island of the dolls

When I read about The Island of the Dolls in a Mexico tour guidebook, I knew it was a must-see for me. I thought it would be cool and creepy. I was really wrong.

To get to the island, you take a boat through the canals of Xochimico (which is near Mexico City). The canals are strikingly beautiful; lush plants attract all sorts of birds and the water is completely silent. People live along the canals and though poverty is obvious, I was jealous of their lifestyle along the water. Eventually, the small shacks and sounds of radio fade away as the canals continue. Up ahead, one of the small islands seems strange.

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Don Julian Santana was this island’s only resident. Sadly, over half a century ago he came across the body of young girl floating in the canal. Understandable traumatized, he hung from a tree a discard doll he found in the canals as a tribute to the little girl and in hopes of appeasing her spirit and protecting it from evil. Either because a single doll was not enough or Santana found comfort in the act, he continued to collect dolls, doll parts, and other toys he found throughout the canal’s waters. Apparently, as his obsession grew Santana began digging in the tow’s trash for toys and accepting dolls in exchange for his garden’s vegetables.

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Santana died in 2001. Some say he drowned in the canal and others that he had a heart attack (maybe then fell in the canal?). The official website goes with drowning. His family maintains the island, his shrine to the little girl who haunted him.

Many people consider The Island of the Dolls undeniably creepy or terrifying. It isn’t (though I wouldn’t go after dark).

Instead I felt embarrassingly sad. Sad that a little girl lost her life so unexpectedly and sad that a quiet, lonely man had to discover her body. I was sad to witness Santana’s obsessive mourning. I was sad that all these toys once belonged to children, many of whom are as poor and lonely as Santana.

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It was a silent boat ride back to Xochimico.