The little boy looked at the ruffles of the long blue skirt. His brown eyes scanned the exuberant figure, stopping briefly at its hands, joined at the front and holding a pink rose. Tresses of black hair draped one side of the white collar.
Finally, the boy lifted his head, as if trying to look at the top of a skyscraper. He fixed his gaze on the head, covered by a broad-brimmed red hat. But there was no mouth, nose or eyes.
She had no face.
Without surprise, he smiled and said, “Ah! It's one of the dolls from over there, the ones without faces. There's one in my house pero chiquitica (but very small).”
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“Over there” is the Dominican Republic, his parents’ homeland. The child's home is in Allapattah, a working-class Miami neighborhood known as Little Santo Domingo because it has been home to thousands of Dominicans for nearly three decades.
Many of the homes in the neighborhood probably have one or more figurines of the “Dolls Without Faces,” a handicraft typical of the Dominican Republic.
But Nitin Bakery in Allapattah has one of the biggest ever made, more than five feet high. And 10 more, measuring as much as seven feet, will soon grace the fronts of neighborhood shops as part of a public arts project by the Dominican American National Foundation (DANF).
The goal is to highlight the cultural identity of the neighborhood, home to about 45,000 people, ahead of the imminent changes coming to the area, due to a growing interest among real estate investors.
“It's a project inspired by the rooster statues on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, which people immediately associated with Cuban culture,” said DANF President Rudy Duthil Vizcaíno. “The dolls project is meant to acknowledge the families who have lived here for many decades, and that's why we are going to invite different artists to paint each doll with the colors of the flags of different countries.”
The dolls project is meant to acknowledge the families who have lived here for many decades...
Rudy Duthil Vizcaíno, DANF
Journalist Indhira Suero said the dolls' lack of facial features is designed to highlight the racial diversity of her fellow Dominicans.
“We have Taino Indians, African and Spanish roots, so our physical features are mixed,” said Suero, who writes about Dominican folklore in her Negrita Come Coco blog. “There are some Dolls Without Faces with light skin, others that are dark, and all of them represent exactly what we Dominicans are — a little bit of everything.
“The first ones were made of clay, a material easy to find for the peasants who made them. Their hands hold flowers, fruits or macutos (woven baskets) because they represent the peasant woman,” Suero added. “But they have changed over time and now they are made of more expensive materials, like ceramic or porcelain, and are sold throughout tourist areas like Punta Cana and Bavaro.”
Allapattah, a Native American word that means alligator, was a farming area in the early part of the 1900s and became a working-class neighborhood in the 1960s. The neighborhood is situated in northwest Miami, between 28th and 36th streets and 17th and 27th avenues.
DANF and other organizations like the Allapattah Business Development Authority, have worked with the City of Miami for years on initiatives to beautify the neighborhood and improve its economy.
But even as the community is moving toward revitalizing the economy, some are wary that the cultural identity of the neighborhood might be at risk. Low-income residents of other areas, like neighboring Wynwood, have been driven out of their long-time homes by expensive development they can’t afford and by a transformed environment that doesn’t feel like home anymore.
Allapattah is already experiencing some of those changes. Investors are buying up more and more residential and commercial properties. According to a recent report, property values are increasing faster in Allapattah than in Miami Beach, since many speculators are buying and selling real estate in the area.
Vizcaíno said he hoped that the giant “Dolls Without Faces” project and the growing number of murals showing Caribbean landscapes will help to increase the pride of the families that already live in the neighborhood.
“Maybe they will decide to buy homes here, instead of renting, and business owners will decide to improve their shops and get up to date on municipal regulations, if they are not now,” Vizcaíno said. “What's important is that they organize and highlight the contributions they have made to this city for so many years.”
Vizcaíno got the support of neighborhood shops to install the dolls on their sidewalks, and is applying for the required municipal permits.DANF, which is also seeking donations to pay for the initiative, hopes to finish the installations by the middle of this year.
The dolls will be manufactured by Cuban sculptor Uldis López, who owns Art Foundry R.U.N. in the Bird Road Art District. The doll installed outside the Nitin Bakery in December is a prototype made of expanded polystyrene.
“I was immediately captivated by the idea of making the Dominican ‘Dolls Without Faces’ in large size and installing them as public art,” said López, who works with artists from around the world to produce their sculptures, mostly in bronze.
“The final dolls will be made in resin, which is not as expensive as bronze but will withstand the sun, the rain and other weather conditions,” he added.
I was immediately captivated by the idea of making the Dominican ‘Dolls Without Faces’ in large size and installing them as public art
Uldis López, sculptor
The giant doll inside the Nitin Bakery, painted in the colors of the Dominican flag, greets clients before they enter and look over display cases full of empanadas, croquetas and the house specialty, the bizcocho Dominicano.
Tania Jauregui, a Cuban who bought the bakery seven years ago with her husband, a chef from Uruguay, said the doll has drawn the attention of many of her clients. The bakery is named after a popular Dominican pastry chef.
“People take selfies, they tell you stories that when they were kids they saw the dolls in their grandmother or aunt's homes,” Jauregui said. “They start to get nostalgic, to remember.”
“These kinds of initiatives are important because when you see your things, the things that remind you of your childhood, people value that and then they start to value their lives and their presence here,” she said.
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar