Her Gems: An East Harlem Dollmaker’s Tale

BY: Amaris Castillo (@AmarisCastillo)

There is an abundance of dolls in Mercedes Molina’s apartment. Dolls stored individually in clear plastic bags – some crowded together in baskets. Those that belong to her, which she calls her spiritual guides, sit in her living room in intricate dresses, adorned in jewelry.

“I used to sew all of this by hand,” says the 60-year-old from East Harlem of the dolls. Molina is an artisan – and her dolls are her creation. She made her first doll out of a spiritual sense, she says. It was a doll for her son. Molina, who is currently unemployed, considers herself to be a spiritualist. Some of the dolls she creates are in the images of customers’ ancestors or what they call spiritual guides. A guide’s purpose is to help an individual, according to Molina. “Once you connect yourself to a spiritual guide,” she says, “you’re always giving thanks for the little things and for the big things.”

The dolls’ bodies come in different tones: black, brown, pink, and mahogany, to name a few.  The material they’re made of is a broad cloth – thick enough to withstand the pressure of being stuffed with poly-fill but light enough to be able to sew the body comfortably. Molina does most of her work by hand, including painting the facial features on the dolls using acrylic paint. She receives help with sewing, however, from two old sewing machines tucked inside her room.

Molina spends a lot of time at home but is constantly moving. “Usually people coming up in age find less to do,” she says after some thought. “They’re given the attitude that they’re not needed anymore.” That sentiment doesn’t ring true for Molina – she has a mission.

“I’m giving something to people that otherwise they don’t get,” she says.  Molina doesn’t believe dolls like hers can be found on the Internet.

“Maybe you can,” she says, “but I haven’t seen them yet.”

Check out more of Amaris Castillo’s work: http://vimeo.com/AmarisCastillo

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