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México’s Maria Dolls: Separating Fact from Fiction

MEXICAN DOLLS

By Catherine Marenghi

The ubiquitous dolls sold on street corners and shops throughout México are the iconic rag dolls, or muñecas de trapo, also known as Maria dolls.

Although its image is exploited—indeed, appropriated—by commercial interests worldwide, the Mexican rag doll is inseparable from the Otomí community, and this is where the credit—and the profits—belong.

Here are a few common beliefs and misconceptions about Maria dolls, and my efforts to set the record straight:

1. “Maria dolls are an ancient indigenous art form.”

False. While Mexican grandmothers have fashioned dolls from scraps of old clothing since pre-Hispanic times, the version we know today—with distinctive colored ribbons woven through the hair—dates back only as far as the 1970s. That’s when Guadalupe Rivera, daughter of artist Diego Rivera, started a program designed to elevate the economic status of indigenous women, who had previously been limited to selling candy on city streets.

2. “Maria dolls are named after the Virgin Mary.”

Absolutely false, and to suggest otherwise is profoundly disrespectful to a predominantly Catholic country. There is nothing in the dolls’ attire to suggest any allusion to the Virgin Mary. Their clothing is typical of indigenous women such as the Mazahuas, an ethnic group located in Michoacán, or the Otomí women of Querétaro and other Mexican states.

3. “Maria dolls originated in the state of Querétaro.”

True, although there are spirited debates about which regions in Michoacán or Querétaro can rightfully claim the honor. The dolls most likely originated in southern Querétaro, a heavily Otomí (Ñhañhü) area. According to Querétaro state authorities, the Marias originated from Santiago Mexquititlan and San Ildefonso Tultepec in the municipality of Amealco de Bonfil.

4. “Rag dolls are always homemade.”

Unfortunately, false. In 2017, the Mexican retail giant Liverpool was criticized for selling cheaply made Maria doll lookalikes made in China. Although Liverpool has discontinued the product, the “caveat emptor” warning still applies. To support native artisans and purchase the best-quality dolls, it is best to buy directly from the doll maker. Look for facial features that are hand-sewn or painted on—never glued. Their dresses ideally have hand-embroidered elements.

5. “Maria dolls are named after ‘La India María,’ or Maria the Indian, a fictional movie character.”

False, but the popularity of the character, portrayed by the late Maria Elena Velasco, didn’t hurt. Velasco played “Maria the Indian” in the same era as the dolls’ creation, starting in 1972, and she often wore Mazahuas attire similar to that of many Maria dolls.

To see authentic examples of Maria dolls, check out the Museo La Esquina del Juguete Popular Mexicano, the Corner Toy Museum, in San Miguel de Allende. In Amealco, Querétaro, the Artisan Doll Museum, the first museum dedicated to traditional handcrafted dolls, is located within the Municipal Museum Ricardo Pozas Arciniega.

Catherine Marenghi is a poet and memoirist residing in San Miguel de Allende. See www.Marenghi.com.

 

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