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Published in M, Museos de México y el Mundo magazine, vol. 1, nº 1, Spring 2004, CNCA-INAH, Mexico

Island of the dolls.

Collecting makes those who hate feeling dispossessed, feel safer.
(Susan Sontag, The volcano lover.)

The best way of reaching the island is by arriving first at the Cuemanco pier, next to the docks. From there, any chalupa (a type of canoe)* owner can take visitors to the Island of the Dolls. The trip through the canals is slightly longer if you depart from the Nativitas pier, but it is less expensive. Both options last approximately two hours. The island is one of the many chinampas dedicated to agriculture and cattle raising and is near the Virgin’s canal, seven kilometers away from the Asunción neighborhood in Xochimilco (now in the southernmost part of Mexico city). No one lives in this area, where the ground is fertile but muddy, and the temperature is very low at night.

As the chalupa approaches the island, dolls become visible among the trees. This particular chinampa is called an island because it is surrounded by canals. One doll sits in a chair, presiding over other dolls that hang around her, as a prelude to hundreds of other dolls hanging from trees and jacales. They are everywhere: heads; arms; naked, uncombed dolls made from rags or plastic, painted with make-up; they dangle next to carps left hanging to dry, covered in spider’s webs. Inside ecah of the three jacales there are countless dolls covered in dust, near piles of assorted objects: more dolls, photographs, paintings, furniture parts, wicker objects, empty bottles and figures of mules made from corn husks. There is also a notebook with child-like drawings, filled with religious phrases. In the farthest jacal, there are, amongst many other things, two extremely old mattresses. A tlecuil made of mud and an iron comal sit near the front entrance. One of the largest dolls, apparently the main one, is dressed in clothes, glasses, hats and small objects. People visit her with special requests, which, once granted, require them to return with some sort of souvenir or garment. Dogs wander around untroubled and you can see horses, goats and cows grazing on the other chinampas nearby. Silence is disturbed every now and then by the chachalacas.

On Tuesday, April 17, 2001 the Lord of the Dolls passed away. His lifeless body was pulled from the canal in front of his chinampa and sent to the 27th Inquiry Agency of the Public Ministry in Xochimilco (1). His death certificate states that Julián Santana Barrera died at the age of eighty from heart failure. However, some people in Xochimilco claim that he was carried off by mermaids. His remains are in the familiy crypt at the Municipal Cemetery in Xilotepec, Xochimilco.

Who was the Lord of the Dolls? Who was this person capable of living such a solitary life in the sole company of a creepy group of dismembered dolls? Don Julián had no longer been living as the person bearing that name; it was his doll collection that had finally given him his personality. The subject finds substitution through the collection because it is through the collection that he or she exists. Don Julián was a strange being –kind towards visitors, extremely thin, short, beardless, with prominent cheekbones, a wide smile and big eyes- who died while fishing on his chinampa.

Julián was born on October 22, 1921 in one of Xochimilco’s oldest neighborhoods: La Asunción, at Tlaxcalpan Alley, # 9. He began to cultivate the earth at an early age and to sell vegetables at the downtown market, carrying them around in a small cart. As time passed, he started to drink and began to visit the pulquería named Los Cuates at La Asunción Square. He wasn’t much of a talker, but at the pulquería he established a long-lasting friendship with Sebastián Flores Farfán, the owner’s son. Don Sebastián says that Julián was known in the neighborhood as La Coquita, a very small bird that lives in the area of the chinampas.

When vegetable sales began to decline, Julián was seen begging on the streets of La Asunción, praying vociferously and preaching God’s word. In Xochimilco at the time, talking about God without wearing the cloth meant committing blasphemy; only those with priestly authority could do this in public, which is why Don Julián was occasionally attacked by people from the neighborhood. His isolation gradually increased and the inhabitants of the area began to complain about him begging on the streets and in the stores. He, in turn, started to complain about the people. Without any explanation, he suddenly began looking for dolls in garbage piles; some were made of plastic or rubber or rags, some were in one piece, others were mutilated… all of them were useful to Don Julián.

