Dolls born of an earthquake

September 19, 1985 marked Mexico’s worst modern earthquake disaster. Every year since then, the city has had an earthquake drill on that day both to keep prepared and to remember the tragedy. For those who live here, the memory of that event has become more poignant since the 2017 quake, which occurred 32 years to the date from that event… almost at the same hour.

The 2017 event cost me my full time job, as the campus where I was teaching was 70% destroyed. If the loss of 5 students’ lives is not enough, researching something as mundane as dolls can give you something to put things in perspective.

Fortunately, the toll of 2017 was only a small fraction of that of 1985, in no small part due to strengthened building codes. To get a sense of how the loss of 10,000+ lives and billions of dollars of damage was on a human scale, one can look to the story of Lucha (Struggle) and Victoria (Victory).

Monument to the seamstresses at the site of a former factory in Colonia Obrera

One of the major tragedies of the 1985 earthquake was the collapse of a number of factories which made designer clothing. Most were situated in a small section of the city just southeast of the historic center. The women that sewed here worked long hours under the table for low pay and were mostly unaware of their labor rights. Conditions were so poor that even the machinery was too heavy for the buildings that housed them.

Most pertinent to September 19, 1987 was that these women started their workdays at 7am or earlier, so that when the first and most deadly quake struck at 7:19 am, they were at their stations. Various factories collaped and the death tolls of the seamstresses ranges from 600 to 1600, with about 40,000 out of work.

The loss of the factories created an economic crisis for these women and their families, who were often very poor migrants from other parts of Mexico. Unable to access many benefits due to their irregular working status, a number of them banded together to form the Cooperativa Mexicana de la Confección 19 de Septiembre. The idea was that together, with the making and selling of dolls, they could cover their immediate financial needs.

Life size sketches for the dolls’ heads in the scrapbook of Ofelia Murrieta, a project participant.

While it sounded like a straightforward proposition, implementing it was not easy at all. Though they worked in sewing factories, many of the women were not seamstresses in the true sense of the word. They were working assembly lines and thus many knew only one thing, which may or may not relate to making dolls. However, the women and this project had support from the media, artists and intellectuals from the get-go, which brought publicity, resources and expert help to the project. Artists donated design ideas, although the workability of these designs varied as to marketability and the ability to recreate the drawings in cloth. Industrial designers and other took part with the women to help assess design ideas and later with production processes. Universities and other institutions helped with providing space to work, electricity and sewing machines.

The women initially chose two designs, both by artist Vicente Rojo which they called Lucha and Victoria. Lucha (or La Lucha) represents the stuggle to survive the aftermath of the earthquake. She is thin with limp hair with a pointed nose. (La) Victoria represents the success of overcoming. She is fat, with curly hair and glasses. Both dolls are dressed as seamstresses complete with measuring tape, pins/needles and scissors.

Dolls for sale in Coyoacan in 1986 (Credit: El Universal)

The dolls were produced in quantity from 1985 to 1990. One important hurble was that many women after the earthquake could not embroider smiles on the dolls in a convincing way because of their own emotional state. However, the program was a resounding success. The first runs immediately sold out and long waiting lists emerged soon after. The dolls were sold all over Mexico and even to foreign buyers. They were also exhibited in museums and other venues nationally and internationally.

In 2005, about 300 of the dolls were reunited for an exhibition in Mexico City for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. The project was honored again recently at a conference on rag dolls at the La Esquina toy museum in San Miguel Allende, Mexico’s largest museum dedicated to traditional toys. Currently, I am researching a book on Mexican cloth dolls, which will have a chapter dedicated to this story.

Featured image: Just a small fraction of the dolls sold from 1985 to 1990. From the collection of Tessa Brisac. (Credit:Julio Ancira)

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