For almost two years, Moncerrat Reyes has been cranking out custom-made dolls in her home in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. And because she’s savvy about how she markets her Lil G dolls on the Internet, her products, which include necklace pendants and masks, have made it around the world and become cool items for people who are into Chicano culture — or maybe just like eerie-looking custom toys.
This happens to include people in Houston and all over Texas.
Recently, though, the demand has exploded for the baby-faced dolls outfitted with ominous clown faces and fitted with custom-made street gear. The dolls sometimes sport face tattoos; other times they are made up to represent certain car clubs or sports teams.
In a word, they are gangsta dolls, but they represent a certain style and a certain culture familiar to Chicanos throughout the U.S.
“I think that a lot of people, they say that I’m glorifying gangsters and a wrong kind of style. We grew up wearing Nike Cortez, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re criminals, you know? We’ve been judged since the Pachuco days about how we dressed,” Reyes says from her home studio while working on dozens of orders.
She has a staff of about five people who help her, from the woman she hires to sew the baby Dickie suits and hoodies to the kids from the neighborhood she hires to help paint the dolls’ faces. Her staff also includes an assistant who helps her stay on track with her orders, and her husband, who has helped her cast the molds for the tiny sneakers she slips on the dolls’ feet.
And it’s hard to believe that Reyes, who describes herself as an illegal immigrant, never took an art class in her life. She says she became a mom at 15 and dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Trips to the library while caring for her kids, where she started checking out books on things like learning to sculpt and craft, were her education in the arts. She learned to become her own doll distributor and manufacturer almost overnight.
Reyes has grown her business by going to people directly and capitalizing on the access social media provides. After she started selling her dolls online, she later hit lowrider car shows and other similar events.
She has recently expanded her little doll-making empire by recruiting vendors. She sells her dolls in bulk to people in certain cities in Texas and Arizona and other places, having them operate through licensing contracts.
In Houston, Jewelz Leal is the representative taking custom orders and ultimately helping move the dolls at events like car shows in the city and around the state.
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“I saw MsReyesArte from L.A. on Instagram, and I immediately fell in love with her work. My husband is in a lowrider car club, so we go to lots of shows not only in Houston, but all over Texas. I saw a few [of her dolls] around for display on other people's cars,” says Leal, who lives in Conroe. Leal naturally inquired about the dolls and became one of Reyes' biggest customers.
The dolls aren’t cheap, though. They start at $160 for a custom job, and the price goes up depending on the level of customization. Sometimes people send photos of themselves, and Reyes, who is also a tattoo artist, can customize the dolls down to a copy of a person’s face tattoo.
The origin of the dolls was really just by accident. Reyes was selling her other art, paintings and other crafts at a Día de Los Muertos event in California and wanted to decorate her table, so she took a baby doll and gave it some face paint to make it look like a clown. She could tell from the response of people who wanted to buy her decoration that she was onto something.
Arizona, Texas and Northern California are where Reyes fills the most orders. “Man, those areas are pushing like 75 packages a week; they are wearing me out,” she says. But of course it’s a good type of wearing out as Reyes's modest little doll operation continues to grow.