WHERE IS THE ISLAND OF THE DOLLS?
The Island of the Dolls or La Isla de las Muñecas is a chinampa of the Laguna de Teshuila and one of the main attractions of the channels, located in the canals of Xochimilco, south of the center of Mexico City, very close to the Estadio Azteca football stadium. A chinampa is an artificial island that is constructed by placing a fence made out of wattle which is interwoven reeds woven into stakes in the ground. After this “fence” was put in place dirt from the shallow lake bottom, and decaying vegetation were piled into this structure, until the soil was above water level.
They are also referred to as “Floating Gardens” because they look like they’re “floating” on the water and dont look like they are attached to the ground. These structures are between 300 ft long and 20 or 30 foot wide to 100 foot long and 10 foot wide, which is 90m x 5-10m and 30m x 2.5m respectively. It differs based on region. The ones in Xochimilco are in the latter category.
In making these chinampas an impressive ditch system was also made. These ditches or canals had multiple purposes, over time the ditches would fill up and when they were cleared they were added to the tops of the chinampas, allowing the soil to be revitalized. They also were used for centuries as a means of transportation throughout the region. In 1987 the chinampas and the canal system were put on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Most of these canals and chinampas were built in the post-classical and in colonial times. It is on one of these chinampas that our story unfolds.
The story is rather murky in some of the facts but its a good one. It started out simply enough. A man by the name of Don Julián Santana Barrera owned this little piece of land. He was born in the 1920’s. He was a farmer in his younger years, but as he got older he began preaching in the 1950’s.
He was motivated by some superstition to do so, no one knows exactly why, and apparently it made the Catholic church and the Catholic parishioners of the area to take a dislike to him as at the time it was presumed that only anointed priests could preach. He was reportedly beaten up a lot by people in the surrounding areas where he preached, which is given as a reason for his being a recluse. Eventually, according to some reports, he was even kicked out of some of these communities because of it. He was a very religious and superstitious man by all accounts.
It was also around this time he moved to the chinampa with his wife. He built a small one room cabin, though he built 2 other structures later on in his life. This particular chinampa was very isolated, miles into the canals, far, far away from people, and no one is quite sure why he moved into that area. Some people speculate he wanted to be a hermit, and live an isolated, monk-like life. It was sometime after this he witnessed something that changed his life, and the little island he called home would never be the same.
TRIGGER WARNING: Child Death ahead.
Barerra never gave a date as to when this event occurred, and there are different versions of the story depending on who you ask. The story goes something like this. One day Santana was out on his chinampa, tending to his garden when he noticed something floating in the water.
He walked to the edge of his island home and his heart skipped a beat. It was a young girl, floating down the canal and not moving. Her skin was deathly pale, and as he rushes over he already knows what he’s witnessing. The young girl had drowned.
Now some people, like his great nephew Mr. Santana, now the caretaker of the island says “A girl and some of her friends were playing in the river, upstream and the current took, rushed forward, and the girl was pulled under. She drowned and my great uncle, Barrera, found her floating at the edge of the bank, near a small pier, tangled in the reeds.”
Others say that he saw her on the bottom of the canal, as the water used to be crystal clear, or that he was witness to the child playing with her friends, saw the current take her, and jumped in to try to save her but didn’t make it to her in time.
Still others say he first heard her late in the night, crying for “her doll”, and, being too scared to go out into the dark night, he found her the next morning. Regardless of which story you believe the result was the same, he found her and was consumed by guilt that he could not help her. He says he took her body, and wanting to give her a proper burial he buried her on his chinampa.
Later that same day he found a doll at or near the spot he found the young girl, floating in the canal. Thinking it was the girl’s toy, he put it up on the island near her grave to comfort her, and to ward off any ill effects of the supernatural kind after having witnessed this young girl drowning. It didn’t work. Shortly after burying the girl he started hearing whispering as he was trying to sleep, a young girls voice “I want my doll” it said.
According to his nephew shortly after this, “In the mornings Barerra started seeing ghosts, and one day woke up and found all his crops had died. He tried many things to improve his crops but he couldn’t because the spirit damaged it. He became more and more scared.”
From then on Barerra brought dolls to the island and hung them from the trees which grew on the island. At first he would just go into the surrounding communities and gather dolls from the trash, or ones he found floating in the river, but eventually word got around he was doing this, and he began to trade produce from his garden in exchange for dolls. Some were donated by friends and family, knowing he was trying to venerate the spirit of the young girl.
