Abuelita Wisdom: Broken Dolls & Wholeness


My maternal grandmother, mi Abuelita Kika has been a source of inspiration to me my entire life. She lived in a small house that my dad built in Mexico. For a good part of my childhood, summer vacations were the time my family and I would travel to Mexico. After a couple of days of travel, we’d arrive in Herreras, the small little town in Durango where my parents were from and mi Abuelita Kika lived. She passed away when I was about 10 years old so I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her. However, she was a central presence in my childhood and her spirit has been a source of guidance throughout my life.

She was a strong, fascinating, and incredibly resourceful women. She was devoutly religious with thick silver-gray braided hair who always wore an apron and kept bottles of tejuino (a boozy fermented corn drink) under her bed. She was short in stature, fierce in presence, and always walked with purpose and expediency. Her eyes conveyed wisdom and answers even when she didn’t say a word. When she spoke, the tone of her voice was equal parts love and sass. She could sternly discipline one grandchild and give gentle words of affection to another in concurrent breaths. When we’d finally arrive at her house after our days of travel, I looked forward to her calling out for me, “donde esta mi prietita?” (where is my little brown girl). She’d give me a big firm hug and I would take in her smell, a beautiful mixture of charcoal, cinnamon, and pinol (pine scented floor cleaner).   

My absolute favorite thing about mi Abuelita Kika was that she had the most unique doll collection I had ever seen. She collected broken dolls and discarded doll body parts from the trash or where ever she could find them. She spent her spare time being a doll doctor – mending the dolls and attaching new limbs to the ones with something missing. Some dolls had heads that were too big for their bodies while others had mismatched arms or legs. Mi Abuelita Kika would make sure each doll had a head, body, arms, and legs with whatever was at her disposal. She would make them clothes and hats out of old rags, socks, or tablecloths. Finally, she would give each of them a name – Tomasita, Enedina, Ursula, Milagros – to mark their new life and purpose.

At the start of our visits, she’d walk me over to her cabinet. She’d pull a little silver key out of her apron and open up the mirrored door to reveal the carefully arranged choir of dolls. They were creepy and beautiful. Each one a work of art and testament to mi Abuelita Kika’s ingenuity and care. She’d invite me to pick a few to play with and keep safe during our visit. I would pick only 1 or 2 of them and she’d always invite me to pick more until I had about 5 or 6. I would cradle them in my arms and carefully take them over to where I had set up my toys to begin the cultural exchange between her dolls and my Barbies. I would sit on the floor and play with them for hours – their handmade rag clothes juxtaposed with the pink synthetic Barbie ones. Mi Abuelita Kika always sitting nearby watching me use and enjoy her creations.

When I was 7 years old, I recall one instance where I was playing with one particular doll who really caught my eye. She had caramel colored skin that looked like mine, long brown hair, and a lacy tan dress. As I was playing with her and one of my Barbie dolls her head fell off. It rolled away from me revealing a piece of wood wedged into her body that was used to keep her head attached. I freaked out, worried that mi Abuelita Kika would be mad at me for breaking the doll. I felt terrible for not being delicate and careful with her.

Mi Abuelita Kika was standing nearby and saw the whole thing. She bent down and grabbed the doll head from my hands. I apologized profusely to her for messing up the doll. She quietly grabbed the doll’s body and wedged the head into the wood right back to reattach her. Then she gave the doll back to me and said, “ya mira no pasa nada.” (“there see, nothing is wrong”). Not wanting to keep playing with her, I apologized again and asked her to put it back in her cabinet so it wouldn’t happen again. She said, “para eso son las muñecas” (“that’s what dolls are for”) and gave her right back to me. Then she said “tu nomas juega” (“you just play”). The doll’s head fell off a few more times that summer while I played with her. Each time I would take her to mi Abuelita Kika to put her back together and then I’d go back to playing remembering her words of reassurance, “ya mira no pasa nada” and “tu nomas juega.”

Reflecting back as an adult now, I am sad that I don’t have any of her dolls with me to admire. All I have is the wisdom of this memory. Her treatment of these dolls makes me think of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. The philosophy behind this technique is to showcase and honor the breakages as part of the object’s history instead of hiding them. In her own way, mi Abuelita was practicing doll Kintsugi. In place of gold, she used rags, socks, and spare limbs all of them intended to honor the life the dolls had before her and turn their flaws into a collage of beauty and resilience.

As I work through all the things that make me feel broken in life – grief, depression, anxiety, and infertility – I remember mi Abuelita Kika and her dolls. I remember the wise message behind her practice of mending these dolls to make them whole again. I realize that wholeness is not about never being broken. Wholeness is about being able to say “no pasa nada” and putting yourself back together over and over. Wholeness is about taking the things that broke you, dressing them up, giving them a place of honor, a new purpose, and sharing them with others so they too can see what makes you unique. On the days when I have felt the most broken and incomplete when my struggles with anxiety make me feel like I keep losing my head, I think of mi Abuelita Kika’s dolls. I breathe in her words, “ya mira no pasa nada” as I figure out what piece of me needs to be clumsily reattached today. I hold her call to action of “tu nomas juega” in my heart and go on about my day, ready to stop and reattach whatever breaks in me once again.

Mi Abuelita Kika taught me that broken things can be mended, made whole, and treasured. The piece of wood wedged into the neck of that doll is part of her story just like my anxiety and depression are part of mine. There are many things in life that will make you break and that doesn’t mean you stop playing. Wholeness is a commitment to pause, reattach, and keep playing in your life and your purpose until something else inevitably comes up again. There are days when this is not easy to do because the idea of reattaching and continuing feels insurmountable. But I have come to understand that wholeness is about remaining committed to that cycle of playing and reattaching, no matter how long it takes me to actually do it. So to honor mi Abuelita Kika, I work to find wisdom in the moments that break me. I work to say “no pasa nada.” I work to give my scars a place of honor in my being. To remember they are part of my story and part of what makes me beautiful and worthy of love. To tell myself that they are the thing that gives me strength and builds my resilience so that I never stop playing. Gracias, Abuelita Kika for that beautiful lesson in how to heal and be whole.

What is your favorite piece of Abuelita wisdom? Send me a note I would love to know.

Thanks for reading.




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