I had no idea how much working on the dolls affected the women’s self-esteem. I have had comments like “I’ve been told all my life that I’m good for nothing, but I can create something this beautiful. So I now know that that’s not true.” – Rebecca Roth
Sometimes treasures come out of unusual places and from unlikely circumstances. Such is the case of Original Friends Dolls, a program for making one-of-a-kind cloth dolls in the Reclusorio Feminil of Puente Grande, just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.
The story behind the dolls is a fascinating one. It started with Rebecca Roth, an American who moved to Mexico in 1998 and until early 2006, ran a business in Puerto Vallarta. In March of that year, she was taken by Mexican authorities for questioning about an incident in 2001. Unfortunately, there is no presumption of innocence in Mexico upon accusation, Rebecca had to go to prison while her case wound through the court system for four years. Her case was finally dismissed for lack of evidence.
Prison is hard for anyone, but especially when you don’t know the language well, and find yourself shared a 6-person cell dormitory with 13 women and one young child. Rebecca found a number of outlets to help her cope with prison life, but the good to come out of this bad situation came in relation to the little girl.
Lupita at time was only 15 months old, having been born in the prison after her mother became pregnant after a conjugal visit from her husband. Mexican prisons allow such babies to stay with their mothers until age 3, but there isn’t much for a young child in such a place. Lupita had only a couple of empty plastic Coke bottle to play with. Having had taken some basic sewing classes, Rebecca decided Lupita needed a doll. She asked for scraps and created a doll with orange yarn hair, purple eyes, a white blouse and multi-colored skirt. Lupita fell in love with it instantly, and named the doll “Mia” (mine in Spanish). That doll went everywhere with the girl, including to Islas Marias facility that her mother was transferred to later on.
Rebecca didnt think much more about the doll until a cellmate complained about the need to make better money than what the prison shops could afford. Mexican prisoners need to make money to pay for their basic supplies such as toilet paper, and the earning opportunities are pitiful. Rebecca thought about the doll and suggested that they make some for an upcoming prison art show to see if they could sell. So Esmeralda Hernández José joined Rebecca to makethe dolls and to their surprise, their first customer was the warden! The prison still very much supports the project, taking no cut of the proceeds and making sure visitors to the facility see it, as Rebecca says, “… it gives them bragging rights.”
Before Rebecca’s release in 2010, the two women sold about one hundred dolls, to guards, visitors and others. Despite the unjust incarceration, Rebecca still loved Mexico and wanted to stay and continue the project, now called Original Friends Dolls, a name suggested by Esmeralda. The imprisoned women who participate made about one doll a week and are paid for their production every Friday. It is up to Rebecca, Esmeralda and others to get them sold on the outside. The program is so popular that is there is a waiting list.
1,500 named, number and signed dolls later, Original Friends have evolved quite a bit since the creation of Mia, although they are still made almost entirely of scraps, ribbons, lace, buttons and more, most of which is donated from the outside of the prison. The dolls are no longer meant to be children’s playthings but rather collectibles. Almost all are figures of women, with a few of men, and tend to be long and lithe, measuring about 60cm tall, with the exceptions of the mermaids which are “shorter” because of the curved tails. They have long extremities which are often movable. One interesting technique is with the legs , with bendable knees achieved by making the legs in two pieces and connecting them with a large wood bead “knee.” Almost all have some kind of lace or sequins, jewelry or other sparkly bits. Faces are painted on but any small elements such as sequins, chains, glasses, etc are sewn on, no glue guns used at all. Rebecca trains all the women that participate, and her basic design is influenced by the work of Elenor Peace Bailey and Patti Medaris Culea
As they are collectibles, they are not cheap trinkets. Almost all the dolls for sale at the 2015 Feria Maestros del Arte ran for 1,200 Mexican pesos (about $90 USD). The Feria is one of their main outlets, but the program is looking for more venues, as another prison, a small women’s facility in Ixtapa, has joined the program, allowing for much higher production.