She Opens Mexico’s Hidden Secrets With Her Tour company

By Ellen Creager
Detroit Free Press


“A person born to be a flowerpot will not go beyond the porch.”, Mexican proverb

Stephanie Schneiderman quit her job seven years ago and went adventuring in Mexico.

Now life is rich. Not money rich. Enjoyment rich.

Born in Havana, Cuba, and raised partly in Mexico City, Schneiderman is known as Tia (Aunt) Stephanie. And Mexico is the secret gem she loves to share with others.

“When I’m in Mexico, from the minute I land, I am like a flower that gets watered,” she says. “I open up, I blossom, and I feel the energy. Then I come home, and it’s just not the same for me.”

Schneiderman, 54, wears bright clothing of beautiful Mexican textiles, even on a dreary, cold spring day in Michigan. Her Ann Arbor condo is stuffed with Mexican paintings, pots and fabrics. Her floors are wide terra cotta tiles.

She just returned from seven months in Mexico. Her company Tia Stephanie Tours, takes small and medium-size groups on textile, art and culinary trips to a Mexico that many Americans do not know, to remote villages in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Michoacan or the sophisticated colonial streets of Mexico City.

Here in her living room on this rainy day, she sorts through the bright pile of purple stripes and red patterns and silvery blue fringe, all textiles from her trips. These are not just pretty things, but symbols of the richness of Mexican cultural diversity and women’s weaving skill, which “exists in its true form organically for that particular group or culture,” she says. “These items you see are from very specific communities, only worn and made there.”

Planning these trips from scratch, finding local weavers, guides, lodgings, restaurants and transportation for complex itineraries, and being an American businesswoman in traditional Mexico is something Schneiderman relishes.

“As women, our thinking is of bringing comfort to others instead of getting out of our comfort zone,” she says. “But that is where life is, where that tension and dynamic lies between safety and change.

“The unknown is a wonderful place.”

Schneiderman was a traveler from the day she was born. Her father was an international banker whose first job was in Havana. She was born there, then moved with her family to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; to Panama City, Panama; then, when she was 5, to Mexico City in 1964.

Mexico was her whole world until age 13. Then the family moved to Coral Gables, Fla., a major culture shock.

In Florida, she says, “the students asked me if I rode a donkey to school. They asked if we had electricity in Mexico. I went back to my mother and said I couldn’t believe how stupid these kids were.”

At the same time, she was clueless about the U.S. She pretty much knew only about her grandmother’s house in Naperville, Ill., and about a store called Sears, and about American candy, something she had coveted back in Mexico City.

“In Mexico, we couldn’t get Tootsie Rolls, candy corn, Baby Ruth, or Snickers,” she says. “Those were gold. If you went back to Mexico with a bag of those you were everybody’s best friend.”

Gradually, she grew accustomed to life in the States. She graduated from Florida International University and got a master’s degree in international business from the former American Graduate School of International Management (now Thunderbird School of Global Management) in Arizona, the same school both her parents had attended.

Schneiderman almost married in her 20s and again in her 30s, but didn’t. Once she broke it off. Once, a boyfriend did. It was for the best, she says: “I had this voice inside of me, that said, ‘Nope. You’re going to live this life on your terms doing what you want to do.'”

At various points in her life, she has traveled alone to Italy, raced sailboats and once went down the luge track in Muskegon although she was terrified. But of all her life adventures, Mexico has the richest benefit to her well-being because of the challenge it presents and the friends she has met, she says: “There is always a cup of coffee, a fresh handmade tortilla and a bowl of beans waiting for you. Mexicans are very warm and gracious … it is my honor to be in their homes.”

Her mother and older brother are not surprised that Schneiderman has, from scratch and totally on her own, built a business in Mexico.

“She’s a pretty tough lady, and she might not like that word, but she has to be,” says her mother, Cynthia Connor of Melbourne, Fla. “You can’t be a wimp in that kind of a business. She deals with a society where the women are not in the forefront or haven’t been. Nobody pushes her around.”

Adds Jeff Schneiderman of Willison, Vt., who has been to Mexico with his sister and seen her in action with everyone from taxi drivers to tour guides: “She will not back down.”

Schneiderman came to Michigan in 1994 for a job with Masco, eventually working for auto suppliers Arvin Meritor and Hella Electronics. But for every vacation, she would travel either to Italy or Mexico.

In 2004, she was in Mexico over Christmas when she had an epiphany.

“One day I was trying to get from Palenque in Chiapas to San Cristobal in the (Central) Highlands,” she says. “I still had my job, so I was on limited time. I was impatient. I tried to get on the scheduled bus but missed it. I was so angry. And the people started looking at me like, ‘what’s wrong with that crazy lady?'” She took the local shared public van called a collectivo instead.

As the crowded little bus trundled across the countryside, she looked out the window, and “almost like a shaft of light, I thought, ‘aha. I have access to the culture, I speak the language. I could bring people here. I have been traveling in this country my entire life. This is what I want to do.'”

She left her auto supplier job in 2006, started her tour company “and I have never looked back even once.”

Of course, it was not as easy as it sounds. About 70 percent of Mexican tourism is beach tourism. Besides, Mexico has an image problem. The four most common perceptions Americans have about Mexico, data show, are of beaches, border towns, illegal immigrants and drug trafficking.

Currently, the U.S. State Department has a travel warning posted for certain provinces and regions of Mexico because of crime and violence. Schneiderman, a careful traveler, is well aware of the damper this has on tourism. The type of traveler she courts is the one who is already going to places like Bhutan or Thailand but who never stops to realize that Mexico is just as culturally rich as anywhere on the planet.

“They are the ones who already psycho-graphically care about the world and are out spending their money seeing it. They just don’t know this part of Mexico exists,” she says. She takes people to see everything from murals in Mexico City to weavers in remote villages.

Dorothy Herrmann of New Hope, Pa., went last October with Tia Stephanie to several remote weaving villages in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas. “She has friends within the communities, and in many of these villages, they even gave us banquets to welcome us,” she recalls. “I have been to Mexico 12 times but this was part of the country I had never been to, and it was fascinating.”

Standing sturdy on her own, Schneiderman plans to keep sharing the Mexico that makes her blossom.

“Do I say, ‘I’d like companionship’? Sometimes I do think, ‘wow, I’m alone,'” she says. “But then I get back on a bus and I’m in Mexico and sitting in a village with friends, and I go, ‘life doesn’t get any better than this. This makes my heart sing.'”

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