The Barbie movie got it wrong when it comes to baby dolls — this Indigenous collection is proof

A photo of María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle with one of the dolls in her collection
Historian María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle has spent 30 years collecting and researching more than 500 dolls, largely from Indigenous communities around the world (Photos by Chai Chen).

Alexa Battler

The teaser for the Barbie movie opens with a falsified fact — that before Barbie, girls only ever played with baby dolls. Miriam Castillo Orozco is reminded daily that this isn’t true. 

Castillo Orozco’s mother, María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle, has spent the last 30 years building a staggering collection of 500 handmade, culturally significant dolls from 60 countries. Few are babies, most were made by Indigenous communities and all are treasure troves of information about the cultures they came from. 

“Dolls have been created for centuries, and many show, for example, religious obligations, fashion traditions, cultural practices, they can even be charms for superstitions,” says Castillo Orozco, a PhD student in environmental studies at U of T Scarborough. “When they're specifically designed for girls, they’re also representations of how cultures teach girls how a woman should look and act.”

Castillo Orozco’s family, now all involved in maintaining, studying, storing or adding to the collection, have faced an uphill battle in convincing museums and other institutions that these dolls are more than just toys. A new U of T Scarborough research project is working to change that. 

A photo of Miriam Castillo Orozco and her mother María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle
Miriam Castillo Orozco (left) and María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle recently showcased a selection of dolls at U of T Scarborough.

Orozco Cuautle — a historian and Nahua descendant from Puebla, Mexico — has meticulously cataloged and researched each doll in her collection. To join, a doll must have substantial information about its origins, and be created by ethnic groups, individuals or small businesses. They also need to wear traditional outfits or be made of local materials — dolls from Morocco are made with camel skin, for example, while dolls from Greenland use caribou. In some cases, the dolls are a testament to the climate crisis, as their materials change with species decline over time. 

“The clothes are also really important, they communicate the history of how garments were made in that region, and the aims of clothing and traditions shown to girls,” says Castillo Orozco. “The dolls are almost always from women that are trying to be financially independent or trying to sustain their kids. They find a way to progress through dolls.”

Some of the dolls, the oldest of which dates to the 1800s, articulate centuries of world history. Take a doll made by the Herero people in part of what is now Namibia, a southern African country and former German colony. The doll’s outfit follows the dress code Germans forced on locals in a mandate that massively impacted the region, as the fibres used to make these clothes weren’t previously grown and required a seismic shift for agriculture systems. When Castillo Orozco told her PhD supervisor Nicole Klenk about this particular doll, Klenk was hooked. 

“I hadn't realized that through the lens of a doll we could look at the relationships between people and between people and the land,” says Klenk, project co-lead and associate professor in the department of physical and environmental sciences. “There's no department of doll studies. There's no discipline, yet we can learn so much from them.”

Researchers digitally illustrating dolls’ history

The collection is scattered across family members’ houses, tucked in closets and drawers but protected by showcases. So, Orozco Cuautle, Castillo Orozco and Klenk put together a multidisciplinary team to bring the dolls to the digital world, starting with one by the Otomi people, an Indigenous community in Mexico, from the state of Querétaro.

As the project’s research assistant, third-year sociology student Simón Reyes is augmenting and illustrating Orozco Cuautle’s extensive data using StoryMaps, a platform that lets users build interactive narrative maps.

“With the Barbie movie, dolls are on people's minds. And I think it's a really interesting time to share a collection of Indigenous dolls,” Reyes says. 

It’s a tall order to relay the history of a dönxu doll, traditionally made by grandmothers during New Year’s Eve as gifts for little girls, and the lele (or “baby”) doll it comes with. The lele doll was co-opted and mass produced in a government effort to create a symbol of tourism in Mexico and now largely outsells the dönxu. 

“It’s a beautiful illustration of these clashing Indigenous versus capitalist approaches to knowledge systems and how to present them,” says Erin Webster, project co-lead and associate professor, teaching stream in the department of arts, culture and media. 

Some of the dolls in María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle's collection
From the textiles and embroidery in their traditional clothes to the painting techniques in their faces, the dolls in María de Lourdes Orozco Cuautle's collection are packed with tiny but telling details. 

A core goal for the project, which received funding from the Critical Digital Humanities Institute and the Pedagogies of Inclusive Excellence Departmental Fund, is to prioritize and centre Indigenous research, methodologies, sources and scholars, including Orozco Cuautle. It’s been difficult to find information about Otomi people written by Otomi people, and part of the map includes a critique of the sources available, though Reyes is having luck connecting with Otomi knowledge keepers over Instagram. 

“A lot of what’s been produced has been produced from the outside, it’s not the way the community would talk about themselves,” says Danielle Kwan-Lafond, co-lead of the project and assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of sociology. “We’re making sure there’s always constant conversations, transparency and the willingness to learn together.”

Kwan-Lafond already plans to use the map in one of her courses, Reyes wants to translate it into Spanish and the Otomi language and the entire team hopes this is only the beginning.