Ah, the Kuna people of Panama. Sit down and
let me tell you more.
Kuna people are indigenous to the Darien highlands of Panama,
but moved to the coastal islands around the time the Spanish
arrived, and made a living trading with English buccaneers
and other visitors. They live in closely packed communities
and are fierce guardians of their main income source, the
coconut (they even post couples to live on isolated islands
just to protect the precious nuts). More recently, with
increased exposure to cruise ships and private yachts, they
are finding a new way to make money; the Mola!
women are mad about molas. The moment you drop anchor, they
paddle out in their dugout canoes and push molas like theres
no tomorrow! Dont dare say "No Thank You"; Kuna
women are shrewd businesswomen and could hawk molas to a
The outer islands (Chichame, Lemon and Holandes cayes)
are the big leagues. Kuna women carry molas on consignment,
and if you try to bargain, they'll whip out a mobile phone
from their bra, call up the maker, and coordinate the wheeling
mola in fact, is so important to a familys income that it
cements her power in the family unit (although they are
traditionally a matrilineal society anyway). In fact, when
a man marries a Kuna lady, he packs up his belongings (sometimes
just a machete and some clothes) and moves into his wifes
hut.. with her inlaws, hammock beside hammock!
If a family rears only male children, the youngest is not
only encouraged to sew molas, but often become a woman entirely.
Homosexual and transgendered individuals are a fairly common
sight in the territory, and this makes for great "Nature
vs. Nuture" debates! Is it a choice, or just a society
where people can be themselves? Feel free to discuss amongst
what is a Mola? A mola is a reverse applique sewn fabric
(normally 3 to 5 layers thick), traditionally depicting
geometric shapes, often Kuna symbols (triangles are popular,
but the official Kuna symbol, the swastika, is understandably
rare on molas now due to low sales demand..). Recently,
due to tourist demands, the depiction of animals is becoming
more popular. Small molas sell for $1 to $5, and large molas
sell from $5, most often $20, up to $80.
The best molas feature heavy materials, multiple layers
and tight stitches; the closer and tighter, often the better.
Notable Mola "masters" are Venancio and Lisa -
ask for them by name!
does the Mola fit into the Kuna wardrobe? First, only the
women dress in traditional clothing. Typically adorned with
a red or orange bandana, a nose piercing and gold earrings,
face painting (usually red cheeks or a bold line down the
forehead and nose), intricate beadwork on their arms and
legs (called uini) and a colourful flowing skirt (usually
blue with orange patterns). The piece de resistance is their
blouse; lightly coloured, airy with frills, the blouse is
a bit old fashioned looking, but when the mola is stitched
on the front and back, it really completes the look.
Some might say the Mola ties the outfit together.