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Mexican Folk Toys in Fort Worth
by Jerome Weeks 14 May 2010

It’s hard to imagine children interested in any toy without a video screen. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports a new exhibition at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History features nothing but handmade toys. No batteries required. It’s a collection of 600 dolls, masks, puppets and games from Mexico City’s Papalote Museo del Nino, designed to show the country’s folk traditions expressed in wood, tin, string and paper.


display smallAssembling the exhibition, a week before opening

It’s hard to imagine children interested in any toy without a video screen. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports a new exhibition at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History features nothing but handmade toys. No batteries required:

  • KERA radio story:

  • Expanded online story:

[sounds of children talking and playing]

The 600 items are Mexican folk toys, some more than 70 years old. Yet ironically, they’re on display in the museum’s “Innovation Gallery.”  They’re traditional dolls and puppets and masks, often built by the very families that played with them. They’re made of wood, tin, string –

TRU: “— and toothpicks!”

WEEKS: “Do you think you could make something like that?”

TRU: “No, sir.”

BOY ANIMAL smallThat was a home-schooled 10-year-old from Arlington named Tru. He was talking about several little airplanes on display. Tru was one of dozens of children whipping through the exhibition on a recent morning.

The exhibition, called Mexico: Festival of Toys,  comes from the Papalote Museo del Nino in Mexico City. Papalote means butterfly or toy kite and museo del nino, of course, means children’s museum. The Papalote houses the Mexican Popular Toy Collection, which contains more than 3,000 toys. In a world of Playstation and Grand Theft Auto, the collection was developed to preserve the country’s traditions of home-made toys. Coincidentally, the Papalote was designed by Ricardo Legorreta — the same architect behind the colorful new Fort Worth Museum.curator2 small

Mercedes Jimenez (right), the curator of the show, says the tour was designed solely for American audiences.

JIMENEZ: “It has never been in Mexico. We will have it, of course, at the end of the tour. But it was especially selected to bring here some little part of different tradition of Mexico.”

Festival of Toys has two major sections. One is made of toys and games that children might play with year-round: marbles, toy trucks and miniatures, such as tiny guitars — and fleas. These are costumed fleas, or pulgas vestidas. Flea art – including flea circuses — was popular in the 1920s but mostly died out by the 1960s. Now they’re prized by collectors. The display case in the Festival of Toys even comes with a magnifying glass. So — what does the fashionably-dressed flea look like?

JIMENEZ: “I don’t know what to describe. It’s like a little dot, black – with some kind of a blouse or sometimes a skirt, in different colors. And we have one here – you don’t believe me but that is a flea. And it’s dressed like a dancer.”

puppets2The second part of the exhibition features toys tied to specific holidays. The skeleton figures that mark the Day of the Dead are the best-known. But a number of other holidays also mix pre-Hispanic traditions with later Catholic rituals – and even some social protest. There are doll-sized figures, for instance, called judas — meaning Judas Iscariot.

JIMENEZ: “You find there are many shapes. One of the most traditional are the devils. And this little, rancheritos, we call them.”

They’re caricatures of wealthy landowners. On Saturday during Holy Week, these toy figures of demons and the other bad people are gathered up. Then they’re all burned. It’s an annual exorcism, a way of driving out evil.

Most of these toys are too fragile, too rare to be played with. But the Festival of Toys also has a section for hands-on activities that includes dolls, drums, sombreros and a table-top soccer game, or foosball, made of wood.

And with all these masks, puppets and airplanes, what was the favorite toy?doll pair

[medley of children’s voices]:

“The foosball.”

“I like the foosball table and the tictactoe.”

“I thought the foosball was different because it was wobbly and didn’t go into the goal, really.”

“That, um, that foosball thing, yeah. [laughs]”

[sounds of manic foosball spinning and slamming]

The Festival of Toys runs through August at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. But that little foosball game? It might not last a week.

[sounds of banging and cheering]

  • This is a great piece, Jerome! I love Folk art and toys…and most especially, well-dressed fleas.

  • Marie Claude

    Dear Cindy,
    I live in France. I have a projects for a Museum specialized in micro scale.
    I wanting the dressed Fleas(pulgas vestidas)
    Please actually the micro dolls exist? You know her address for buying the pulgas?
    thank you in advance for your answer and your kindness.
    best regards