Half a century ago, in the late 1950s, Don Julian Santana Barrera moved away from his wife and family and came to inhabit the island, which was then a lonely, uncultivated spot and seemingly perfect for Julian’s hermit-like requirements. A native of the Xochimilco district of La Asunción, he had been an able farmer and had wandered the settlement’s streets selling his produce from a wheelbarrow. Despite being profoundly religious he eventually fell into alcoholism and began begging for money to supplement his income. He was soon labelled a drunken nuisance and the local people tired of his drink-fuelled behaviour. It wasn’t long before he was moved on and, bitter at his treatment, he sought a peaceful refuge away from the meddling of other people. Somehow, he found Teshuilo Lake and he decided to settle on the little island.
It is said that many years before Julian’s tenure, in the 1920s, three young girls were playing on the island, only for one to drown, falling into the murky waters near the small pier. The neighbouring inhabitants claimed that the dead girl’s spirit still lingered on the island, unwilling or unable to sever itself from the corporeal world and find the peace that she sought. The island soon gained a degree of local infamy and few dared to trespass on the supposedly haunted land, especially at night when strange voices could be heard. Now, with Julian’s arrival, the drowned girl’s spirit once again had someone to talk to, and she told him of the manner of her demise and made a request of Julian, asking him for offerings of dolls, not only so she might have something to play with but also to ward off the ancient, evil spirits that wandered the prehistoric wetlands. Julian listened to the girl’s plea, and, wanting to appease the spirits, soon began to scour the area, searching the rubbish dumps and plucking any unwanted dolls from the flowing waters of the gloomy canals.
At first the people considered Julian to be something of a madman; a crackpot who would fish discarded dolls out of the canals because he thought they were real children that he could nurse back to life, but eventually it was realised that he was merely a harmless old man with an eccentric habit. In addition, he had cultivated such a superb garden that the locals began to trade with him for his produce, bringing of course, old dolls to swap for the fresh fruit, vegetables and other plants that he grew. And so, the island was nicknamed La Isla de las Muñecas (The Island of Dolls) and the plastic inhabitants were joined by more and more of their ilk, until hundreds of assorted dolls hung from the branches and foliage.
On April 21st, 2001, Julian enlisted the help of his nephew, Anastasio Velazquez, to move mud and water from a small section of the canal in preparation to plant pumpkins. It was ten o’clock on a bright Tuesday morning and after the laborious task they shared a small meal before going fishing.
In spite of their decay, the dolls are still said to become animated at night and move and whisper to travellers, offering a ghastly invitation to visit their home and perhaps perish in the waters surrounding it. Anastasio does not live on the island, but he claims that he himself has witnessed the dolls moving by themselves, turning their heads and twisting their limbs unnaturally. Is this the spirit of the drowned girl as the locals insist, or has Julian’s phantom attached itself to the island he came to love? Whatever the truth is, La Isla de las Muñecas remains an striking sight and the four hour round-trip to the island is becoming ever more popular, and, since Julian’s demise, La Isla de las Muñecas is set to be one of Mexico's strangest tourist attractions, with visitors bringing offerings of candles, sweets and of course, dolls. It is their donations that allow Anastasio to take care of the island and keep it open. “Some days we have up to 50 visitors,” says Anastasio. “Other days no one will come, but the average number is 20.” Television program makers are also becoming a regular source of income for Anastasio and the curious island of dolls is fast-accruing world-wide fame.
Originally published in Ghost Voices Magazine