Every city in Mexico is famous for doing something well. Toluca is famous for its chorizo. Therefore, people from Toluca are known as chorizeros. Puebla is famous for its sweet potato candy (camotes). Poblanos are nicknamed camoteros. Here in Saltillo, the sarape is our claim to fame. This is why the baseball team is the Saraperos.
Saltillo boasts a lovely, little museum dedicated to the sarape. Of course, the sarape is emblematic of Mexico as whole. But from 1920 to about 1970, the sarape–and those who made them–distinguished themselves here in Saltillo. At the museum, a video featuring sarape makers reminisced about the daily busloads of tourists from the US and Canada who would come to Saltillo. They often left with a serape over their shoulder.
Like much in Mexico, the serape´s history combines Indian traditions with colonial Spanish elements. Farther south in Mexico, back in Aztec territory (think 16th century, of course), the Aztecs wore tilmas or a long, rectangular piece of cloth, knotted at one shoulder. The colors and decorations of the tilma signified one´s rank in society. At the same time in Spain, capes and mantas were popular. The Spanish also brought sheep to Mexico. Natives of the state of Tlaxcala have always been famous for textiles. The sheep those Spanish imported gave the Tlaxcalan weavers more options. This combination of Tlaxcala´s weaving tradition and Spanish wool gave birth to the serape.
Keep in mind that Tlaxcala is quite far from Saltillo. It´s about due east of Mexico City. But those Spaniards, like all colonizers, said to their allies, the Tlaxcalans, “gee–thanks for helping us overthrow the Aztec empire. Do you think you could help us out again? Way out north are these pesky nomadic tribes which are stopping us from establishing any permanent settlements out there. Think you guys would get them under control? Then we´ll give you that land for your very own!” Nevermind that the Spanish we staying in beautiful, green Tlaxcala and they were gifting the Tlaxcalans the desert in exchange. Much like the Indians in the southeast US who were forced to move west, many Tlaxcalans moved north, and Saltillo was originally known as New Tlaxcala.
Long story short, that´s how Saltillo became famous for its sarapes. The first two rooms of the Serape Museum explain this history, along with traditional patterns of sarapes. Classic serapes tend to have multi-colored, zig-zag patterns. Post-classic sarapes have more solid color backgrounds or multi-colored bands, and they began incorporating floral designs around the center diamond.
The third room of the museum explains how wool is dyed and the weaving process. They display both the traditional backstrap loom that the Indians use, and the wood frame looms that came with the Spanish. Furthermore, they have a collection of the natural ingredients used to make dyes, back in the day before synthetic dyes.
A small room off the courtyard houses a collection of 14 sarapes, a sampling from the era between 1880-1945, and mostly from Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, and Aguascalientes. Officially this is the end of the Sarape Museum. Short and sweet, right?
Ah, but wait! Just across the hallway is a long room, housing the collection of traditional costumes (trajes típicos). Each region–possibly each state–has its own traditional costume. Within a specific region, traditional dresses have marked similarities. However, Mexico is a big country, so traditional clothing here in the north is a great deal different from traditional dress in the Yucatan. Furthermore, there is a difference between traditional Indian clothing in a certain region and traditional mestizo clothing (that mix between Indian and Spanish, which more or less defines modern Mexico).
The first display has about 10 indigenous dresses from southern Mexico. The second display explains how Mexico was an important key in the Spanish empire, linking Spain´s colony in the Philippines with Spain itself. Therefore, traditional dresses along the southern coasts, where goods from Asia and Europe were exchanged, has some noted Asian influences. Finally, the third collection displays clothing traditional to this region. This is by no means a comprehensive collection of traditional clothing throughout the country. Many regions are missing. But it is a quality sampling, and helped me get a glimpse of the bigger picture.
This really would conclude a visit to the Sarape Museum, unless one were to visit on a day when the weaver is working. The very first room, to the left of the main entrance doors, houses 4 or 5 looms. Some days an octogenarian weaver sets up shop. He´s not real chatty. I learned that he´s been weaving sarapes for 70 years from the docent. But his work is mesmerizing, and I could stand there for quite some time, watching him work.
Where to find the Sarape Museum?
It is downtown, on Calle Allende #160, on the right side of the street, just passing Calle Guadalupe Victoria. There´s an excellent, $10-per-hour parking lot just across the street. If you pass the Restaurant Tepanco or Calle Ramos Arizpe, you´ve gone too far.
If you´re coming from way out north, Calle Venustiano Carranza magically becomes Allende once you come downtown. It´s more or less a straight shot.