That being said no one knows exactly why he decided to hang THOUSANDS of dolls on his chinampa. He said it was to appease the spirit of the little girl, and each doll was actually possessed by the spirits of other children and not the girl that kept asking for her doll. Some people say he was using the dolls as a way to ward off evil water spirits, and also doing so to protect the soul of the little girl from these spirits as well. Some people speculated he himself was possessed by the spirit of the young girl and it was this that sparked his compulsion to hang the dolls.
Now, since he wasn’t too particular on how the dolls looked he would hang any piece of a doll he could find. He nailed some to his cabin, he built 2 structures, one being a shrine to the young girl, and hung dolls there, he strung dolls on clothes lines. There are Barbie dolls, baby dolls, and even some porcelain dolls on display. Legs, heads, arms, torsos have been tied or nailed to trees. The clothes, hair, and other materials the dolls are made of are decaying, some people have witnessed bugs coming out of the eye sockets of some of these dolls.
He was known to change the clothes on the dolls in the shrine to the young girl, and even give them different small purses and such he found. He even had a favorite doll. Augustina was this dolls name. Despite all of this creepiness, by all accounts he was actually a sweet man, and began to give tours in the 1990’s to supplement his income. He collected dolls like this for 50 years.
During his 50 years of collecting his family did not abandon him. His wife died at some point during those 50 years. I am not sure if she stayed on the island with him or if she lived somewhere else, but according to his great nephew, “He and his wife could never have children because of the island, so my uncle Anastacio took over and then it came to me.” So it seems she continued to stay with him through most of this.
In 2001, Barerra passed away. According to Julian’s nephew Anastasio, he had come to visit his uncle and help him plant some pumpkins. On the morning of April 21st, they went fishing together on the banks of the canal and Don Julian began to sing. He told his nephew that he was singing to keep the spirits of mermaids at bay, who had been beckoning him to follow them into the water. Thinking not much of his uncle’s ramblings, Anastasio left his uncle for just under an hour to begin some of the pumpkin planting.
When he returned he discovered his uncle Julian face down in the canal by a small pier in the exact same place where the young girl was also said to have drowned. Santana also added “The spirit of the girl came to him and dragged him into the water.” The medical autopsy states that the cause of death was a heart attack, and completely natural for someone pushing 80 years old.
The island itself is still owned by his extended family, who have profited on its popularity. In fact the island has become so popular that other copycat doll islands have cropped up! These days it is Santana who cares for the island, though he and his wife live 20 minutes away by boat and not on the island. He runs a business, started by his uncle Anastasio, giving tours not only to the island but all around the canals as part of a push for eco-tourism that happened in Mexico in the early 2000’s. When asked who will take over the island once he is gone Santana replied, “The ownership, I leave to the dead.” So, what do other people say about the island? What have they experienced in the years after Barerras death?
So besides what Barerra reported, which were apparitions, wails, screams, and whispering, other people have also reported strange things on the island. Santana, the great nephew, has reported seeing strange shadowy figures in the moonlight as he checks the island some nights. Expedition Truth, a show from the SYFY channel, showed a doll moving its arm and blinking one of its eyes when they filmed at the location. Others have reported the same, and some report hearing giggling, singing, and laughing floating on the humid breeze as they explore the island. Some swear it is very close, like coming from some of the dolls that leer at them from the trees.
Some visitors swear they hear little footsteps, too small to even be that of a child, seeming to follow them around the island. Some people claim that Barerra has joined the souls on the island and that he now still cares for the dolls in the afterlife. Is this what his great nephew sees on moonlit nights passing by the island? His uncle waving to him through the trees and overgrowth of the chinampa, saying hello in his own way? Who knows?
The Truth (or not)
So the ugly truth here is that no one even knows if this poor little girl was even real or not. No remains were ever found on the island and all of this is coming from one man, Barerra. There is no mention that his wife ever even saw a body. People, and even his own family, speculate he might have been mistaken, made it up, or imagined the whole experience though none can say for sure.
What is sure is that he was not as scared as we are led to believe. He said at one point that the dolls were, “an assortment of beautiful protectors.” Was Barerra a man who was wracked with grief and fear about this little girl’s spirit, or was he just delusional? Let us know what you think!