST – The colonial town of Valladolid, located between the Yucatán hot spots Cancun and Merida, is known as a convenient overnight stop when touring the nearby pyramids of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. Now it’s also the home of Museo de Ropa Etnica de Mexico (MUREM), a recently opened museum of ethnic clothing designed to reflect the country’s multifaceted cultures.

The non profit museum’s Founder and Director Tey Mariana Stiteler grew up in the outskirts of Pittsburgh in the United States (US), but the Mexican heritage of her mother, Angeles, was an important part of her upbringing. As a professor of Spanish at the local university I attended, the now-91-year-old Angeles López-Portillo de Stiteler organised yearly cultural fairs to introduce students to the food and traditions of her native land.

I recall the senior Stiteler enlisting family and friends in all-day tamale-making sessions, tamales being a less-than-familiar menu item in North America in the 1970s. Staking her own claim to her mother’s background, Tey Stiteler wore colourful embroidered Mexican blouses from childhood days through college.

Fast-forward 35 years. After retiring from a career in marketing and communications at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the bilingual Stiteler pondered a move to Mexico. A colleague recommended that she check out Valladolid.

“My mother and I drove down, passing though 22 states. Valladolid was love at first sight, and the very first night in my hotel bed, I thought that I wanted to make it a permanent relationship,” Stiteler said.

Angeles López-Portillo de Stiteler with a dress she donated to the collection. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

And so she did. This past winter, she launched MUREM in traditional colonial building just steps from Valladolid’s lively public square. Coming full circle, Stiteler now exhibits examples of the colourful costumes she wore long ago (and still does).

This was not the way she envisioned her retirement. “I was planning a one-time exhibition,” she said. She intended to display a selection of ethnic Mexican clothing from the personal collection of Dorianne Venator, one of the owners of the Casa de los Venados, a private home and museum with a large collection of Mexican folk art.

The exhibition, designed as a fundraiser for the Valladolid English Library, was delayed for almost two years and eventually cancelled because of planning complications. But by then, Stiteler had been bitten by the collecting bug. When her mother came to visit, they went on “joyrides”, motoring to far-flung regions of the country to meet and talk with clothing makers in their homes and workshops.

Some of those rides were more harrowing than others. Stiteler recalled driving along steep, curved and unpaved roads in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in search of clothing from the Tepehuana ethnic group in Canoas, Durango.

During this period of travelling and collecting, a local friend asked Stiteler what she planned to do with the clothing once the exhibition closed – open a museum? Stiteler offered all kinds of excuses why that wasn’t feasible – she was retired, it was too much work, it would be too expensive – but the seed of an idea had been planted.

On a steamy day last March, she guided me through the ever-growing collection. Comprising over 90 complete outfits representing 25 ethnic groups from 16 states, the clothing encapsulates three definitions of ethnic – traditional, indigenous and contemporary – presented in pristine galleries arranged by region. There are more than 65 outfits on view, with hats, shoes, aprons, jewellery and more yet to be exhibited.

Garments from the adjacent states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche share a stage. When possible, Stiteler pairs older and newer clothing from the same ethnic group or region so visitors can see elements that remain over decades, such as the square necks and embroidered flowers on the blouses and dresses in the Yucatán. Set on the platform beneath the costumes, an antique Singer sewing machine references the transition from hand embroidery to machine work that began circa 1918, when the company introduced the machines in Merida and taught women how to use them.

In addition to everyday wear, the museum displays costumes used in rituals and events. Folded on a chair, as if ready to be worn, is an intricately beaded and embroidered electric-blue bullfight costume from the Mestizo ethnic group. In the Yucatán, a man can earn a living as an itinerant bullfighter, travelling from town to town for ritualistic displays during yearly fairs that celebrate each town’s patron saint.

Stiteler, who got her Mexican citizenship in 2010, admits she began collecting because she thought “everything was pretty”. Her mission changed when she began collecting in Chiapas, where white-on-white embroidery and brocade is standard attire in small mountain villages.

When she subsequently visited a modern Chiapas town and didn’t see anyone wearing traditional clothes, it led to a revelation: Not only do traditions evolve and change, they must also be preserved. To this end, MUREM has established an educational programme, in collaboration with 40 area schools and the local government, to share the stories behind the clothing with the next generation.

“My good fortune started as one thing, but now it’s about preservation,” Stiteler said. “It’s important to catalogue. I give it one or two generations until the daily use attached to traditions and rituals is gone. It will become a modernised version of something. The truth of it will be lost.”

But will live on, she hopes, in the museum.