Written By: Naomi
You float on the water in a small boat. The sun is low in the sky but the thick trees that loom over the channel with their old branches and gnarled roots that curl into the earth well below the water's surface blocks out the golden rays that would of made the journey enjoyable. It is getting cold and you can see the outlines of small houses on the banks, the shadowy forms of children crouch in the tall grass as you float by, a traveler in their homelands. You are jostled suddenly as something hits the bottom of your boat, casting ripples across the dark water and sending the insects that kissed its surface scurrying. You continue to float until the willowy mass comes into view, hundreds of tiny bodies hanging from branches that swing against each other like a macabre wind chime in the breeze that carried you here to this place, the island of the dolls.
There is not much known about Don Julian Santana Barrera’s early life, just that he lived on this once quiet island alone in a shack that still stands under the hollow bodies of hundreds of dolls. This island is located in Xochimilco, which is south of Mexico City and is only accessible by boat through the channels. The islands are old chinampas, these were created by the Aztec people by interweaving reeds with stakes that go down to the bottoms of shallow lakes to create floating artificial islands for farming.
Don Julian had a wife and family mid 20th century, he used to sell vegetables in a well known old town in mexico city and go drinking but stopped once he began to see spirits. Many do not know why he left, some say that it was his strong superstitions, or his unsound state of mind. Years later people who knew Don Julian personally would tell how he would play music to appease the mermaids of the channels - a common belief of the older generations of Xochimilco.
The legend of the Island of the Dolls, as told by Don Julian himself, is that one day in the water outside of his shack he found the body of a girl who had fallen into the channel and drowned. Later a doll also washed up on the banks of his island and he believed it to have belonged to the girl. Out of respect for her spirit, he hung the doll on a tree.
Don Julian began to have weird experiences, he would hear footsteps, whispers, cries of pain and anguish even though he was miles from civilization. Out of fear he began to hang up many dolls that he would find in the channel to scare off evil spirits and protect himself. He would continue to do this for the next 50 years, hoping to appease the spirit of the drowned girl with the rotten, broken dolls of the channel, sometimes only hanging up the parts of them that would wash up since the channels were the play place of children, who would lose their toys or discard of their broken ones. He also would dig through the trash of his neighbors to find dolls but he most notably would trade with neighbors for dolls with produce he grew on his island. He would never repair or clean any of the dolls he found so many would be in disrepair adding to the haunted air of the island. Those who knew Don Julian said that the dolls completely changed him and it was as if he was being driven by some unknown, unseen force to continue collecting, and displaying the dolls.
Word of the haunting island spread and in 1943 when the film María Candelaria by Emilio Fernández was shot on the island that would be shown at an international film festival. The island was officially named in 1950, La Isla de las Muñecas, or Island of the Dolls. The island was swarmed by tourists who Don Julian invited with open arms, he saw the dolls not as creepy but as protectors and would give tours of the island, allowing guests to take photos of the dolls for a small fee. The draw to the island has only grown in popularity since the mysterious death of Don Julian in 2001. His body was found in the exact same spot he claims to have found the body of the girl all those years ago, but the stories vary in whether he died of a heart attack, or if he too drowned. Tourists now bring more dolls so the island is continuing to grow, seemingly a living creature of its own. The locals feel the dolls are not haunted, but rather that they are charmed.
And even though the only things that inhabit the dolls now are insects and nests of spiders, they swear the dolls will whisper to you. Others will tell you the dolls are possessed by the spirit of the girl who drowned and they will open their eyes, move their arms, or turn their heads on their own.
The island is still accessible to those who would like to visit but some rowers of the channels refuse to go there out of superstition, but it is not a superstition about just the island, all of Xochimilco is said to be haunted due to the bloody Mexican revolution where bodies from the war were dumped in the canals.
A small museum has been erected on the island with newspaper clippings about the island and Don Julian. There is even a little shop in the hut Don Julian lived in, one of the three rooms of the store is still a bedroom and in it, is Don Julian’s favorite doll, Agustinita, as well as the first doll he collected, believed to belong to the girl he found in the channel. These dolls are maintained, clothed, and given offerings by visitors.
Some look at the history of this island and believed that Don Julian made up the story of the girl due to his isolation and there was never any report made of a body being found, even his own family believes this story is not entirely true and might have been his imagination, or a mistake. After his death, his nephew inherited the island and has been taking care of it for years but. like his uncle, he refuses to go out at night, claiming he can hear spirits calling him, some even trying to lure him out of his home. He says the spirits become especially active between midnight and 3 am. Don Julian’s nephew continues to care for the island and feels it is extremely haunted, but if the spirits are of children and the girl who drowned, or if they are something else entirely, is yet to be known.
Sources: isladelasmunecas.com, Trip Advisor, Curiosity.com, Ghost Adventures