Master Mola Makers
The first time I saw them I thought they looked like flowers and butterflies in the Garden of Eden; like little skinny-legged ladybugs, shiny and red, amidst a vast wet turquoise landscape. So small and delicate, colorful and elegant are the Kuna women of the San Blas archipelago in Panama.
As soon as we step on the island where a few Kuna families live in small huts on the beach, we are surrounded by all its inhabitants- men, children, dogs and small colorful women, like Russian dolls with red scarf. The men greet us smiling but then disappear in huts and hammocks and we are left at the mercy of a few Kuna ladies who only speak Dulegaya (the indigenous Kuna language) and who lure us under a very low shade of palm leafs with a large wooden table, where they start exhibiting their molas and beaded bracelets for sale.
The molas are very complicated rectangular cloths that look like decorative paintings, consisting of a few layers of fabrics finely cut and collaged one on top of the other to form abstract shapes and fine patterns and are the most important, most famous and most original handcraft of all indigenous handcrafts of all indigenous tribes in Panama. Traditionally, the predominant mola colors are bright red or deep red, orange and yellow on black or magenta background.
Every Kuna woman can make molas and every Kuna woman has her stash of molas. And if you don’t go to them to buy some molas, they will come to you to sell you some molas! So don’t be surprised if you see a bunch of Kuna women paddling towards your boat in the morning. Prepare for business!
They slowly unfold them before us, one by one, dozens of molas each. Only one of the women speak Spanish- Paolina- and she becomes our interpreter in the complicated process of choosing molas and bargaining. It is hard to choose, all the molas are different, unique and so beautiful. Some are more complicated than others, made of many layers of fabric collaged with very fine stitches, and these are more expensive than the ones with less layers and sloppy stitches.
I decide to get something from each woman- two molas, a beaded bracelet and a headband, giving them some rice, flour and other food products, as well as small bags of glass beads in exchange. Getting something from each earns me the right to photograph them.
Posing for me in their full traditional dress, the Kuna women are spectacular. A profusion of colors and shapes so skillfully chosen and so tastefully combined, as if another perfect creation of Nature and not of Fashion.
All traditional Kuna women wear a simple dark skirt up to their knees with orange, yellow or green patterns and a mola blouse- the most important garment of the Kuna women’s clothing- made of very fine transparent brightly colored fabrics with large floral motifs attached to two identical molas- one for the front and one for the back. The bright red scarves covering their short black straight hair or hanging loosely over the head are another invariable part of the Kuna ladies’ attire, as well as the arm and leg bands- long strings of tiny glass beads, predominantly yellow and orange, coiled around their arms and legs. A golden nose ring is another important ornament, and often lipstick and rouge is generously applied on the high cheeks of younger women.
But even though in Kuna Yala making and selling molas is exclusively the women’s job, there are a couple of fabulous Master Mola-Maker exceptions. One is a gay guy named Venancio, who came to our boat to offer the most intricate, best quality molas we have ever seen (most collected from women on his island for re-sale), and Lisa.
Lisa stops by Fata Morgana in her motor boat and shows us tons of perfect molas, some made as beer holders, others as handbags. Besides Spanish, she speaks English and is most helpful and super resourceful with enormous charisma and charm. Besides making and selling molas she also organizes river excursions in Rio Cidra and her knowledge of Kuna history and geography is profound, which makes her an excellent river-guide. We talk for a long time and Maya really likes her, especially her blue nail polish. Maya is into nail polish.
“But why are her hands so big?” Maya asks.
“Well, because Lisa was born a man…”- I have to explain. And i know this, because I know about Lisa (from other cruisers) before I knew anything else about the San Blas Islands….
Lisa is not only an indigenous-master-mola-maker-transvestite, but also the most famous Kuna person among the cruisers, no doubt. In Kuna Yala- a matrilineal society where the men move in their brides’ homes and the women pass down their name to the next generation; where girls are more praised than boys- gays and transvestites are considered a third gender and are being accepted by society without a trace of discrimination or stigma. And they too can become the most excellent master Mola-Makers!
Find previous stories about Kuna Yala:
About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: