I first found these Maya “Smurf” dolls at the Doll Museum in Amealco, Querétaro, the self-proclaimed doll capital of Mexico. I was there way back in 2016 researching Maria dolls, those you find everywhere in Mexican tourist spots. But these grabbed my attention for being unique and familiar at the same time.
The familiarity, undoubtedly, is the uncanny resemblance these dolls have to Smurf dolls in faces and facial expressions, along with those troll dolls that were popular in the 1970s and 1990s. Human and not human, with a mischievous grin… kitschy and cute.
These dolls are not rip-offs of U.S. popular culture, however. Their base is a mythological Maya creature called aluxes (singular alux, Maya plural aluxin). According to myth, the aluxes were created when the Maya god Yum Kaax saw how men worked hard as farmers and wanted to help. He created the aluxes as small guardians of family and fields. They also care for the forests as well as animals. Before a field is sown, a small figure of an alux was made from clay, which is meant to come to life and look over the growing crops. If the farmer respects the aluxes and nature in general, he is rewarded with abundance.
The dolls are a mix of past and present, of Maya tradition and the urban and tourist sensibilities of their creator, Javier Alba. Originally from Mexico City, he moved to Cancún where he became fascinated by the story of the aluxes (pronounced a-LU-sheys) and their link to ecology.
Alba decided that these images had commercial potential in the local tourist markets. He created a prototype doll in 2012, but rather than mass-producing them in a factory, or worse, sending them to China for manufacturing, he and partner Miriam Leon decided they wanted to have them made locally to benefit the economically marginalized. The dolls are made from standardized patterns, but individualized mainly by senior citizens and single mothers who need to earn an income. Production began in 2013.
The dolls are generally made with commercial materials in cotton or mixed-fiber, but the burlap versions are a nod to Yucatán’s henequin industry, which dominated that area’s economy from the 19th into the 20th century.
Local handcrafted production is significantly more expensive than mass production in China, which is an on-going issue considering that the tourist market they primarily cater to can be notoriously cheap. For several years, it looked like the enterprise would fold, but it made a comeback only to have COVID-19 threaten it again.
The business still exists, and dolls can be ordered online. With a little luck, we hope they will weather this storm as well. You can find out more at Aluxin’s website.