The Secret Life of Dolls

Tucked behind all the racks of tourist postcards, cities hold a few secrets and surprises unknown or ignored by most visitors.  Of the hundreds of thousands who pile into Chicago’s Wrigley Field yearly very few will notice Alta Vista Terrace, a one-block-long jewel of a neighborhood with forty quirky houses built in the early 1900s to replicate town homes in London and located almost in the shadow of the far more famous stadium.

Mexico City’s Xochimilco Gardens, a tiny remnant of the legendary Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that Spanish conquerors stumbled on in the sixteenth century, is no tourist secret. In fact over the years it’s been trod upon by some many local and foreign visitors that the United Nations has threatened to take away the designation as a World Heritage Site because of its environmental degradation.

Flat-bottomed boats still are propelled by long poles, gondola-style, and decorated in searingly bright colors. But the colors now come from cans of bright enamel paints rather than flowers arranged on the arches over the boats, and the stagnant water in the canals is nasty and the coffee-colored. Weekends can turn into noisy traffic jams of boats, called trajineras, loaded with tourists, trinket vendors, mariachis and free-flowing margaritas.

Our oarsman Angel, a sinewy man of few words.

 Sail behind that Xochimilco postcard, though, and there’s a quieter piece of this Aztec relic, one that you enter through a primitive lock that lifts the trajineras from one water level to another. Most of the tourists disappear behind you along with the constant hum of Mexico City, whose twenty million residents live only a couple of miles away. Birds, mostly coots, mallards and stately great white herons, wade around or perch on shoreline trees, cautiously watching the visitors gliding by.

Behind the locks of Xochimilco, great blue herons far outnumber tourists. 

Still farther away from the tourist landing docks is the small Island of the Dolls, a hallucinogenic creation consisting of a couple of huts and a collection of several hundred dolls, or pieces of dolls, tattered and moldy, hanging from trees, nailed to walls, some of their heads impaled on bamboo poles or their bodies assembled in contorted positions.

The collection was assembled by one Julián Santana Barrera who lived alone on the island for fifty-some years, until his death in 2001. Yep, he was a peculiar fellow alright—alcoholic, lunatic, visionary, artist, mystic, tortured soul—any or all. There’s no definitive story of the man.

How he got started on his doll collection is equally mysterious. Some say one day the body of a young girl washed ashore and thereafter he collected the dolls in her memory. Another, more sinister, version says he might have in fact murdered the girl and kept the doll companions to assuage his conscience and placate her restless ghost.

Plant these wild, hybrid narratives in the soil of the Mexican imagination and you come up with a story line custom-made for Wes Craven. The dolls, which washed ashore or collected from rubbish heaps, were said to come alive at night, walk around killing animals or help Santana with his vegetable crops which he sold to survive.

How he died is tantalizingly unclear too. Was it natural causes? Did the restless dolls gang up on him one night? Or did he commit suicide? It is said that his dead body was found in the water, just like the girl’s. Not that a visit to the island is going to clear anything up.

We’ve visited a couple of other places in Mexico created by wacky geniuses. Edward James, a wealthy collector of surrealist art, created a visionary retreat near Xilita, about a four-hour drive from San Miguel, that will rattle your mind with its nearly incomprehensible collection of concrete structures and sculptures. Closer to San Miguel there’s Timmyland, a private but smaller playground created by a rich American, also along surrealist lines.

Neither one, however, approaches the Island of the Dolls on the creepiness scale.

The dolls, or pieces of them, are not arranged casually or at random. There’s a line-up of a dozen heads mounted on bamboo sticks. Others are paired to suggest a relationship, like a mother looking over the shoulder of a child. One was placed in the crook of a tree that eventually devoured it, so all you now see are a couple of baby feet coming out of a trunk. There are voodoo-like altars one with the head of a doll alongside a bowl filled with coins and another with a withered ear of corn, probably placed there as an offering. A few dolls had their clothes suggestively torn or pulled off.

Is that the mother behind, looking over the baby?
A very lifelike doll, despite the effect of rain and the elements. 

Why the metal studs in the doll’s nostrils?

The unanswered question is: What was Sebastian’s plan or vision? Or more to the point: What the hell?

Yet it’s precisely this lack of precision that makes the Island of the Dolls so fascinating. You can pick whichever details or versions make the most sense to you—or let your imagination fill in the gaps in the narrative.

Time and nature also embellish the ghoulishness of the place. The island is densely covered with trees so sunlight flickers through and shines on the dolls in ever-changing patterns. Rain and time have damaged the dolls some of which are missing eyes, limbs or hair, or are covered with mold. One doll has been attacked by maggot-like insects that seemed to be coming out of its mouth—or crawling up its chest and marching into its mouth.

I don’t know if you can rent trajineras after dark (daytime, non-weekend rates run about US$25 an hour), or what all really happened on the island with Santana and his dolls during those fifty years. But I’m not too macho to admit I’d be leery of visiting the island at night, even with a full moon. Hell, Rambo with a giant machine gun would be a bit shaky too.

Our trip was a one-day photography tour and Stew and I took about one-hundred-fifty images each. The pick of our photos are assembled in slideshows located at:


I tried to put together another slideshow, this one with suitably Halloweenish background music and combining both sets of images, but it’s not available yet because of technical difficulties, a condition also known as “I don’t quite know what I’m doing.”

Anyone wanting to put together their own visit to the island can contact our boatman who had business cards with a street address, email, a Facebook page and four phone numbers. This man is ready for business. Figure on a minimum of four hours for the round trip to the island. Each trajinera can carry about a dozen people. His cell phones probably work best.

Domingo Campos
Ebarcadero Nuevo Nativitas Local 93 y 94
5641-1209 (home)
5555-0904 (business)
044-55-4015-6793 (cell)
044-55-1908-0314 (cell)


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