In 1975 he decided to leave La Asunción and go live on his chinampa. His nephew Anastasio Santana, who always kept by his side, mentioned that his uncle once said to him "I’m going to my chinampa. I’ve become a problem at the stores, asking for a coin for my pulque. If I’m going to suffer, better over there than here." He departed on his chalupa with no more luggage than his dolls. Until the day of his death, Don Julián had no other neighbors except for chachalacas, wild ducks, herons and carps. His nephew was in charge of bringing him food and selling his vegetables at the market. When people asked him why he hung all those dolls on trees, he would answer that they had suddenly appeared there; however, when he drank pulque he would confess that he hung them there because they chased away the evil spirits that haunted the canals.

With Xochimilco’s ecological rescue in 1991, the water lily plague was finally controlled and the way through the canals was cleared. Tourists began arriving at the Island of the Dolls, where Don Julián would offer them plants or chilacayotes in exchange for some coins. On the day of his death, his nephew Anastasio was helping him remove mud from the canals to prepare the earth for growing squashes. At ten o’clock in the morning they had lunch and right afterward Don Julián went fishing. Apparently he was having problems with a fish that had escaped twice before already, but this time he managed to fish it out and show it off to Anastasio. It weighed at least 8.5 pounds. Don Julián mentioned to his nephew that the mermaids had been calling out to him that day because they wished to take him away with them. To keep them at bay he would start to sing. Anastasio then left to go feed the cows and when he came back at around eleven, he found his uncle’s body floating in the water. "I didn’t move him because they say it’s wrong to, so I just pulled him in closer with a stick and went to tell the family and get the rescuers" (2).

We can only possess objects. Not artifacts or tools, just objects. Possession takes place when our closeness to things prevents us from using them and they become related to the subject, us. In this way, we can reconstruct a world that in essence slips through our fingers; a broad, distant world. Time, just like the world, must be canceled out, substituted or denied in order to organize a private whole, my world.

Perhaps the Island of the Dolls is not exactly a collection. According to Jean Baudrillard (3), collecting involves choosing and gathering, and differs from accumulation, which lacks differences or a purpose. However, in-differentiation does not here equal indifference. Both collecting and accumulating are compulsive acts; the act of gathering certain objects keeps us from deviating when the objects become mediators that serve as strongholds between the subject and the world. This group of dolls acquires singular characteristics simply through the quantity of dolls involved, and its uniqueness as whole (found in both the possession of the dolls and in their distribution on the island) leads to the uniqueness of the collector. Here again, the objects act as mediators in the relationship between the subject and the outside world.

The collection throughout is a contrast between intimacy and exhibition. The objects are gathered almost secretly and hidden from the view of most people. They require a gradual approach, which serves as an initiation into a mystery. Visits are not restricted, they are only obstructed in order to make them more selective, in the same way we do not show our entire personality to everyone. The collection’s isolation, a remote island –not in terms of distance but in terms of access- is its first protective feature. It is located far away from crowded routes and requires greater effort from the visitor in order to reach it, including extra travel fare in the form of a gift exchange. In this isolated spot, treasuring disguised as abandonment allows for control over a slice of reality, a reality that cannot be easily possessed. We can make use of objects, just as the world and time make use of us. It is not about power; rather, it is a manifestation of a limited potential, a product of marginalization. The Island of the Dolls is a transitional space connecting an extensive reality to an inidividual who would otherwise be undistinguishable (Don Julián). The collection is really the construction of an oneiric space, half-away between dreaming and wakefulness, where inhabiting can take place. Once the visitor is on the island, its uniqueness encourages rejection. This is a defensive aspect where the differences between the collector and the rest of the mortals are highlighted: "How can someone live like this?" (4).

Collecting may well be a conduct derived from a feeling of loss or vulnerability. It uses substitution as a strategy (5), because objects relieve anxiety when they acquire protective characteristics. In this case, the dolls are a protection from evil spirits. The presentation of the group of dolls, a grimy scenography, only increases the value of the objects as protective beings. Sometimes the dogs are also present, indicating the vocation of failure in human relationships which might occur on the island. The doll’s complex significance must be traced to the projection of Don Julián’s personal life, to his religiosity and his isolation from the world. We can no longer know whether each doll had a name (Anastasio says his uncle used to talk to them), if they existed as individual beings with particular traits, or whether this undefined, crowded group was really just an infinite game of mirrors. However, the quantity of dolls is really the feature that allows an approach to the group as a whole. What appears to be an agression against certain dolls might only be a clumsy way of showing affection, including the practicality with which an object is hung from a tree by using a wire. A doll is a miniaturization of a normal body and provokes a mixture of attraction and rejection. Their form encourages us to identify with them, while maintaining a certain distance created by our differences. Here is a "minature world" that can be handled and molded according to our own personality. However, the result can lead repeatedly to a reflection of ourselves. Collectors’ lives are associated to thier objects –often the objects are the echo of these lives- and sometimes collectors are the reflection of the objects through connections of what is beleived and what is dreamed. In any case, there is always a certain logic behind these relationships, which also guarantees the adaptability of ideas to different levels of reality (6).

