With nimble fingers, and a lot of patience and imagination, Cuna Indian women from the San Blas Islands in Panama turn bright-colored cotton cloth from Colombia into treasured works of art called molas.
After arranging contrasting colors of cloth in two to four layers, a design is cut out of the upper layer(s) of cloth to reveal the colorful fabric underneath. To make sure that the design doesn’t shift, it is stitched in place by hand with tiny, almost invisible stitches. Larger embroidery stitches accent certain design features. A skilled mola maker may take several weeks to complete one.
The word mola literally means clothing, but now it generally refers to the 14″ x 20″ (36 cm x 51 cm) cloth rectangle used as the front or back of women’s blouses. Molas, which have been produced since the middle of the last century, are now eagerly sought by tourists who want them for wall decorations rather than for items of apparel.
Cuna women also create beautiful and intricate arm and leg bands out of beads. The bands are worn until they restrict the wearer’s circulation. Another decoration that Cuna women wear is a nose ring. A newborn daughter with a large nose is a delight to her parents because large noses are a thing of beauty to the Cuna, and the ring only enhances a prominent nose.
Around the turn of the century, an English ship loaded with derby hats docked in the San Blas Islands, and Cuna men took to them immediately. The fact that most of the hats were too small was unimportant. They still wear such hats perched on top of their heads and wide neckties of the brightest colors.
The Cunas make daily trips to the Panamanian mainland from their island homes—the women to wash clothes and get fresh water, and the men to farm their coconut groves, a main cash crop. However, they sleep on the islands and live there as much as possible to avoid mosquitoes. The Cunas use hammocks for sleeping, sitting, and working. Sometimes hammocks are even carried to town meetings.
Latter-day Saint missionaries have had considerable success among the Cunas. One of the San Blas Islands, Carti Tupile, is known locally as “Mormon Island.” Because the Cuna Indians’ oral history so closely parallels that of the Book of Mormon, the Cuna who hear the gospel consider themselves “the People of the Book.”