Mexican rag dolls

San Ildefonso Tultepec rag doll holding a rag doll

Few toys have been as ubiquitous over time as the doll, and few girls grow up without fond memories of at least one special one. Doll collectors seek to recreate that sense of wonder from childhood. But dolls can also have a place in appreciating another culture.

While there have been clay figures found from the pre Hispanic period, there is no evidence that these “dolls” were playthings instead of for other purposes

That is not to say that there were no toys prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but they may have been made with other, far-less-durable material.

The first evidence of dolls in the more modern sense of the word came about in the colonial period. These were most likely rag dolls, made with bits and pieces from items that were no longer fit for their original purpose.

Any dolls other than the  most crudely made were limited to upper class families, Spanish or criollo young girls. These girls were also taught sewing and embroidery skills that could be used in the making and decorating of dolls and their clothing. The wealthiest girls would get rag dolls with porcelain heads imported from Europe. The popularity of these dolls even into the early 20th century spawned a kind of knock off, which has since evolved into its own craft form called Lupitas or Celaya dolls made from paper mache.

Lupita or Celaya doll

However, the introduction of industrially-made cloth and its steady drop in cost made rag dolls more affordable and within the reach of more families. However, the making of these rag dolls were almost exclusively done in families and for personal use. The making of crafts in Mexico has been changing since the mid 20th century primarily because of the tourism industry. The making of rag and other dolls has lagged behind other traditions in being adapted for the tourist market.

HandstitchedMariaThe best known exception to this is the “Maria” dolls, which are nearly ubiquitious in tourist markets all around Mexico. Although their origin is somewhat disputed, they are likely from southeast Querétaro state. The town of Amealco and its Otomi population lay claim to them. These dolls have been commercialized for decades and on several occasions were even factory-made. But today most are make individuals and coopertatives of women. They do have a mass- produced look to them, which comes from the fact that when factories failed, artisans purchased patterns and sometimes equipment. It is interesting to note that there is a more traditional but almost entirely unknown type of rag doll from the same area. Instead of stuffing, the doll’s body is formed by rolling and bending manta (a heavy muslin) cloth, they tying it and dressing it.

Amealco and the city of Queretaro are home to two interesting doll museums/collections. Amealco’s doll museum pays homage to the local version, but also contains from other parts of the country as well, as most of the collection comes from entrants from the municipality’s annual doll exhibition and competition. While not limited to rag dolls, these do dominate, as they do at the Centro de Desarrollo Artesanal Indígena in the state capital. This museum is dedicated to the state’s indigenous handcrafts but has a good overview of modern Mexican rag doll making.

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Dolls from the Amealco and Queretaro museums.

In recent years, the popularity of the making of rag dolls in some kind of indigenous or traditional dress has been growing among craftspeople, especially indigenous ones. These dolls offer a way to not only make money but also show the value of cultural heritage images. Indeed the true value of these dolls is in the dress, rather than in the doll proper.

Morenita Mia dolls

The dolls follow European designs for the most part although more than a few makers have opted for darker colored cloth that more closely aligns with indigenous skin colors. With few exceptions, these dolls depict women, whose traditional dress is generally more colorful and attracts more attention.

Doll makers are often already involved in the making of texiles or traditional clothing to begin with, and start making the dolls as a sideline. The dolls also provide a way to use leftover cloth and other materials. But if events such as the biannual Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas, an important show of Mexican indigenous businesses, is any indication, they are a growing sector of Mexican handcrafts. Last November’s edition features dolls in ethnic dress from Baja California, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Michoacan, Mexico City, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter





“Human” Catrinas

Folk or popular art encompasses all kinds of creative activities, from the expected (like the decoration of pottery) to the truly surprising. It can cross lines into urban art, performance and more. Some have a history but others can be quite new innovations.

Day of the Dead has roots in the millenia, but in past decade or so, new expressions have taken hold, especially in Mexico’s capital. Some, such as as the Alebrije Parade, are supported and even invented by government and civic organizations. These include the myriad of fairs and festivals taking advantage of the holiday to showcase local food and handcrafts.

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La Catrina has been invented and reinvented since definitively coming in Mexican popular consciousness in the early 20th century. (See our earlier article on Catrina here.)

DSC_0170 (851x1280)She appears in many form in many of Mexico’s traditional popular arts materials such as paper mache and ceramic, but she also appears on people as well. This takes the form of face-painting, sometimes quite elaborate and sometimes extending into other parts of the body, and often includes some kind of costume as well. How this came about is not clear, but it is a recent innovation and seems to be limited to Mexico City and some other metropolitan areas.