Susan M. Pearce distinguishes three types of collections: the souvenirs, the systematic and the fetish objects (7). The first one is associated to the personal memory of the collector, the second one reveals a taxonomic zeal for organization, and the third one defines the collector’s personality. The Island of the Dolls has the features of a fetish collection, beyond the Freudian definition of fetish as a separate part of the body, because it shifts between stressing privacy and the desire for exhibition. The act of possessing and organizing the dolls is related to the subject as a body, with space around it, with the demarcation of a territory that it inhabits, and with its relationships and tastes. We must not forget that the island is a home and that "a home is a unique collection of objects and constitutes the framework of an important part of our lives" (8). It is an statement that defines us.

The dolls are not representative of different kinds or types, presented in the collection through a sample. They are any doll, because their representativeness has to do with living beings. The are quasi humans, with a type of "soul" (9), paradoxically more evident the less animated they are. Each part of the collection –whether it is a doll, a teddy bear, a plastic dinosaur or a dissected fish- and all of them toghether, are reverberations of an isolated unit: Don Julián. And Don Julián is alone.

Today, visitors to the Island of the Dolls are welcomed by Anastasio, who is often found chatting with other men. He is welcoming and invites those who visit him to enter the jacales, to take photographs and to hear about how the dolls protected his uncle. The floor is no longer covered in fish bones and smelly fish remains; instead, Anastasio keeps pots with flowers and aromatic herbs for sale. A cross and a modest wreath covered in chilacayotes and cempasúchil flowers marks the spot where Julián fell into the water. Even before his death, one could already see the laminated sign that still reads: "Welcome, you are at Don Julián’s internationally famous Island of the Dolls."

However precarious, Island of the Dolls maintains a collection, exhibits it to the public and offers services to the extent of its possibilities. The collector’s personal space and interests have been discretely modified to give the impression that, before his death, everything was as we see it today. Even so, the collection’s effect is not lessened; in a manner similar to art, this daunting disposition of dolls conveys meaning to itself. We do not know what will happen to the Island of the Dolls; it may even acquire new pieces to add to the collection; however, we must realize that as of this moment, its characteristics have led it to become something else: a museum.

(1) The biographical information of the Lord of the Dolls has been taken from an interview published in La Jornada on April 22, 2001 by Mariana Norandi.
(2) Idem.
(3) Jean Baudrillard. El sistema de los objetos (The system of objects), Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1997. pp. 97-121.
(4) "Familiar things can become uncanny, hideous." Sigmund Freud. "The Uncanny", in Complete Works, tome III. Madrid, Biblioteca Nueva, 1981. p. 2484.
(5) Collecting is associated with depressive tendencies. Cfr. Werner Muensterberger. Collecting. An unruly passion. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994. p. 3.
(6) Cfr. Claude Lévi-Strauss. The savage mind. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1973. p. 76.
(7) VV.AA. Museums, objects and collections. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. p. 68 and further.
(8) Ibid, p. 24.
(9) Dolls protect from evil spirits and the greater their number, the greater the protection they will convey.

* Glossary
chalupa : a type of canoe or small boat.
chinampa : floating gardens in the canals and lagoons in Xochimilco, Mexico city, famous for producing flowers and fruit.
jacal : a poorly constructed shed.
tlecuil : (from nahuatl tlecuilli  ‘cooking stove, fireplace’, literally ‘place where the fire twists’) Cooking stove, hearth, fireplace.
comal : A flat dish made of iron or clay used in Mexico for cooking tortillas or corn cakes.
chachalaca : chicken-like bird with brownish green feathers and white chest.
pulquería : pulque shop.
pulque : the fermented juice of the agave or maguey plant.
chilacayote : gourd plant or fruit.
cempasúchil : Mexican plant with yellow or orange flowers, related to the cult of the dead.



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