The Canals of Xochimilico hold a mystical charm that seems almost unsettling. Over hundreds of years the area has been desecrated to only one canal. This sole tributary is all that is left of the ancient Lake Xochimilico. Still, the strength of the Aztecs thrives in this remnant, this living alter of mexico’s history.
On an island near the canals, an old legend tells a story that seems to mirror the survival and strength of the mexican culture. The Island of Dolls, La Isla de las Munecas in Spanish, is known by many and respected by most.
– Mexico Travel
The Mexican Island of the Dolls is essentially an island covered in the corpses of dolls in varying states of decay. These dolls hang from trees by the hundreds.
Legend has it, on this small island on Teshuilo Lake, many years ago, three young girls were playing when one drowned. Of course, the island, filled with urban legend and superstition, become known as a haunted spot and few dared to ever trespass on the land.
Julian Santana was born in Asunción, one of the oldest barrios of Xochimilco, on October 22, 1921. He began tilling the earth and offering his produce out of an old wheelbarrel throughout the towns from a young age. In time, although deeply religious, he fell into alcholism. Towns people began attackinghim and complaining to authorities of his begging and constant intolerant drunken prayer. In turn, Don Julian complained of the general population.
According to family, without explanation, Don Julian began using his wheel barrel no longer for selling produce, but for carting dolls. All dolls: rag dolls, plastic, rubber, whole or in pieces seemed to be a special treasure for his unique collection. He began to wander night and day throughout the town only resting when, yet another wheel barrel had been filled. In 1975, Don Julian decided to leave La Asunción. He got into his canoe-like chalupa, with nothing more than dolls and never came back.
Don Julian had chosen to retreat to a place where he would neither bother or be bothered. He chose a small island, the very same small island where a little girl had drowned years before, as his own.
Knowing he would need approval from the ghostly girl who wandered the island, he built a small alter in her honor and would find old discarded dolls to bring to the island as an offering. His nephew, Anastasio Santana, was the only human contact Don Julian had for years, as he would bring food through the canal and return with Don Julian’s ever delightful produce to sell amongst the town folk. The dolls, as Don Julian once told him, were not only for the wandering girl who so generously shared her ill fated island, but also said to protect him from bad spirits which wandered the canals each nightfall.
In 1991, an ecological rescue was needed to rid the canals of a water lily plague which had greatly hindered the water circulation. It was then both authorities and reporters had happened upon Don Julian and his Island of Dolls.
It wasn’t long before locals heard not only about the strange island of dolls, but also about Don Julian’s wonderful garden of assorted fresh produce. Soon tourists began travelling to the Doll Island, bringing old dolls and coins in trade for beautiful plants and fresh vegetables. The trade increased the collection so much that the island now has an amazing collection of thousands of dolls in various stages of disintegration.
On Tuesday, April 21, 2001, Anastasio helped his uncle move mud and water from the canals to prepare the land to plant pumpkins. At ten in the morning they shared a small meal and went fishing. After losing his bait to what appeared to be the same fish twice, Don Julian, captured his prize. He proudly showed the fish to his nephew who claimed it was easily over a 4 kg catch.
Shortly after, Don Julian began to sing. He had claimed the mermaids had been calling for him and trying to take him all day and many times before he had avoided their attempts by singing. Anastasio excused himself to tend to some chores. When he returned shortly after eleven, he found his uncle floating face down in the canal.
His lifeless cadaver was rescued from the canal and turned over to Xochimilco authorities. Investigators listed eighty year old Don Julian’s cause of death as heart failure, although to this day, some still feel he was taken by mermaids.
While creepy and even morbid may be the initial reaction, there is an amazing and uplifting sense that comes from this type of legend. The island became an alter that is still being visited and decorated today. Santana’s respect for the spirit child became a way for locals to honor her as well, even if it was for the fresh produce.
The Isla de las Munecas makes us look at death in a different light. Morbid and strange differs from culture to culture and the dolls of this Island offer a surreal look at aging and death. While it may be strange, and even absurd, at one time it was believed that the dolls made a little girl very happy. Who knows, maybe even today she relishes an occasional addition to her island resting place where she once again, since losing Don Julian, inhabits alone.