The history of corn husk doll making goes backs thousands of years ago to the Native American Indians. The dolls were used for amusement and some were used in sacred healing ceremonies. The Iroquois Indians have a legend that there were three sisters, the “sustainers of life”. These sister were called corn, beans and squash. One of the sisters, the Corn Sister, was so thrilled to be one of the sustainers of life that she asked her creator what more she could do for her people. The Creator made a doll from corn husks and gave it a beautiful face. The Corn Sister took the doll from village to village for the children to play with, and everyone admired her beauty. After a while she became vain. The Creator told her this was not the right behavior, and if it continued he would punish her. The Corn Sister agreed, but one afternoon she saw her reflection in a lake. She couldn’t help admiring how beautiful she was. The Creator was disappointed in thisand sent down an owl to snatch her reflection from the waters. When she looked again she had no reflection. This was her punishment and she could not converse with the birds or animals again. She’d roam the earth forever, looking for something to do to gain her face back. This is one reason why corn husk dolls do not have a face. Most dolls were made by children and designed after people in their village.
My introduction to corn husk dolls began about 30 years ago when I went on vacation to the east coast and visited the colonial site of Boston, Washington DC and Philadelphia. In touring the historic sites I was amazed at the quilts and with their history. Many were designed as messages to soldiers and runaway slaves advising them where to find a safe haven. The dolls from that era interested me too. Some of which were made from corn husks. I'm sure the settlers leaned that craft from the Indians in the area. I love the idea of them gathering the materials needed direct from nature, unlike most of us who would now shop at Michaels or Hobby Lobby for our supplies.
I love Mexican art. On my visit there this past winter, I met a woman who I will refer to as Senora Linda. Senora Linda lives in a very tiny home in the town of San Cristabal on Lake Chapala. I first saw her corn husk dolls at the market in Ajicic and found out from friends where she lives and called her to see if I could watch her work on the dolls. I went with my American friend who speaks fluent Spanish and was kind enough to translate for me. Senora Linda welcomed us with a big smile. She had invited another crafter, Senora Laura to help her demonstrate to us the art of corn husk doll making. Senora Linda told us the story of how she and the other village ladies began their art. About 20 years ago a teacher with two other ladies came to the village and wanted to pass on their knowledge of corn husk dolls. They wanted to make sure it would be carried on from generation to generation, so she began teaching the ladies. They started with baskets and went on to dolls and flowers. Each lady developed and expressed herself in the details of their dolls as they continued to learn. They began to add their own ideas of what their doll should look like. Some change the color of the corn silk using the natural brown or dyeing it black. They’ve added tiny bouquets of flowers folded in their arms or carrying them on their shoulders or backs. They added babies wrapped in blankets in the arms of their mother and designed beautiful uplifting dresses to dancing dolls. They also create beautiful stemmed flowers, nativity sets, bride and groom sets (could be used as a wedding cake topper), firemen, dancers, catrinas, horses, rooster and parrots and more. If you had a specific request they could make it.
Today the original 22 ladies are down to only 8. They work out of their homes and coordinate their items to sell. The materials are expensive and most of the ladies dropped out because they found it difficult to afford them. Senora Linda told us the corn husks are expensive, as they have to be treated so they are pliable and don't mold. They have to purchase powdered dyes and ribbons, glue sticks and wire. The ladies that are continuing to run the organization sell their items at the local markets, but also ship to shops in Mexico City, Chapala and Los Cabos. Each lady has her own personality in her dolls. The quality of their dolls is the best I've seen, and now that I've watched how they are made I can only hope I can follow their lead.
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