One sunny, comfortable July afternoon about eight years ago I was helping my friend Katharine Collins shoot a video segment for a documentary about the Otomí culture in San Ildefonso Tultepéc, in Mexico's Querétaro state. That day I met the subject of our interview, an Otomí woman I know only as Doña Isidra. I have been stopping by to visit her from time to time ever since.
I suspect that Isidra could be at least 80 years old, but it is hard to tell, as is often the case with old people who live in the country, have worked hard since childhood, and remain energetic into their seventh, eighth or ninth decades of life. It is trite to say that the face of an old person, especially an indigenous one, is leathery and lined, but that's the best way to describe Isidra. Her hair remains startlingly black. Her colorful traditional Otomí clothing and stylized hair braids exactly match those of the cloth-faced straw dolls she carefully makes and sells to help support her family.
A few weeks ago on a day identical to the one on which I first met Doña Isidra, I was in her neighborhood with a couple of friends who are interested in traditional handicrafts, and decided to drop in for a visit. We were in luck; she was home. After saying hello I commented to Isidra that she had been so busy the past couple of summers that I had missed her when I stopped by. She chuckled, yes, she'd been busy, and usually goes to Mexico City in July, participating in the annual pilgrimage to La Basílica de Guadalupe there each summer. That means that this diminutive elderly woman throws a bedroll and a few other things in a bag or wraps them in her shawl (I somehow don't see her wearing a backpack) and as an act of religious devotion goes out of the door of her rural house and walks from there somewhat more than 100 kilometers, or more than 70 miles, to attend mass.
Around here, such a walk is not a big deal. During the month of July, thousands of pilgrims, or peregrinos, pass through San Ildefonso on their way to Mexico City on the same mission. Isidra simply waits until a group of women pilgrims comes along on the highway near her house, and joins in. Life in the hilly, rugged countryside where she has lived all her life, has kept Isidra in training.
We told Isidra that we were interested in buying dolls and embroidery, and she brought out a couple bags of work. The embroidered designs, which feature stylized flowers, maguey plants and birds, have been handed down by the Otomí through the generations. The embroidery is used on the women's own clothing, and on clothing, napkins, tablecloths and other handmade items that are made for sale.
As we selected embroidered napkins, servilletas, and dolls for possible purchase, I asked Isidra how much she was charging for the dolls these days. She looked off in the distance and talked for awhile about how prices for materials had gone up, and I prepared myself for a huge price jump, when she quoted a price of thirty pesos each, which is less that two and half U.S. dollars at the time of this writing. I believe that when I first purchased some dolls from Isidra eight years ago, the price was twenty pesos each. Considering the time that has passed and the fact that prices of everything have gone up, the dolls are still a fabulous deal. We bought the four dolls she had, and a few embroidered servilletas.
I asked Isidra if I could take a picture of her with the dolls I had just purchased. As she composed herself, her faint smile changed into a formal, serious line, and she
squinted a bit in the bright sun. I was impressed by how much the dolls resembled their maker. Nowadays these same types of dolls often are seen in the city with round cheeks, bright plastic eyes and happy V-shaped smiles applied to their faces, the traditional design made "cute," an apparent marketing ploy, better to appeal to tourists. But Isidra's dolls are the real thing. Just like their maker.
For more information on the documentary "More Than Dolls," by Katharine Collins, visit this web site: