Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

They look back with blue eyes or brown eyes or no eyes at all: Glimpses of the Island of the Dolls in Mexico City

June 11, 2018 at 9:00 AM

The Island of the Dolls (La Isla de las Munecas) is in Mexico City’s famed Xochimilco canals. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/)
Anastasio Santana on the Island of the Dolls. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/)

The dolls are nailed to walls, nailed to trees, beheaded and impaled on bamboo stakes. Some are headless, some are heads alone, and some have heads that are twisted around backward, “Exorcist”-style.

They are muddy, filthy, burned and smashed. They look back with blue eyes or brown eyes or no eyes at all. A blond Disney princess in a blue dress smiles, tacked to a wall. A plastic knee swings in the wind.

The Island of the Dolls is muddy and smells faintly of manure from the surrounding cow fields. It is not a happy place, but it attracts a steady stream of the curious, who disembark from party boats plying the 50-plus miles of Mexico City’s famed Xochimilco canals.

Anastasio Santana will tell you the story for $2. After his uncle, Julian Santana, found a drowned girl here in 1950, a doll washed ashore. He hung it up to appease the dead girl’s spirit. But then some pretty unpleasant haunting started, and Julian began hanging more and more dolls from the trees to ward off the spirits of lots of dead girls.

Or something like that.

Now, 2,200 dolls later, La Isla de Las Munecas has become a touristic monument to creepiness and kitsch, visited, presumably, by true believers. But maybe more often by happy party-boaters filled with $1.50 Coronas who don’t mind paying $2 to be stared down by a mud-stained Betty Boop on an island that also happens to have remarkably clean outhouses.

Julian Santana died of a heart attack in 1951, in the exact same spot as the little girl of island lore.

“We can’t explain it,” Anastasio says.

Crosses mark each spot: mud-splattered tributes to a girl, a man and an opportunity.

Kevin Sullivan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior correspondent who covers national and international affairs. He was previously The Washington Post's bureau chief in Tokyo, Mexico City and London.

Sarah L. Voisin has been a photographer at The Washington Post since 1998. She is co-founder of Women Photojournalists of Washington and has won numerous awards, many have been for her coverage of immigration, Mexico, Central America and Cuba.

Chloe Coleman is a photo editor at The Washington Post working in Outlook and Foreign news focusing on The Americas, Europe and Russia. She is regular contributor to the In Sight blog. She joined the Post in 2014.

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