The nonprofit museum’s founder and director, Tey Mariana Stiteler, grew up in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, 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 organized yearly cultural fairs to introduce students to the foods 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 colorful 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.
And so she did. This past winter, she launched MUREM in a traditional colonial building just steps from Valladolid’s lively public square. Coming full circle, Stiteler now exhibits examples of the colorful 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 canceled 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.
“It takes a very long time to drive, even if you weren’t driving into a hurricane, which we were. When we finally got to Canoas in a pouring rain, having dodged landslides, there was no hotel. We acquired a costume in a humble shack, and I looked at my mother and said: ‘This is a decision point. We go back, or we go forward.’ My mom said, ‘We keep going.’ And after a hair-raising drive, we made it to Jesus Maria, Nayarit.”
During this period of traveling 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.
“After returning from a nine-state swing to get a blouse in Acatlán, Guerrero, with 19 costumes in all, I decided, what the heck, I’ll start a museum. It was a whirlwind of planning and prep,” Stiteler said.
On a steamy day last March, she guided me through the ever-growing collection. Comprising more than 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, jewelry and more yet to be exhibited.
I happened to be in town when Stiteler’s mother was visiting, and I was charmed when she showed me a “China Poblana” dress donated from her own collection — a bright red, green and white ensemble with an elaborately sequined skirt similar to those she wore to parties when growing up in Mexico City. The dress gets its name from a popular legend involving a noblewoman who was kidnapped in India by Portuguese pirates, transported across the Pacific trade route and sold to a family in Puebla.
In Mexico, the woman’s Indian clothing was said to have influenced a folkloric style that became popular throughout central Mexico. (In Mexico, the word “China” came to mean all people of Asian descent, and while “Poblana” could mean that a person comes from Puebla, it also means a person who lives in a small town in the country.) Following the Mexican Revolution, the dress — featuring an open-necked white blouse accented with embroidery or beadwork, a red and green skirt decorated with sequins, a rebozo (long, wide, fringed shawl), and strings of beads around the neck — became a national symbol for the new country and its red, white and green flag.
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, traveling from town to town for ritualistic displays during yearly fairs that celebrate each town’s patron saint.
A bright orange costume, the “Fighting Tiger,” hails from Acatlán in the state of Guerrero. On May 3, the Day of the Holy Cross, villages in Mexico set up altars and burn incense to honor the cross. In Acatlán, remnants of pre-Christian agricultural and fertility rites are added to the festivities. Costumed “tigers” wearing, curiously, jaguar masks similar to one in the collection, mix with revelers and beat one another up.
From Hidalgo, a coat made of desert palm fronds is an example of how garment uses evolve over time. Originally used to protect from rain, the new incarnation (made from fronds sold today as roofing materials) is used as a lightweight cover for shade.
Examples of contemporary ethnic fashions are found throughout the galleries, including a T-shirt, shorts and cap designed by popular Maya rapper Pat Boy. And it’s hard to miss the black-and-lime-green leather dancing boots — with hot-pink sequins — whose elongated curved toes make Aladdin’s genie shoes seem tame. The boots hail from Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, remnants of a 2005 fad in which teams of men competed in tribal-guarachero dance contests (the genre combines regional Mexican and electronic music).
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 program, 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 modernized version of something. The truth of it will be lost.”
But will live on, she hopes, in the museum.
If you go
Where to stay
Hotel El Meson del Marques
Calle 39 No. 203, Centro
Traditional colonial 90-room hotel on the town’s central square. Amenities include a courtyard restaurant and bar, an outdoor pool, a Jacuzzi, AC, and parking. Rooms from about $52 per night.
Where to eat
Restaurante El Atrio del Mayab
Calle 41 No. 204, Centro
Located on the town’s main square, this restaurant serves traditional Yucatecan specialties including chipotle-spiked soups, freshly grilled tortillas, empanadas, achiote marinated pork and smoky local sausages, plus steak and seafood. Open for lunch and dinner; includes outdoor courtyard. Open daily 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Entrees from about $7.
Tortas y Tacos
Calle 39 No. 196B, Centro
Tiny spot open all day to midnight that serves homemade tacos (steak, chicken and pork), enchiladas (green, red and mole), burritos (including vegetarian), quesadillas and chile rellenos. Open Thursday to Tuesday 8 a.m. to midnight; closed Wednesday. Plates from about $3.
What to do
Museo de Ropa Etnica de Mexico, MUREM
Calle 41 No. 195, Centro
In addition to the galleries, MUREM is planning a Mayan embroidery tour of five towns and villages in Yucatán and Quintana Roo to explore the past, present and future of Yucatecan embroidery. The tour is designed as a study tour and has been organized by the museum with two anthropologists who specialize in the Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula. Tour March 7 to 14, about $1,200. About $250 single supplement.
Casa de los Venados
Calle 40 No. 204, Centro
Private home museum exhibiting more than 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art. Tours daily 10 a.m. in English and Spanish. No reservations required. Minimum donation for admission about $5.