One apparant trend among those who make dolls is to make a series of them. Each doll is individually-made but there is a common element among them to create a brand identity. These are usually commercial ventures such as with the Yucatan enterprise “Aluxin” and “Original Friends” out of Jalisco. Morenita Mia is a little different as it began as a community service project and in its two years, is still non-profit.
The unifying elements of the dolls is dark skin, chubby cheeks and authentically made garments that represents various indigenous communities in Mexico.
The story begins at the Santo Domingo Market in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. This state is one of Mexico’s handcraft powerhouses and this market is a particularly popular destination to buy and sell local handcrafts.
Local resident Marua Hugues was in this market one day when she spotted rag dolls made by artisan Marta León. What made this dolls stand out was not only their unusual faces with large cheeks, but more importantly, that the dolls were all of darker skin color. A rarity in Mexico, where dolls are almost always more representative of Europeans.
León’s dolls were called “morenitas” (little dark girls) and were originally dressed very simply. Marua came up with the idea of dressing the dolls in traditional women’s clothing of the various ethnicities of Mexico. As part of a community service project for school, Hugues partnered with León to make the dolls, and then with other (female) artisans to make the outfits the dolls wear. Respecting the people and their culture, Morenita Mia contracts artisans to sew the traditional clothing of their community.
The project first reached out to communities in Chiapas and most of the dolls still have clothes made in and representing communities such as San Juan Cancuc, San Juan Chamula, Aldama, Zancantan and various villages in the Lacandon rainforest. They have since reached out to artisans in Oaxaca (Yalala, San Dionicio Ocotepec and Santa María Zacatepec) as well as in Nuria, Michoacán and the Tarahumara area of Chiahuahua. The long-term goal is to work with as many indigenous communities as possible all over Mexico.Currently they work with 15 groups of artisans (about 70 individuals in total), as usually 4 artisans are involved in the making of each outfit.
For the Hugues, the skin color of the dolls is extremely important because the dolls represent the “reality” of Mexico’s indigenous heritage. They hope to represent as many indigenous clothing styles as possible but this is difficult as they can change notably between communities that are only a couple of kilometers apart.
The dolls themselves are all equal and take about two weeks. The time needed to make the outfits varies widely, depending on complexity. The simplest is the outfit of those representing the Lacandon area of Chiapas, and take about a week to make. The most complication, usually because of heavy embroidery, take about a month and a half. This results in prices ranging from 700 to 3000 pesos per doll.
All artisans are paid up front for their pieces, rather than relying on consignment. The program also teaches the artisans to calculate the value of the work put into the dolls and their outfits. This is important because these women come from areas of extreme poverty and often sell their work for very little money.
Selling and promotion of the dolls is the work of Marua and her cousin Alejandra. To date, all income after paying the artisans has gone into promotion of dolls and graphics such as tags with the doll’s name, where it comes from the the community is represents. One of the main marketing channels is online, through Facebook and their own website, along with invitations to participate in various fairs and festivals. The vast majority of sales are to Mexicans, despite the fact that Marua now lives in New York, but the cousins are working to find ways to sell internationally.