La Isla de las Muñecas

Is The Island of Dolls in the Pacific Ocean? Not technically but, hey it’s near the Pacific…sort of. And is it really an island?

Well, it was about 50 years ago when Julián Santana Barrera moved onto it in Teshuilo Lake, which was part of the Aztec canal system from 500 years ago. The ancient capital city of Tenochtitlán was the largest and most advanced city in the world, with a population of about 500,000 at a time when Paris numbered about 20,000. The Aztec empire was swept into the dustbin of history after having been in existence for just 200 years. Today, Mexico City occupies the lake which was once the heart of the empire, and there are still a few small lakes and canal remnants in the city. Along one of these canal fragments is La Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls).



It’s now essentially a peninsula, but I give it grandfather ‘island status’ in that an actual grandfather, Julián, went a bit nuts and made the island into a shrine based on an unverified incident from the 1920s involving the presumed drowning of a picnicking girl and her doll (also drowned). The doll was found floating in the shallows without her unlucky owner. In Mexico, they recognize are all sorts of dead/not-dead superstitions, and many Mexicans believe in a dizzying array of spirits, shades, phantasms and ghosts; and they get excited about Day of the Dead candy and paper mache mishegas, making for some pretty ghoulish festivities.

“I feel pretty, I feel pretty.”

It seems that discarded dolls have been doing the breast stroke in the canal next to the island in significant numbers for some time. It must be all those quinceañera’s celebrations where a 15-year-old Mexican girl is shoe-horned into an over-the-top Marie Antoinette-level party dress (recognizing the unfurling of her flower of adulthood) and her last doll (commemorating the withering of her childhood), which she immediately bungs into the nearest canal where she has snuck-off to drink Tecate and smoke weed with her friends.

Julián claimed he could console the drowned girl’s roving spirit by lynching a few hundred dolls in the trees. Eventually, the island became an ideal place to deep-six the burgeoning doll population, and today there are thousands of dead-eyed dolls infesting the foliage. They are in various states of shuddersome mortification with missing limbs, rotting hair, desquamated rubber skin and shredded clothes. Terrific place to bring kiddies.

This a real mummy of a doll

It is a must see weirdo spot, and its popularity has spawned a competing island not far away with an equally impressive display of disquieting dolls. There is an unambiguous Catholic tie-in, as old-world Catholicism includes a deep fondness for corpses. If you think the La Isla de las Muñecas is excessively creepy, you have never seen the Cappuccine catacombs in Italy.

These are real mummies of children

There they feature not just the mummies of adults made into tables and chairs (as well as decorating the entire interior of the crypts), but the bodies of children are literally nailed to the walls. Just one more place to bring the kids to keep them in line.

I was once on the Via Veneto in Rome—one of the classiest streets in the city—and was delighted after the gelato to discover that the restaurant shared a wall with this creepshow. Out on the street, the cemetery’s logo is carved above the staircase in marble. It’s a typical coat of arms—a shield with crossed arms. On a wall inside are the actual human arms this image is derived from. I am bursting with admiration for their truth in advertising.


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1 Comment

  • What a fascinating story… The Island of the Dolls. I wish these Catholic traditions were part of my family history growing up – along with the umteen brothers and sisters I had – especially the high times with a seniorita prom date after she abandons her doll collection. Seriously, it is astounding to learn the dramatic rise and fall – and fall again – of some of Mexico’s past civilizations. Thanks for taking us along for the ride, Jamis. And yes, years ago, I visited the underground catacombs of Palermo, Sicily, where they have thousands of thousand year old embalmed babies all over the place, and it still creeps me out thinking about the place!

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