Activist Mariana Ornelas’ Collection of Huipiles Tells the Stories of Their Makers

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Textiles are on display at the Hilos que Hablan: Textile Legacy and Life of Mariana Ornelas exhibit.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Textiles are displayed at the Hilos que Hablan exhibition at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

Every huipil tells a story. Each stitch in the traditional indigenous clothing that is handmade in Mexico and throughout Central America can tell you about the woman who made it and where she came from. At the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the exhibition Hilos Que Hablan touches not only on these unique textiles but also the life of the woman who donated them: Mariana Ornelas.

Born Marianne Sculos, Ornelas’ time in Latin America inspired her to change her name and dedicate her life to learning about Latin culture. Ornelas spent decades as a professor teaching Latin American history and culture, studying the Paraguayan harp, and amassing a collection of huipiles and textiles during her travels. Having served as a board member at the Esperanza Center before her death in 2017, Ornelas willed a sizable number of her huipiles as a legacy donation.

The exhibition, on display through May 10, honors Ornelas’ legacy as an artist and activist by displaying the huipiles and textiles, which are being sold to benefit the Esperanza Center’s future programs.

“We always wanted to thank her,” said Natalie Rodriguez, grassroots development coordinator at the Esperanza Center. “Rather than just focusing on the textiles she donated, we wanted to make sure we focused the exhibit on who she was and her gift to the community.”

In the 1980s, Ornelas relocated from Medford, Massachusetts, to San Antonio to work for activist William C. Velasquez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Aside from short stints abroad, she spent much of the rest of her life in San Antonio focused on community initiatives.

As a professor at Palo Alto College, she was instrumental in the creation of the Mexican-American Studies program. Throughout the city, she advocated for locals and served on the City of San Antonio’s Zoning Commission. Antonia Castañeda, Ornelas’ colleague who helped plan the exhibition, said it was important they convey her impact on the city.

“She was always present,” Castañeda said. “She was part of the community, an activist throughout the city, a feminist who advocated for issues of gender and justice. She was an amazing musician, a scholar, she was just ever-present in the world of creativity, peace, and justice.”

Ornelas’ love of traditional Latin textiles intersected with her passion for art and women’s issues. Throughout Mexico and Central America, the vast majority of these traditional garments are handmade by low-income female artisans. Hand-stitched on brightly colored fabric, intricate designs that feature flora and fauna can take months or years to make. In consideration of the work that went into them, the 46 huipiles being sold as part of the exhibition range in price from $85 to $420. Within their first day on sale in March, Rodriguez said they sold all but 10 of them. In the future, the center has plans to further explore the history behind the garments and how they’re made.

“We weren’t sure exactly how the community would respond to these traditional pieces being priced at a few hundred dollars,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve had a very good response so far. People really understand the experiences that went into these pieces and wanted to honor the same traditions and hard work that [Ornelas] admired about them.”

Two years after her passing, Ornelas continues to live on through the exhibition. Castañeda said displaying the huipiles was the perfect way to honor her because of the tremendous meaning they had in her life.

“Mariana bought and wore these, not just because they were beautiful pieces of art,” Castaneda said. “It was about the meaning behind them. It was about her commitment to the women making them and the cultures they come from. Each one is a reflection of the woman who wove it, her life, and her story.”

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