It is quite possible that Halloween is an influence here. Children in Mexico do dress up in costumes (particularly princesss girls and superhero boys) can be seen all year, and in a number of different urban areas in Mexico, children have taken up some form of “trick-or-treating,” around Halloween/Day of the Dead, often for days and usually asking for money rather than candy.

Unlike depictions of Catrina in other formats, there seems to be a bit more flexibility with the face paint/costume version. Imitating the Catrina of José Guadalupe Posada remains the most popular, with the wide-brimmed ornate hat, and long elegant gown. But liberties can and are taken.

The basic goal of the face paint is to represent a human skull. In the traditional depictions of Catrina by Posada and Diego Rivera, it stops here. But not so in the case of human Catrinas. After the white (or off white) base coat is applied and black to simulate eye sockets, nose openings and exposed teeth, colors and patterns are added, which can get quite elaborate. These elements are reminicent of the decorations of sugar skulls, and most likely derives from them.

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398px-FeriaAlfenique028It is interesting to note that depictions of Catrina are usually distinguished from other expressive skeletal figures by sticking to a particular style. But on human being, the idea of what makes a “Catrina” seems to be expanded. One is the appearance of “Catrín,” a male dandy version, with period dress to match. (While Catrín can appear in other forms of popular art, it is much rarer.) The dress and props of human Catrinas seems to be expanding, with Catrinas as brides, as Frida Kahlo and even in various forms of Mexican traditional and/or indigenous dress.

The combination of colorful decoration and dress reflects Mexican attitudes on death…. as is Day of the Dead itself. Death is not to be shunned or ignored but rather embraced as a part of life, not its opposite. The colors take away from the cold, empty stare of a bare human skull. The decorations and dress are often life-affirming, with flowers, wedding veils, huipils still in use today and more. Overall, the Catrinas demonstrate what makes Mexico what it is, both from its past and its present.

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The transition of the image to make-up/body paint and costume has led to an event specifically for human Catrinas and Catríns called the Mega procesión de las Catrinas, which allows Mexico City body paint and make up artists to showcase their talents.

It began four years ago, and the 2017 version attracted about 200 artists and 30,000 people. During the day, artists offer their services to anyone interesting in participating (with rates ranging from 20 to 100 pesos or more depending on the talent of the artist). At about 7pm, the Catrinas paraded from the Angel of Independence to the Palace of Fine Arts in the historic center.  Organizers strongly suggest not conflating the event with Halloween, especially with the costumes, which need to be clothing related to Mexico (past or present), but Halloween elements do creep in.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia with the exception of the featured image by Sophia A01361289 (via Wikimedia Commons)



The “non-ugly” alebrijes

For all there is to admire about Mexican handcraft traditions, it is a relatively closed world, especially on the side of production. The major reason for this is that much of the value of the pieces depend on their cultural derivation, which for Mexico often is tied to questions of ethnicity.

One case that illustrates this point is that of Susana Buyo. She was born in Luján, Argentina and moved permanently to Mexico in 1978 as a young woman, settling with her family in the upper-middle class Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

Buyo working on an alebrije

In Argentina, Buyo trained as a ceramicist, but in Mexico City fell in love with the alebrijes of Pedro Linares. She set about teaching herself basic cartonería (paper maché) techniques, and then developed her own unique style of mode of working.

524477_4009495916169_1718480424_nBack at that time, becoming a self-taught “cartonero” or indeed becoming one by any means other than apprenticing as a member of a certain family was unheard of. It allowed Buyo to focus on alebrije making, which is her true passion, rather than cartoneria in general.

She strongly shys away from analyzing her style, insisting that her work is “instinctual” rather than “academic,” refusing to entertain idea of what has influenced her work.

148109_1804404270256_1459073_nBut influences are there. The basic form and “function” of her creations is in the work of Pedro Linares, the inventor of alebrijes, as well as the myth of alebrijes being derived from dreams. Buyo’s classic pieces are amalgams of real and imaginary creatures, usually with one dominating, She built on the Linares dream-creature myth, declaring alebrijes to be magical creatures with a kind of psychological reality as a personal or home guardian. One story she tells to this effect was when she was exhibiting an alebrije she made in 2001, a young boy stopped in front of it, became wide-eyed and declared “That’s what I dreamt last night!”This may be what Buyo means by her work being instinctual.

