How a good idea gets smothered by competing interests.
Amealco is a small town located in southern Queretaro near the borders with the State of Mexico and Michoacan. It is a largely Otomi area, where women in traditional dress and the Otomi language are easy to find. It has recently been designated as a Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) by Mexico’s federal tourism authorities. Although it has a marvelous church and historic buildings, the main push behind the designation is the success the town has had associating itself with the now-iconic Maria dolls, which are locally called Leles.
Marias were not invented in Queretaro, although many believe this to be the case. There is an interesting story behind them, but the simple version was that they were developed in Mexico City as part of a program to help Mazahua and Otomi migrants living in that city. For this reason, both indigenous groups claim the doll. The making of the doll is not that old either… dating only to the 1970s. One giveaway to its modern origins is that its construction, especially the head, is unlike any other cloth doll made in Mexico.
Despite this, Marias have become representative Mexico, sold all over the country. The image is featured now on tourism promotions, making it almost as recognizable as Frida Kahlo or the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Although Amealco did not invent the doll, it has done much to popularize it, and to some extent doll-making in general. The first National Handmade Doll Festival was held here in 2013, sponsored by the Comisión Nacional del Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI), today the Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (INPI), and featured dolls and doll makers from all over Mexico. It was small, but like most handcraft fairs sponsored by CDI/INPI, it was a well-done event, diverse and with products of good quality.
The 2019 version had over 600 handcraft vendors, but most did not sell dolls. There were even a few selling handcrafts from other countries. Almost all that were selling dolls were locally-made Marias. There were maybe 10 or 12 stalls selling dolls of other types and only 3 were from outside of Queretaro and neighboring states. The quality of the dolls being sold, with a few exceptions, is not what it was.
Even the doll competition shows the lack of diversity. A good 80% of all entries were from the state of Queretaro and just about all the cloth dolls were. Entries from outside the state were mostly in clay/ceramic, paper mache and other materials not as well-developed in Queretaro.
While previous versions of the event had a more educational feel to them, by 2019 the event now looks and feels like any other of the many fairs that are held in Mexico to promote local products. All that is missing are the amusement park rides and cheesy plastic trinkets. For collectors of dolls and folk art, this is very disappointing
The main reason for this is a change in the management and sponsorship of the event. Although CDI/INPI and the federal FONART authorties are listed as patrons, the top two are the municipality of Amealco and the state of Queretaro. It would stand to reason that such authorities would have less interest in promoting dolls, especially cloth dolls, from other parts of the country. There was just enough here to make a claim that the event was “national” but the real purpose, promoting Queretaro-made Marias, was more than evident walking around.
I should mention that there were some interesting Marias to be seen at the event. Like in other handcraft endeavors in Mexico, there are a few artisans willing to experiment. The most common experimentation with Marias is with her dress, with wedding dresses, dressed at Catrinas complete with makeup and even one dressed as the main character in Malificent. Technical innovations include taking aspects of other kinds of dolls, such as replacing the legs with a stiff skirt to allow the doll to stand. Since the rectangular/oval head of the Marias are now almost as recognizable as the dress, it is showing up in dolls not meant to be Marias at all.
However, if the focus is going to be on the Maria doll, the name of the event needs to change. It is a kind of a false advertising to call the event “national” in its current incarnation. There is nothing wrong with having a Maria or Lele festival as the image has become important nationally, just dont tell me that event supports all dollmakers in Mexico.