The dolls of transplanted Mixtecs

Mexico’s overall south-to-north migration has led to some interesting cultural consequences, some unexpected.

One of Mexico’s main “exporters” of migrants is the state of Oaxaca, the second poorest in the country with 50 of the poorest indigenous communities. Many of these communities are found in the Mixteca or Mixtec region, which lies in the northwest of the state. It is generally inhospitable land, either due to rugged terrain, hot dry climate or even both. Since the second half of the 20th century an estimated 150,000 Mixtecs have made their way north to northern Mexico and parts of the United States.

Dancing a Mixtec jarabe (credit:Oaxaca Profundo)

The exodus is mostly due to declining agricultural yields in areas that were not all that apt to farming in the first place. At first men migrated seasonally then more permanently as the area’s economy continued to decline. Eventually, it was such that women and children followed the men north as well.

Nativitas Monte Verde in the Sierra Mixteca (credit:Yavidaxiu)

Northern target areas for migration on either side of the border have been those with large-scale farming operations. Many rural Mixtecs in Oaxaca grow up without learning Spanish, reading or writing, which leaves them limited to seasonal field work and other very low paying jobs. On both sides of the border, Mixtecs have found discrimination because of their indigenous heritage.

Strawberry harvesting (credit:Proceso magazine)

Today, migrants may be seasonal or permanent, but so many Mixtec have moved to the northwest of Mexico that new, Mixtec-dominated communities have sprung up since the 1970s. The largest and best organized of these is the San Quintin Valley near Ensenada. About 63% of all of the indigenous (in the sense of not mestizo or white) population here is Mixtec, large enough to organize communities to maintain traditions and demand social and economic rights. There has been success in keeping the Mixtec language alive in these communities as well, but no 100% because of the need to work and otherwise interact with non-Mixtec.

Part of the town of San Quintin (Credit:LI1234)

One tradition that has been brought north is the making of handcrafts, often adapted to the sensibilities of the new land. For example, basketry from palm fronds is now made from plastic strips produced for the purpose. Wood working and embroidery is done, sometimes with designs being a mixture of north and south.

Fridas and dolls with “grape” dresses by the cooperative.

One family typical of this migration story is the Ramirez Huerta, whose parents moved from San Jeronimo de Progreso 40 yrs ago to San Quintin. The mother was widowed early so she and all nine children worked in handcrafts, selling to the tourist trade of the area (especially the Wine Route) to earn their sustenance.  In 2011, Magdalena Ramirez Huerta and Ofelia Ramirez Huerta found out about efforts by the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI for its acronym in Spanish), to support female-headed households in the area, through workshops in product design and marketing as well as loans. Through this program they along with 9 other families formed a cooperative called Mujeres Mixtecas (Mixtec Women).

Catrina dolls by the cooperative

At first the group started with the making of the Maria dolls so often seen in tourist markets, but further development has led to the creation of new kinds of dolls as well as some other products. For example, they make Maria dolls with dresses that have designs related to Baja wine country and elements from local cave paintings. There are versions of the dolls meant to portray artist Frida Kahlo and a skeletal figure called Catrina (an important symbol related to Day of the Dead in Mexico). The dolls and the project all have Mixtec names and are registered with local authorities. The project is called Nu’umi (“hug”); the Fridas are called Nia’taquini (woman of character) and the Marias are called Nuit’alo (small flower face).

Dolls and flowered headbands


Jewelry reminicent of that made with seeds seen in northwest Mexico but these are made with wood and plastic beads.

The CDI program has had great impact on the families of this cooperative. The women now sell their wares in museum in Baja California as well as stores in San Diego and Mexico City. They participate in various handcraft fairs in Mexico, including the Expo de los Pueblos Indigenas held twice a year in Mexico City. The success of the enterprise not only allows them to contribute to family finances as they could not before, it has raised their status as women in the Mixtec community.

Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.






















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