In her work Women in Mexican Folk Art, Eli Bartra covers Buyo’s work from a feminist perspective. She declares most alebrijes such as those by the Linares family to be generally male. (Pedro Linares himself declared his creatures to be ugly.) Buyo’s works are delicate with more sophisticated lines and have a feel of surrealism about them. Unlike other alebrije makers of her generation, there is attention to color combinations and the effects they have on the piece.

Buyo’s pieces are also distinct from the Linares’ work in that she has incorporated commercially-made elements, such as glass marbles for eyes and sequins, etc. as decorative elements. Until relatively recently, such additions were almost entirely rejected by Mexico’s cartoneria community, but this is changing. While Buyo’s gender probably influences her choices in color, form and decorative detail, so too may her foreign roots.


It is important to note that neither Buyo nor her work were particularly accepted by the cartoneria community of latter 20th century, and many of the present-day are not aware of who she is. Her work has been exhibited in Mexico and Europe but has found its way into permanent collections only in the latter. But that is not to say that Buyo  has not had any effect.

Buyo with student Susana Diaz and the latter’s alebrije

Her influence stems mostly from being a teacher. After mastering the making of alebrijes, she established a workshop at the family home. The height of this career in Mexico City extended through the 1990s into the early 2000s, with the workshop taking over the entire living room. Over the years, she taught hundreds of students, including currently-prominent cartoneros such as Rodolfo Villena Hernandez. Even some more traditional cartoneros such as Alfonso Morales (who has revived the craft in southern Morelos state), cite her as an influence.

Buyo and other cartoneros admit that her work has never been really accepted as part of Mexico’s cartonería tradition. Buyo is philosophical about it stating that “No one is a prophet in their own land” linking the non-acceptance more to her non-conventional style rather than to discrimination per se. However, this may not be accurate given cartonería’s near-obsession to link current work to something “traditionally Mexican,” be it traditional techniques, themes and/or to whom the artisan is linked and how.  According to former student Villena, Buyo reinvented the alebrije in her own image and sensibility, something that many other cartoneros do not feel is necessary.

Mexico does not have a strong immigrant tradition in the sense that naturalized citizens are immediately considered to be Mexican, such as with the “melting pot” principle. The principle of mestizaje does not apply to immigrants, but rather to their descendents who marry into already-established Mexican families.

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In 2013, Buyo decided to leave Mexico City for the quieter and safer Mazatlan. She left her original workshop to a former student. While the website/blog for this establishment still exists, the workshop, for all intents and purposes, does not.

But that is not the end of Buyo’s story. Despite being well into her 70s, she has reestablished herself as a craftswoman and teacher in Mazatlan and since 2016 has been gaining local and regional media attention for both her and her students’ work. Mazatlan has turned out to be a welcoming environment for the likes of Buyo, with its tourism and fairly large expat community making it more accepting of a “foreign” Mexican artisan.

Buyo is best contacted through the Facebook page of her workshop Taller de Alebrijes.

The intricate Catrinas of Capula

There are three women whose visages are known by every Mexican and seen by any foreigner who has spent time in Mexico, even if only in the tourist areas: the Virgin of Guadalupe, Frida Kahlo and La Catrina. As for the last, many tourist see her “face,” but may be completely unaware that she has a name.

Version by Posada, Circa turn of 20th century

This image can be found represented in almost all of Mexico’s major handcraft traditions, especially those of the center and south of the country. Models of her appear in wood, clay, resin, glass, cloth, candy, along with all manner of tourist items such as jewelry, t-shirts, etc.

Capula  Catrina greeting visitors to the community.

Her importance to various handcraft traditions is such that certain depictions of her can be recognized as being from a certain place. One of these are the clay sculptures of her from the tiny town of Capula, Michoacan.

Capula is so small that it is not even classified as a “municipio” to have its own government. Local government functions are from the state capital of Morelia. Although only a 20-minute drive, Capula is a world away from the city’s pink colonial architecture and crowded streets. It is essentially a deviation off the old highway linking Morelia to Patzcuaro, with  series of houses on either side, along with a number of workshops and resellers of the local pottery.

While utilitarian pottery is still made, sold and appreciated, it is the making of highly intricate depictions of La Catrina that show the local talent, especially since it has been done only since the 1970s. Depicting La Catrina is not like depicting just any skeletal figure. Since she is modeled on a grande dame of Mexican high society of the very early 20th century, large hats and long dresses with lace and other finery are a must. For those working in clay, this means the need to be able to depict these elements shaping tiny bits of clay and applying to the base figure. The smaller the Catrina, the finer the elements… to millimeters wide/long. This also presents challenges for firing. Even after the piece emerges safely from the kiln, great care needs to be had in handling the pieces as tiny extenstions such as bony fingers can snap off with the slightest pressure (which I unfortunately learned first-hand).

