This is my interview with Raquel Busa in English. Eine deutsche Übersetzung veröffentliche ich in den kommenden Tagen.
When I first met Raquel Busa, I almost didn’t. At Handmade Cavalcade, a series of weekend markets organized by Etsy’s New York Handmade Collective, I was drawn to the glitter of jewelry like a magpie, heading towards it through the aisle with Raquel’s stand. But an image of a doll got stuck in the corner of my eye, and something seemed off. Were these really children’s toys?
I stopped and looked, discovered some photographs of dolls and owners, and a light bulb moment kicked in: These rag dolls look exactly like the people who got them. Even without photos they look like people you might run into in New York. Then there was a photo of doll that looked familiar: Stephen Colbert? Soon I learned that a good half year into starting Maquina 37, named after her historic Singer sewing machine, Raquel had gotten an order by AMC for a show with Seth Rogen. But that was not the reason I wanted to interview her.
Raquel Busa is a successful business owner with a very engaged family life and an artistic mind, she also is an outspoken advocate of diversity and an accomplished marathon runner. But what’s obvious with marathons is true to all the other parts of her life today: None of that was handed to her easily. And her CV is as inspiring as her ideas.
She went to college with the goal of becoming an art conservationist. But after a semester abroad that had turned into an adventurous and artistic two year stay in Egypt, Raquel graduated realizing she couldn’t afford the master’s degree she would need to pursue her goal. She had to find a full-time job, and she did – starting at a reception desk, she made a career in human resources. It made sense, given her love of working with people, and she got a good salary. “But there is a very ugly part of human resources”, she tells me: “You have to fire people.”
A company might look at their staff and talk about a high turnover rate. For Raquel, that meant having to fire people a lot. “Sometimes I had to fire people knowing that they were going to lose their home, because they worked paycheck to paycheck.” Even immersing herself in after work art projects couldn’t balance her unease; this was not what she wanted to be doing for the rest of her life. One day in the fall of 2017, she came home and told her spouse she was going to take a leap and make dolls and other artisan things full-time. And that wasn’t the only leap in Raquel’s life, as you will learn in our interview. Read about the almost comical consequences of speaking English without an accent, a coming out in the age of same-sex marriage, practical advice to find your way out of your bubble, and the features that really make a person – so much so that you would recognize them as a rag doll.
All images by Raquel Busa.
Raquel, how did you come up with making dolls that look like real people?
Raquel Busa: I always liked the feeling of old-fashioned dolls. I grew up with Barbie dolls and plastic dolls. But in story books, I loved seeing how kids carried around soft dolls with yarn hair. I would go searching for them in stores and I would find them, but they always had a tag on them, and they didn’t seem authentic. (laughs) Even as a kid that mattered to me. I grew up in Manhattan, and I always wanted to have a fairy tale life in a cottage or something, so I always liked these handmade things. Years later, I was unhappy in my job in human resources, and I have an art history degree. I thought I needed to go back to what makes me happy, so I started making art, and that’s also when I asked my mom to teach me how to sew.
I was mesmerized with the idea that a machine and people can come together to create things.
Did you grow up with a sewing machine in the house?
My mom worked as a seamstress for most of my life. She had a sewing machine in the house and she worked in two different factories where she operated machines, first making curtains, then men’s ties. When I was young I got to visit her in the factories, and I was mesmerized with the idea that a machine and people can come together to create things.
What did the first doll you made look like?
At first, I started making regular dolls out of my imagination, they didn’t look like anyone in particular. Finally, my wife said: “Why don’t you make a doll for me?” And I not only made a doll for her, but a doll that looks like her. When I embroidered a tattoo, made her t-shirt or her little jeans, we would laugh hysterically, every single time. And I said: This is it! This is what I need to do.
When you make a custom doll today, how can I imagine the process?
When I first get an order for a custom doll, I ask for pictures of the person. The first thing I look for is: Which features make this person who they are? After all, I don’t have a large canvas to work on. This is going to be a little tiny caricature. So I have to pick out the features that really make this person. When I was making the first one, it was the hair style that really identifies that doll as my wife, and also the tattoos. With another person it could be the curly hair and the glasses, or the eye brows and the big smile. Usually I don’t show teeth, but sometimes have to embroider teeth because that embodies the person. The process also involves a conversation with the customers because I might pick something that the customer may not want to have as a main feature. For example, there was a mom ordering a doll for a 13-year-old boy, and I gave the doll a tiny little mustache, because in the pictures, the boy had a little mustache. But the mom said: “Can we remove it? He’s shy about this, he’s embarrassed by it.” It’s very personal, you know? And obviously, the customer chooses the skin tone, and I look at the picture for the hair color and everything like that. And then I buy clothing that resembles the clothing in the pictures, I actually go out to second hand store and to children’s stores, because sometimes fabric stores may not carry exactly what I am looking for. It’s a process, and the dolls really are works of art. They are particular, each one. (laughs)
So much effort going into one little rag doll! Do adults also order them for themselves?
I didn’t think it would be for all ages, but it turns out all ages like them. I also discovered that in making dolls that look like people I am also making dolls that represent minorities who might not find themselves in a big box store. I can create something special for a customer who wants to say to their loved one: You are beautiful just the way you are. Or parents can make a doll that looks like no one in their family so that their child can learn to love it and to be with it and learn about diversity. I only grew up with dolls that were white with blond hair and blue eyes, and that is not what I look like. And I wish that I had that diversity at home, and I think that is important for today’s kids as well.
Yes, representation matters. Can you remember the first time you experienced this?
