Thursday, February 2, 2012

Isla de las Munecas

On Teshuilo Lake in the Xochimilco canals in Mexico's Federal District, there is a strange little island, now known as Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls).  It was once the home of a very eccentric hermit, and it is his decidedly odd legacy that the island is covered with dolls, many of them hanging from tree branches. 

Don Julian Santana left his family and home (which, as far as I can tell was a nice home where he had a wife and child) and decided to go to live on a small island in the canal district of Xochimilco.  Stories vary as to how he became convinced that the ghost of a young girl haunted his island - some say that one of a trio of girls drowned here in the 1930s, others say that he witnessed a girl drowning but was unable to save her, and some simply say that he had become convinced without reason that a girl had drowned there - but regardless, he was convinced that he shared the island with the ghost of a little girl who he felt must be appeased.

In order to appease the spirit of the girl, and some stories say to protect himself from her, Don Julian began to collect dolls that he found floating in the river (it was near towns, and so finding garbage of various sorts in the river was not uncommon), and would sometimes take them from garbage dumps in the towns that he would occasionally visit.  He would hang these dolls from the trees, creating a strange, and rather creepy, landmark.  He would also collect other toys, placing them around the island, but dolls remained the most prominent.

After a time, people began to bring him dolls in payment for the vegetables that he grew in his garden, and he would also generate income by selling these, as well as giving tours of the island for a fee.

The ultimate fate of Don Julian is not clear.  While it is generally agreed that he died, likely by drowning, there are many conflicting dates for this event.  Most stories agree, though, that he drowned at the same spot in which he was convinced that the girl had drowned.

Commentary:  This is an odd story.  While there is definitely a ghost story element - the drowned girl's spirit being the impetus for Don Julian to collect the dolls and other toys and display them in the very weird fashion in which he did so - the thing that grabs our attention about this story is the weird-ass collection and display of the dolls themselves rather than the ghost story portion. 

And it is weird and creepy.  Isla de las Munecas has attracted many a photographer (and some great photos can be found here and here), and it is easy to see why.  The strange display of dolls hanging from trees, buildings, clothesline, etc. makes for a deeply surreal experience, and while I have never taken LSD, I wonder if I need to after having seen those photos. 

The island has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right, and now boasts a bar where one can do shots while pondering the nuttiness of Don Julian.  It's been a while since I was last in Mexico, but this does make me kind of want to take a trip there.  Perhaps, in a couple of years when life has stabilized a bit, I will be able to head on down there and take in the strangeness of this place.

Special Video Bonus:

La Isla de las Muñecas (with english subtitles) from Garupa Filmes on Vimeo.

Sources:  I09, Atlas Obscura, Boing-Boing, How Stuff Works, Michael Demeng's Blog