Just about every tourist who has spent significant time in Mexico has come across these dolls, but what are they? Oddly enough little has been written about Mexican dolls at all.
The only name I have found for these rag dolls, with ribbon-decked hair with braids and something that looks like indigenous dress is “Marias,” although they are often called simply “rag dolls.” So for the sake of distinguishing them from other rag dolls, we will use the term Marias.
While they appear in most tourist places, it seems that they mostly likely originate from the Mexican state of Querétaro, more specifically the southern area home to the Otomi. According to Alonso Alcántara Morales, cultural coordinator for the municipality of Amealco, the making of these particular dolls began with a program founded by Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe, in the 1970s as a way to provide local Otomi woman an alternative source of income. The popularity of the dolls nationall came about in part because of the popularity of a similarly-dressed comic movie actress by the name of La India Maria (Maria, the Indian) in the same era. It should be noted that La India Maria character is based on the similarly-dressed neighboring ethnicity called the Mazahua, who have also claim to have originated the doll.
The appearance of Marias in various locations in Mexico probably attributed to their being noticed by tourists. Today, varieties of the dolls can be found in most tourist venues, and can be adapted to the indigenous dress of other ethnicities. Sometimes even the skin color varies as well. Whether or not these dolls are truely handmade is questionable as there have been factory made ones, with the aim of selling them as cheaply as possible.
However, it is possible to obtain ones that are authentically made by the Otomi, especially in Amealco and the city of Queretaro. For the more adventurous, trips to the main production centers of Santiago Mixquititlan and San Ildefonso Tultepec are recommended, but be prepared to ask around for locations and people who made and sell them. Authenticity is not necessarily based in hand-sewing, but gluing should be avoided. The dolls may or may not have movable joints, depending on where they are made. Perhaps the best way to note an authentic piece is through the face and dress. The best dolls have faces that are either sewn on (like the doll above) or painted. The dress should have elements which have been hand embroidered.
It is also important to note that there are two varieties of dolls made by the Otomi of this region. The ones that are best known are from Santiago Mixquititlan. Another is made in San Ildefonso Tultepec, where the doll’s head and body are formed from rolled fabric, usually a stiff muslin, then bent at the head. The front is indicated with a face that is painted or sewn, and the back roll is made to look like long thick hair, covered in a kerchief.
Amealco hosts a museum and an annual national-level contest (in November) for handmade dolls as a means of promoting the dolls and the municipality itself as a center for authentic pieces.
In 2014, the state of Queretaro filed paperwork to have the doll officially recognized as being from here, and only dolls made in the state deemed authentic. The is the same demonination of origin that tequila and a few other products have A ruling for authenticity would be important for the artisans of the Amealco municipality, as the area is one of the poorest in Querétaro and about 70% of the indigenous population of the municipality is dedicated to making them.
A note on other Mexican dolls
While the Marias are best known, they are not the only handcrafted ragdoll made in Mexico. Chiapas also makes rag dolls that can be distinguished from Marias, and often are of both men and women. There are various other artisans that made various rag dolls, for example the dolls made by Original Friends, a women’s prison project and those made by Mexico City artisan Ana Karen Allende. However, these do not have the iconic status that the Marias do, and are not instantly recognizable as Mexican.
Perhaps second in importance are those made from hard paper mache or “cartonería.” These are made primarily in Mexico City, where they are called “Lupitas” and in Celaya, Guanajuato where they are nameless. They were originally made as a cheap toy to give girls during certain festivals, and are distinguised by movable arms and legs which are tied onto the main body.
Dolls are also made with other materials as well, such as dried corn husks, wood etc. Among the crafts of the Tarahumara are those made with bark. Authentic ones of this type are distinguished by being very dark in color, rather than lighter ones made from wood. The reason for this that that those Tarahumara who still follow the old ways will not cut down trees, but rather use only deadfall.
As with many other handcrafts, Marias and other dolls have been replaced by cheaper, commerically made ones of plastic. The making of these dolls now is primarily for tourists and collectors. In the case of Marias, the market is almost exclusively for tourists. As collectors’ items, dolls are not as popular as some other handcrafts.
Featured image by Inakiherrasti