Xochimilco is one of the sixteen delegaciones, or boroughs within the Mexican Federal District. The borough is centered on the formerly independent city of Xochimilco, which was established on what was the southern shore of Lake Xochimilco in the pre-Hispanic period. Today, the borough consists of the eighteen “barrios” or neighborhoods of this city along with fourteen “pueblos” or villages that surround it, covering an area of 125 km. While the borough is somewhat in the geographic center of the Federal District, it is considered to be “south” and has an identity separate from the historic center of Mexico City. This is due to its historic separation from that city during most of its history. Xochimilco is best known for its canals, which are left from what was an extensive lake and canal system which connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico. These canals, along with artificial islands called chinampas attract tourists and other city residents to ride on colorful gondola-like boats called “trajineras” around the 170 km of canals. This canal and chinampa system, as a vestige of the area’s pre-Hispanic past, has made Xochimilco a World Heritage Site.

De Las Muñecas, or the "Island of Dolls", is the most famous of the chinampas in Xochimilco, due to being abandoned and there being countless dolls that are still left behind to this day.


The borough of Xochimilco was created in 1928, when the federal government reorganized the Federal District of Mexico City into sixteen boroughs. The Xochimilco borough was centered on what was the city of Xochimilco, which had been an independent settlement from the pre-Hispanic period to the 20th century.[1][2] The area’s historic separation from Mexico City proper remains in its culture. While officially part of the city, its identity is more like a suburb.[3]

The borough is divided into eighteen “barrios,” which make up the old city of Xochimilco and fourteen communities outside the traditional city called “pueblos”. There are also 45 smaller divisions called “colonias” and twenty major apartment complexes.[1] The most notable neighborhoods/communities include Xaltocan, Ejidos de Tepepan, La Noria, Las Cruces, Ejidos de Xochimilco and San Gregorio Atlapulco.[4] San Francisco Caltongo is one of the oldest neighborhoods of the borough.[5] Xaltocán began as a ranch, or hacienda that belonged to the indigenous caciques. It was later donated to the San Bernardino de Siena monastery. After the monastery was secularized, it became hacienda land again, but over time, parts were sold and it became the current area of Xochimilco.

Lake Xochimilco and the canal systemEdit

Xochimilco is characterized by the existence of a system of canals, which measure about a total of 170km2.[6] These canals and the boats that float on them among artificially created land called chinampas are internationally known.[7][8]

These canals are all of what is left of what used to be a vast lake and canal system that extended over most parts of the Valley of Mexico, restricting cities such as Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and Xochimilco to small islands.[9][10][11] This system of waterways was the main transportation venue, especially for goods from the pre-Hispanic period until the 20th century.[10] In the pre-Hispanic period, parts of the shallow lakes were filled in, creating canals. Starting in the early colonial period, the interconnected lakes of the valley, including Lake Xochimilco were drained and by the 20th century had shrunk down to a system of canals which still connected Xochimilco with the center of Mexico City.

These remaining canals and their ecosystem was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, with the purpose of saving them.[12] The destruction of the last of these canals began in the 1950s. At that time, groundwater pumping under the city center was causing severe subsidence. These wells were closed and new ones dug in Xochimilco and other southern boroughs. High rates of extraction have had the same effect on water tables and canals began to dry.[13] Since then reclaimed wastewater has been recycled to flow into the Xochimilco canals to supplements water from natural sources. However, this water is not potable, containing bacteria and heavy metals and the canals still receive untreated wastewater and other pollution[14]

Another major problem, especially in the past two decades has been the population explosion of Mexico City, pushing urban sprawl further south into formerly rural areas of the Federal District. This prompted authorities to seek World Heritage Site status for the canals and the pre-Hispanic chinampa fields, in order to give them more environmental protection.[1][7][10]


Canals in the waters of Lake Xochimilco were initially created along with that of a kind of artificial agricultural plots called chinampas. Chinampas were invented by the pre-Hispanic peoples of the region around 1,000 year ago as a way to increase agricultural production. On the shallow waters of the lakes, rafts were constructed of juniper branches. Onto these rafts floating on the water, lakebed mud and soil were heaped and crops planted. These rafts, tied to juniper trees, would eventually sink and a new one built to replace it. Over time, these sunken rafts would form square or rectangular islands, held in place in part by the juniper trees. As these chinampa islands propagated, areas of the lake were reduced to canals. These “floating gardens were an important part of the economy of the Aztec Empire by the time the Spanish arrived.[15][16][17]

Today, only about 5,000 chinampas, all affixed to the lake bottom, still exist in their original form, surrounded by canals and used for agriculture. The rest have become solid ground and urbanized. In the center of Xochimilco, there about 200 chinampas, covering an area of 1,800 hectares. However, one reason the number has decreased is that smaller chinampas have been combined to create larger ones.[18] While there are still those who maintain chinampas correctly, and use them for agriculture, the chinampa culture is fading in the borough with many being urbanized, and being turned into soccer fields, and sites for housing and businesses.[19] The deterioration of many of these chinampas can be seen as their edges erode into the dark, polluted water of the canals.[16] The most deteriorated chinampas are located in the communities of Santa María Nativitas, Santa Cruz Acalpixca, San Gregoria Atlapulco and Ejido de Xochimilco. Together, these have a total of thirty eight illegal settlements. To repair a number of chinampas, the borough along with federal authorities, has reinforced forty two km of shoreline, of the 360 km that exist in the lake area. This involves the planting of juniper trees and the sinking of tezontle pylons into the lakebed.[19]

De Las Muñecas (Island of Dolls)/abandonmentEdit


One of the many dolls in De Las Muñecas.

The best-known chinampa in Xochimilco one belonged to a man named Julián Santana Barrera, a native of the La Asunción neighborhood. Santana Barrera was a loner, who was rarely seen in most of Xochimilco. He came to fame because he would collect the old broken bodies of dolls from the canals and rubbish tips,and the hang them from branches and tie them to tree trunks. To keep away evil spirits and appese the spirit of a dead girl he had found in the canal a few years before. He would state that he believed that the dolls were somehow still “alive” but “forgotten” by their owners. De Las Munecas and other places was “discovered” in the early 1990s when the area was being cleared of excessive water lilies. Before this, it was thought that no one lived on this chinampa, but Santana Barrera was there, living in a hut with no services and generally did not receive visitors other than family. The display of dolls and parts attracted attention of the press. Eventually, he stated to them that the dolls were there to keep away evil spirits and to help with the harvests in his gardens. His favorite was called La Moneca and he frequently moved the dolls around among the tree branches. He began to receive more visitors to see the dolls, which eventually included local political figures. Santana Barrera died in 1992, there were many ideas on how he was killed, some say he drowned himself in the river because he was driven insane, others say the dolls came alive and killed him. But in fact he just died of old age, but the dolls are still on the island, accessible by boat.[20]


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  20. Flores Farfán, Sebastián, Murió el señor de las Muñecas de Xochimilco, or The man of the Dolls of Xochimilco died



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