An Island Where the Ghost Gets Scared

Monoculture, Status Symbols

Welcome to Xochimilco.

19 ° 16 '30'' North 99 ° 08' 20'' West. Southeast of Mexico City stands, proud of its heritage and history, a particular district full of color, flamboyance and nature.

Declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site, Xochimilco is a standing testimony to earlier civilizations, a lasting trace of the lake-drying procedures once performed by the area’s first inhabitants, a region pocked by small water channels that weave and glide between artificial islands called chinampas. These are rafts of large proportions, built of logs and twigs, onto which soil has been poured and trees planted. The chinampas, once part of ancient Mesoamerican agriculture, have became, as usual, residential areas, landfills and tourist spots.

Today, for a few dollars, a tour through this 125 square kilometer area is possible on picturesque trajineras, bright boats decorated with flowers and arabesques, baptized with women's names: Pachita, Juanita, Maria. The trajineras tours can be pleasantly colorful but, after crusing for a while through the canals, the landscape changes: tree-tree-fish-bird-tree-tree-tree suddenly becomes macabre. From paradise, you slip into a floating purgatory that comes straight from a story by Stephen King or some David Lynch nightmare.

Welcome to the Island of the Dolls. It’s the B-side, the dark and gloomy flank of kaleidoscopic Xochimilco.

On this chinampa, a strange character called Julián Santana Barrera lived in complete solitude until 2001. According to legend, Santana once found the body of a young girl bobbing against his artificial island. To provide rest to the drowned child’s soul and to protect himself from ghostly terrorization, Santana decided to use dolls. They would, “scare the spooks,” he said.

Collecting dolls and doll fragments became Santana’s obsession. According to some (who also call the island farmer crazy), Santana only harvested his vegetables in order to exchange them for terrifying dolls or for money to buy more of them.

Thousands of these toys hanging in the trees, their plastic limbs and clothes abandoned on the ground, have turned this chinampa into a terrifying field of voodoo and Santeria, misplaced in the otherwise idyllic setting. Santana Barrera’s dolls have fueled the imagination of many would-be directors of the next Blair Witch Project. They have become the stars of a series of stories in which rabid dolls kill off the island’s animals. They have also become one of the main attractions of the Xochimilco tour.