The Island of Dolls

*This is part 12 of a 13-part series. Read part 11 here. *

Perched atop a floating landmass in the canals of Xochimilco, just south of Mexico City, there lives The Island of Dolls (La Isla de Munecas). 

The landmass, as well as all the others nearby, was built by human hands over 1,000 years ago. Locals dug up glob-upon-glob of muddy earth and piled them into huge mounds. The mounds were layered with vegetation and other sediment to create a stable mass that rose above the water.

These small oases of fertile land were called chinampas . They were essential for providing food to the growing population of the Aztec Empire. But for my travel partner S. and I, the food we seek is a bit more strange than your average stalk of corn.

A trajinera that takes you through the canals of Xochimilco. Photo Credit: matt atoms
A trajinera that takes you through the canals of Xochimilco. Photo Credit: matt atoms

Visiting the Dolls

The trajinera (gondola-like boat) meanders through clusters of water lilies and other boats as it sways around the twists and turns of the canal. On the chinampas, cows graze and Bougainvilleas burst from the floor as kids cackle by the waterside.

“There!” the driver points.

Up ahead is a rickety dock with a few small buildings and some blurry objects hanging from trees. We step onto La Isla de Munecas and scuttle into a macabre wooden room teaming with dolls and dust. The painted walls are cracked and weathering, as if something is trying to escape.

It’s here that the strange tale of Julian Santana Barrera unravels.

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In the 1950s a young girl mysteriously drowns near Barrera’s house. A few days later he notices a doll floating in the water at the exact spot where the girl drowned. Barrera interprets this as a sort of visual plea from the Afterlife: the spirit of the dead girl needs to be appeased.

So he goes down by the canal and fishes out the doll. Drying it off a bit, he then hangs it up for display. The project begins.

As the weeks and months go by, he starts adding more and more dolls and stories begin to grow. Do they move? he wonders. During the cover of night, do their artificial eyes and plastic limbs take them traipsing around the island? What are they trying to say? he strains to understand.

Over the next 50 years, Barrera amasses an enormous pile of dolls. Some are rescued by him, but many others are donated by curious neighbors who salvage their plastic forms from rubbish bins to help build up this eccentric memorial.

The dolls are placed around altars, nailed to the wall, and fastened to trees with rusty wire — where they are left to dangle indefinitely.

XochimilcoEntrance2

By most accounts, Julian Barrera was a hermit of sorts, a loner content to live by himself on the island. He rarely took visitors outside of family. In 2001 he died, allegedly drowning in the same canal, at the same spot, as the girl whose death changed his life over 50 years ago.

Soon after his death, the visitors that he never took in life came to the island. Thousands upon thousands of tourists and locals take rides in the trajineras through the scenic canals of Xochimilco and up on the strangest of its chinampas.

It isn’t scary in the traditional sense of a horror movie with axe murderers and vampires, but it’s scary like the psychological scariness of Steve Buscemi in Con-Air when he calmly explains how he wore the face of one of his victims while driving around. It’s unsettling, intensely unsettling.

Do they whisper? you start to hear yourself think.

As the clouds pull in, our trajinera pulls out and speeds to the dock before the worst of the downpour begins. My eyes stay glued to the canal, scanning for dolls.