I think the first time this was really important to me was when I met my wife. When I met her, I embraced being with a woman for the first time. Before that and growing up, I never had a positive representation of the LGBTQ community, so as a child, I always thought that that was wrong. I quite literally thought that there was something wrong with those people, and that was not me. I was always attracted to women, but I would say to myself: “Oh no, I just think she is pretty because I like that make-up, I wish I would look like that. That’s why I think that she is so attractive.” Or things like that, I’m really simplifying this here. I was trying to do what was expected of me. I was trying to find the right boyfriend, I was trying to get married, I was trying to have children. All my other sisters and brothers are in heterosexual relationships, and I thought this is who I am and what is meant for me. But when I met my future wife, I allowed myself to explore that part of me for the first time. And then everything made sense, everything fell into place, I have never been happier or more at peace. But I wish that I had a positive representation growing up. It would have saved me a lot of heartache. My family is okay with it now, but my mother is very religious, and she was against it when I first came out to her. Over time, she got over it and now she loves both of us, she loves that we are married and comes over to our home all the time. I think what is nice about today’s society is that I see a lot of same-sex couples on tv, and the same thing for racial diversity, too. And my dolls are just a little part of celebrating all of that.
I wish that I had a positive representation of the LGBTQ community growing up. It would have saved me a lot of heartache.
To me it felt like all of New York was celebrating when same-sex marriage became legal in 2011. What is your take on that, what changed with that, and where is New York still lacking?
In 2011 I had not come out yet. And it feels like there is still so much work to be done. There are so many pockets of people in New York. My mom lives in Washington Heights, in a community where everyone speaks Spanish. She has been in this country since she was 26 years old, and she is now 72. And only now after she has retired she is finally learning English. She still goes to church every Sunday,which is great for her, but it’s this … mentality is the wrong word for this … These are the same ideas that get bounced around. In New York, you have a lot of people who go into communities and bring in diversity to those communities, but you also have a lot of communities that are really sheltered. Even as progressive as New York is, we still have a long, long way to go.
I sometimes get the impression that diversity in New York is centered on food, with even the travel guide books telling you to take the 7 train and eat around the world, so I wonder: Does it also stop there?
Nooo, no. I think that New York is incredibly diverse. It is funny: When we coexist, we all begin to look and do things similarly. When you go to Williamsburg, you will find people of diverse backgrounds, but they are all doing the same things. And then you go to neighborhoods that are populated by first generation immigrants, and you feel like you are in a different country, accompanied by their food, by what they like to wear. New York is very interesting that way! And the children who are born in New York go to school with people from different places, they branch out, and that is where the cultural mixing happens. I grew up speaking two languages, Spanish and English, and all of my friends were the same.
So the language changes with the second generation. But then again, no matter where you were born or if you have an accent or not, people will still look at you and ask you where you come from.
Yes, absolutely. In New York, a conversation about where your family came from is like a part of knowing your friends. People are surprised when I say that I am half Dominican, half Puerto Rican. When I was growing up, I was actually made fun of because I spoke English without an accent. People would say to me: “Are you trying to be less Hispanic?” And I said: “No! Absolutely not! I speak Spanish, I love my culture, I love my family history, I love all of that. But, I don’t know, I just lost the accent when I was very young.” So there is that. And when I go back to my neighborhood and I go to a grocery store, people will automatically speak to me in English instead of Spanish because they think that … they are not sure where I am from. And then when I am in an area where there aren’t a lot of Hispanics, some people think that I am Middle Eastern, but they would not put together that I am Hispanic. It is very interesting! (laughs)
You can hop from one box to the next one that people would put you into, and those would be quite a lot of boxes.
Yeah! And I kind of like that.
That’s also a good thing about New York: If you want to find a way out of your bubble, there are a lot of opportunities.
Yes, absolutely, that is a wonderful thing about New York. I lived in Cairo for a couple of years, but the artists that were exhibiting in some of the galleries, not all of them, were very often European artists. And I get that. But Cairo has this amazing, blossoming community of artists, and I think that they should be funding those artists and finding ways to encourage them. The same is true for New York: We should be sponsoring art in low-income areas and see which ideas come out and try to absorb all the information we can find.
I was fascinated to see Cairo on your CV. You got there on a college program, right?
Yes. I studied art history at Fordham University, and I wanted to study chemistry and Islamic art history in Cairo, because I wanted to go into art conservation after I graduated. But while I was in Cairo, the Egyptian Revolution happened.
Yeah, that was really intense. We made it to the airport and we were evacuated, then I stayed in Italy with a friend of mine. After the dictator fell, I came back to Cairo. That’s when I started exhibiting with Egyptian artists. Because the art all over Cairo exploded; all of a sudden, there was graffiti everywhere. People who had been oppressed, who had felt like they did not have a voice, were suddenly voting and expressing themselves in ways that they had not before. And as an art history student, I wanted to be part of that movement.
How can privileged people like me, a white woman, be better allies to anyone who is not part of the so-called majority?
Well, I think we have to learn to catch ourselves when we presume something about someone else. I think that that the most fundamental thing that anyone in a “privileged” situation can do is to not presume anything and to sit back and learn and be as much yourself as you can while being sensitive to the other person. Also I think that people in a “privileged class” should be looking for partnerships with different types of people to expand. For example, employers should try to seek out people in other communities, cultures or other races, they should not stick to the same. And everyone can do something as simple as following different types of people on social media. I caught myself not doing that: So I’m all about diversity, but why I am not following a group of African-American women or Native Americans? And beyond social media, the Brooklyn Museum, for example, has art exhibitions from a lot of black artists. You just need to go.
Everyone can do something as simple as following different types of people on social media.
If you’d like to read more of my interviews in English, you’ll find a bunch of them here.