Arranging elements on the body of a Catrina in progress

The delicateness of these Catrinas, along with innovations in how she is portrayed distinguish these depictions from those from other areas of Mexico, even others done in clay. These figures do not stick with the static classic depictions of the figure done by José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera but very often indicate movement, even if subtle. While still dressed in finery, she can be depicted doing a number of activities, including some quite common, such as carrying things on her back or selling in the market.

Capula Catrinas at the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

The importance of the Catrinas is such that a large statue of a Capula Catrina greets visitors to the town coming in from Morelia. The town has an all-important Feria de Catrina during the last two weeks leading up to Day of the Dead. The 2017 version begins on Oct 22.

Sweet Death

The term artesanía roughly translates to “handcrafts” or “folk art” although cultural differences mean that the terms are not completely equal. For example, the adjective artesanal can and often is applied to certain processed foods such as bottle salsas, chocolate, coffee and alcohols if said products are made at a home or by a small enterprises that do not use industrial methods.

Despite the tempation cover some of these artesanal goods (as they ARE wonderful), I have stuck to products that fit the definition of handcrafted in English. However, there is one tradition that truly blurs the line between edible and non-edible “handcrafts.”


Alfeñique is the creation of a sugar paste, which is then molded into various decorative shapes. The term is not known to foreigners, but anyone who has been to Mexico during Day of the Dead (esp. in central Mexico) has seen its most representative product… a highly decorative sugar skull, with a place to add the name of a person. If the skull is to be placed on an altar dedicated to loved ones passed on, it can take the name of the deceased. If it is a gift to be eaten, then the name of the recipient.


The craft has a long history in Mexico, from the early colonial period. A number of sources link it as a replacement for the pre-Hispanic making of figures of amaranth seed and agave syrup, which was banned by Catholic religious authorities. This old link is probably why the tradition is most firmly rooted in the old colonial cities  of central and southern Mexico.

Unfortunately, the cookie-cutter sugar skulls seen in supermarkets and even traditional markets are unlikely to be “artesanía” but rather more mass-produced. That does not mean there are no longer true artisans who work in sugar paste. They can be found in most of Mexico’s central states, Puebla, Estado de Mexico, Veracruz, Michoacan, parts of Zacatecas… but the center of truly creative sugar work is the city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City.

4th generation alfeñique maker Judith Gonzalez (722 601 3110) at her booth at the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca.

Here the paste is used to make all kinds of figures, not just skulls and while figures such as animals and such can and are made for other occasions, by far most of the production is for and related to Day of the Dead. The city has had a fair dedicated to its production of alfenique and other Day of the Dead crafts for years now and recently opened a museum dedicated to the craft as well.

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DSC_0091The finished pieces are perfectly edible, but in reality most are not eaten. It is not sugar candy in the modern sense. It is a mixture of powdered sugar and egg white, with colors added depending on what the paste will be used for. In the case of skulls, the base is thicker and formed with a mold. The decorative elements are made with a softer paste that is piped on, much the way that decorative icing is applied onto fine bakery cakes. Both harden to something that is not only very hard to break with the teeth, but really does not melt in the mouth (a la Jolly Ranchers) because of the protein in the egg whites.  In the past, they were certainly eaten as sugar used to be an expensive commodity. But today, if one wants skulls or other decorations that can truly be enjoyed as candy, items made from other materials can be had. At the Feria de Alfeñique, artisans demonstrate skills in making items from chocolate, amaranth (a nod to the past), tamarid, peanut marzapan, wafers and pepita (a sweet paste made from pumpkin seeds). While skulls are still central, the Toluca event also features other items such as coffins, miniatures of food items often found on Day of the Dead altars, (mole, breads, fruits…), full skeletal figures and animals, in particular deer.

The Feria de Alfenique begins in mid October and runs through Day of the Dead on November 2. The stands are open every day during the entire time, with cultural activities such as music and craft workshops available on weekends.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia. Featured photo of lighted sugar skull by Dulceria Tradicional Zarco of Toluca

Creating a monster

Eleven years ago, Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Popular created one of Mexico’s newest and most popular traditions… the annual Monumental Alebrjie Parade. Originally conceived as “Night of the Alebrijes,” most popular by far is the mid day parade of meters-tall colorful paper mache monsters rolling down from the main city square (Zocalo)  to the Angel of Independence.

