Symposium Abstract

Basics of Investigation

Research Notebook



                                             Sharon M. Scott
                                         University of Louisville

Project Overview

Masked and anonymous the Zapatista dolls appeared in Chiapas, Mexico simultaneous with the 1994 indigenous rebellion. Now, entering their second decade, the Zapatista dolls remain a fascinating mystery. Traveling deep into the jungles of Chiapas this project unravels the origins of the Zapatista doll in terms of intersecting global cultures.

Beginning in the markets of southern Mexico, traveling to the Zapatista headquarters at Oventik and winding up in the highlands of Chiapas this paper locates the birth of the Zapatista doll in non-Zapatista community of San Juan Chamula, a municipio of San Christobal de las Casas. With the exception of the signature ski mask, this paper explains, the Zapatista dolls are identical in material and technique to the traditional Chamulita doll. Contemporary doll making in Chamula will be used to illustrate adaptability of this specific indigenous community as it absorbs and responds to the politics of globalization.

Interviews with the Chamula craftswomen prove they have been affected by the Zapatista movement although they express little sympathy for it. During the course of the paper, it becomes apparent that the influence of international tourist is critical to the contemporary Zapatista incarnation of the ancient Chamulita doll. Amongst the doll makers, the unanimous explanation for existence of the Zapatista doll is “para vender” or “to sell”. Evidence from the craftswomen suggests that the original idea for the masked Zapatista doll came from an Italian woman visiting the region in 1994. Somewhat disappointingly, the dolls are more a product of Capitalist demand than they are model of Zapatista resistance.

The union of traditional craft and capitalist ingenuity may, however, be the key to peace in Chiapas. While catering traditional dolls to suit the demands of the international consumer, this paper suggests, the Chamulan craftswomen have been able to preserve traditional methods of sewing, felting, and dying in a time of cultural crisis. Although they are not Zapatistas, the artists have recorded an extensive history of contemporary Mexican politics from an indigenous perspective. The identity and mythology of the Zapatista dolls is explained in terms of their historic, political and geographic location. In addition to explaining the craft of Zapatista doll making, this project traces the art of doll marketing. From ancient Chamula into the webs of cyberspace, the Zapatista doll will be presented as living survival model for traditional voices amidst the current rush towards globalization.


The exhibition of Zapatista Dolls is to carve a space in which the Tzotzil-Mayan doll makers of San Juan Chamula can converse with North American Audiences. It will enrich Western understanding of international culture and the effects of globalization. The production is being sponsored by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and is made possible by extended in-kind support from the The University of Louisville. The exhibition includes a display of dolls and materials, photographs, explanatory text, and documentary video from Chiapas. An exhibition book will set the Zapatista dolls within the social-historical context of a global economy. It will examine doll symbolism (the mask, the bandana, the rifle) and its relationship to historical events. The study will explain how, why, and by whom the dolls are made. Additionally, Muñecas y Mascáras will weigh the consequences of the dolls in relation to the Zapatista Movement, village lifestyle, and global politics.


The inception, distribution, and the consequences of the Zapatista dolls (muñecas zapatistas) has been the subject of recent fieldwork for this project in Chiapas, Mexico. Funding from KITLAC (The Kentucky Interfaith Task force on Latin America and the Caribbean), The International Center and Office of the President at The University of Louisville enabled the preliminary phase of research in 2003. Video documentation collected during this fieldwork is in the final stages of DV editing. It includes footage from the recent Zapatista Rally in Oventik, interviews with dollmakers, footage from Mexican news stations, and images of life in Southern Mexico.

Extended fieldwork during 2004 was supported by The Kentucky Foundation for Women and the University of Louisville's University Commission on the Status of Women. During the Fall of 2006, the research team will return to Chiapas for a deeper investigation of the history, practice, and significance of Zapatista doll making. Ongoing fieldwork and video documentation is currently being assimilated into the publication and exhibition materials that have already entered production.


The Muñecas y Mascáras project carefully avoids political affiliation and intellectual colonialism by working directly with the Tzotzil women of Chamula, Chiapas to record the doll making process. In the past, indigenous crafts and cultures have been explained in terms of Western research standards. This project is dedicated to allowing the indigenous dollmakers a forum for representing themselves. In addition to recording oral histories of the dolls, the book and exhibition will included visual images captured by the citizens of Chamula. Indigenous organizations such as Sn Jtz'Ilbajom -- a Tzotzil-Tzetzal co-operative dedicated to securing an indigenous voice within new media -- will be consulted for technical and stratigic advice for providing the dollmakers with a voice in their own story.