Mexico had, and to some extent still has, a tradition of traveling theatre, especially puppet shows for children. It is not surprising that I have found a significant number of artisans today who have some kind of connection with this theatre.
Mariana Mayeb is one such artisan. She lives and works in a town called Tultitlán, one of Mexico City’s suburbs to the north. It is solidly middle class, filled with development houses built for commuters. Mayeb’s father had a theatre company some years ago that was dedicated to preserving and promoting Mexican traditions such as those related to Christmas and Day of the Dead. This company made its own puppets, marionettes, masks and scenery. Although the company disappeared before she could grow up with it, it was still part of family identity.
Mayeb’s creative bent took a different path, studying graphic communication, but the swing back to traditional art forms started even here. As part of her college community service, she worked with a program to introduce new design concepts into Mexican handcrafts. After graduating, Mayeb began a career with an optical company doing their publicity, starting her own family in the process. While steady employment, it was both demanding and not particularly satisfying. So she decided to work a bit with a local theatre group. This was very satisfying as the group was dedicated to bringing theatre to very poor rural communities, to people who often had never seen this kind of show before. But it was difficult to balance the needs of a traveling theatre with those of her children.
Mayeb simply decided that she needed to work for herself, doing something that she could do at home. She quit the job with the optical company and began working in book design, which lasted for about a year. At the same time, she worked on prototypes of various kinds of products, which led to her first doll, made around 2008. These first dolls were her take on the common Marias, with a somewhat updated look.
Soon, clients began to request other kinds of dolls: those representing mariachis, Adelitas (women soldiers during the Mexican Revolution), Frida Kahlo and more. These requests came from the desire to give such dolls to children and were not readily available. Mayeb realized that there was a niche market here to fill, dolls for children with traditional Mexican imagery.
In most cases, the new versions only required different dress. But one unusual product came from her then very young nieces and nephews and Day of the Dead. She wanted something for them, but decided that the traditional skeletal figures made from cartonería (paper mache) were not appropriate for very small children. So she made a cloth doll version. They were a hit not only with the family, but have since become a staple product of her business.
Mayeb’s inventory now include a wide variety of dolls and some other products. She still makes her version of Maria dolls, a few others in different types of indigenous dress. She makes other images from Mexico including Catrinas, China Poblana, lucha libre wrestlers and La Llorona as well as some that are not purely Mexican such as mermaids.
She cannot articulate just what her influences are, but the faces of her dolls are painted with a distinctive style. However, her workshop contains a good number of dolls she has collected from other Mexican and foreign craft doll makers, and some of their work is reflected in hers. Mayeb believes the attraction of her dolls lies in a combination of innovation and classic images, new takes on old imagery. She has more ideas for dolls than she can possibly develop herself. Some of these ideas include dolls as specialty items for quinceañeras and other major celebrations.
Some of her dolls are high-end with great detail. Most of these she makes herself. The rest of the inventory is more affordable, designed by her but made by employees. The dolls’ bodies are made with a muslin cloth that she orders special from Guadalajara to get the right skin tones. Most of the work goes on the in the Tultitlán workshop, in her parents’ former home. Four work here full time and a couple part time. A number of others work in their own homes as well. All the workers are housewives, often with small children. At the moment, all are contract workers, but one of her projects for the year is to find a way to make at least some of them full employees with the legal benefits.
Despite the fact that she initially designed the dolls for Mexican children, they have become most popular with tourists. Most are sold today through distributors, such as airport and museum shops and those in tourist towns in areas such as Los Cabos and Acapulco. Mayeb also has three stores in the United States that sell her dolls in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Antonio.