The event not only put the small museum on the city’s cultural map, it spurred an entire industry of large-scale works, often sponsored by govenments and community associations.

Brothers Jonathan and Eduardo with their entry behind them

But of the 100+ entries the event attracts, many are made by individuals and groups of artisans (professional and amateur) with no kind of patronage or renumeration. For the pros, it is a way to demonstrating their skills and innovations, for the amateurs, it is often a way to show a sense of community, such as entries made by students of local universities.

Each “monster” is planned for up to a year, but most production is run on a tight schedule of about 4 months, from the time that their design is accepted by the museum to the day of the parade itself.

One of these monsters is being made by brothers Eduardo and Jonathan Garcia. They live in the same tenement that their parents raised them in, in the poor Peñon neighborhood, bordering the Mexico City airport. The brothers learned the craft from their father but have taken it farther than the previous generation.

They have participated over eight times in the parade, each time sponsoring their own work. Each year, Eduardo states emphatically, the piece made for the parade exhibits all the improvements in technique and innovation that they have accumulated so far.

Eduardo and the model for this year’s alebrije

Their piece for this year is named “Magnus, a 6-legged taloned dragon figure whose general body shape is based off their dog, a boxer. The piece as pictured here has just reached the painting stage but the work is impressive. First, despite the smoothness of the “skin” almost all of the supporting structure is split cane, with some of the main supports for the torso and wings in metal. Working in the common area of the tenement (called a vecindad), making a piece large enough to make an impact in the parade is difficult. A large alebrije can indeed be built, but getting out of the common area is another question. In the past, the brothers have worked on the roof, but that created new challenges in raising and lowering a piece that can weigh 100 kilos or more with nothing but the muscle power of local youths.

This year, they have tackled the problem by making the alebrije in sections, with parts such as head, tail and wings all remaining separate until assembled at the parade site.

As the alebrijes are large by definition, one of Eduardo’s complaints was that many looked impressive from a distance, but not up close. The brothers decided to go with detail this time around. The piece is large, but will not be the largest of the event by any means.

But it does have the up close visual impact the brothers are going for, even without paint. Mask elements decorate the body, reflecting the family’s main economic activity, the making of paper mache and wax masks for various traditional festivals. Some of these masks are skulls, with images of pan de muerto (bread of the dead) all reflecting Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s most important folk religous observances (Nov 2).

There are also many finely-made decorative elements, made not with paper but with bits of plasticine, a material that is becoming more popular among certain Mexican artisans. It also reflects a growing trend in the making of these giant alebrijes to include decorative elements of various materials … glass, plastic, fabric and more… which normally is not accepted by Mexico City cartoneros (paper mache artisans).

Cartoneros helping cartoneros

One of the hardest hit areas from the September 19th is the state of Morelos, particularly the town of Jojutla in the south.

EncuentroCartoneriaTradicional183Alfonso Morales is a highly respected “cartonero” or paper mache artist. In Mexico, these craftspeople make piñatas, Judas effigies and many other items mostly associated with Mexico’s festival calendar.

But Morales is also a community leader as he has been demonstrating for the past week or so, organizing relief efforts in his municipality as well as getting word out about the damage the area has suffered and the needs of his neighbors. He has been particularly sucessful in motivating the general cartonero community in Mexico to help, including craftspeople in Mexico City which itself was hard hit.

22050054_1892301164119275_1215876570821449342_nThis include trips made by artisans bringing supplies themselves such as members of the La Ultima Hora cooperative (member in gear in featured photo). Help continues to pour in with shipments of supplies being brought by Mexico City arisan Arturo Becerra Acco and as far away as Veracruz state, courtesy of cartonero Blas Tlan Tecolutla.

It is small pueblos like Jojutla that take the longest to recover even if the major stats are coming from Mexico City. Despite the high death toll and damage estimates, the fact is that the city has resources and gets the lion’s share of federal resources… not to mention media coverage. Towns like Jojutla are left to their own ingenuity, in this case for almost a week before there was even any serious media or government attention.

Most of the damage in places like Jojutla are to residences and small businesses… to the basis of life of people who very likely have nothing in the way of insurance. Rebuilding will be a long, slow road.


It has been noted much in Mexico media and social media, that tragedies such as this bring out the best in the Mexican people… people with little helping those with even less. The cartonero community of Mexico certainly demonstrates this. In addition to maestros noted above, help has also come in from artisans in Monterrey, Tijuana, Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí artisans. Maestro Morales wants to express his gratitude to all those who have helped and continue to help.

Community cooperation such as this allows the work to go on.