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Although Panama is best known for its famous canal, the engineering marvel is not exactly something that cruisers can bring home with them to remember their thrill-of-a-lifetime crossing.  The next best souvenir? A colorful mola made by Panama's colorful Kuna Indians.

A mola (which means "blouse" in the Kuna language) is fashioned of brightly colored pieces of cotton fabric layered on top of one another. Artisans make cuts through the layers to form various designs and then sew the pieces together with tiny stitches. For centuries, the art of mola making has been handed down from Kuna mothers and grandmothers to young girls, who begin learning to make molas around the age of 5. But this simple explanation is just the beginning of a story about a unique culture and the people who keep it alive with their artistry.

The southernmost country in Central American, Panama emerged from the sea some four million years ago, forming a land bridge between North and South America as well as the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Panama won't fail to impress you with its own unique culture, and nowhere is it more colorful than in the San Blas Islands.

The Comarca de San Blas is an autonomous part of Panama that stretches about 140 miles along the Caribbean coastline, east from Colon Province to Columbia. Many of the islands are idyllic oases of sand and palm trees, surrounded by crystal-clear water that’s ideal for snorkeling. Reefs to the north and east protect the islands from crashing waves, which adds to their serene ambiance. There are nearly 400 islands in the chain, but only about 40 are inhabited by Kunas.

No one knows for sure when the Kunas arrived in the San Blas Islands, which they call Kuna Yala. Some scholars think that Kunas greeted Spanish Explorers in the early 1500s. Kuna oral tradition has it that the Indians came from Columbia after the 16th century to escape the poison darts of warring tribes. However they got to the San Blas Islands, the Kunas have thrived ever since. Approximately 32,000 Kunas live in the islands, 8,000 live on the coastal mainland and 30,000 live in other parts of the country.

Kunas are communal and prefer to live in bamboo huts on just a cluster of islands, instead of spreading out among the many more that are available. The Indians, who have governed themselves since the 1920s, have the right to vote and send two representatives to Panama’s legislature.

Even so, some aspects of the culture still seem relatively primitive. Until the late 1990s, for example, the main form of currency was the coconut. No Kunas are happy to accept dollars from mola-buying tourists, but they still use coconuts to barter with Colombian traders for clothing, coffee, milk, and other staples.

Most Kuna men wear Western-style clothes, but women adorn themselves much as their ancestors did, favoring a long blouse that features one or more molas, and a colorful cloth wrapped around their waists to fashion a sort of skirt. Kuna women also often wrap their legs from knee to ankle with beautiful strands of beads called wini. Completing the ensemble is a colorful head scarf, multiple necklaces, bracelets, and rings, and a gold ring through the nose.

Kuna women are known for this colorful costume and spend many hours of careful sewing to create a fine mola. In fact, the ability to make an exceptional mola is a source of status among Kuna women. When a Kuna woman tires of a particular blouse, she disassembles it and sells the molas to collectors who search out these examples of textile folk art.

The most valued molas are the ones that have actually been worn as part of a Kuna woman's costume. However, seeing the demand for their popular craft, the Kunas have adapted the technique to other uses and now produce mola designs on a variety of everyday items such as pot holders, bags, eyeglass cases, decorations and stuffed animals. So just how did this popular art form evolve?

The ancient custom of body painting is thought to be the likely origin of the colorful mola, and the first designs used simple geometric patterns and symbols influenced by this primal practice. Kuna women first made molas when they came in contact with sea traders and merchants who brought cloth and sewing tools, and the craft was developed when the women began to have access to store-bought goods.

As contact with the outside world increased, molas took on even more creative images, themes and colors. In the 1940s, many Kuna families migrated to Panama City in search of employment and better wages in the Canal Zone. It was around that time the mola made its debut to collectors as the art began to find its way around the world via the canal.

In the 1970s, the Peace Corps arrived in the San Blas Islands with sewing machines to help the Kuna women in their mola making. However, the artists quickly rejected the machines and opted for the simple needle and thread process to accomplish their intricate work. Even today, the tools and supplies needed to design and make a Mola are simple and basic: cotton fabric, thread, a pencil, scissors, a thimble and a needle.

A mola panel can have two to seven layers of fabric, which are cut in rectangles and basted together. A design is sketched with pencil on the top layer of cloth, although more experienced Kuna women can work without sketches. Fabric is snipped away, closely following the design, to reveal the lower layers of fabric. The cut is made through one or more layers to reveal the selected accent colors. The more traditional Mola is pure applique; however, some of today's artists use embroidery to enhance their work.

The artistry of a mola varies widely because it reflects a combination of traditional Kuna culture with the influences of the modern world. When determining a theme for their Molas, some artists are inspired by their surroundings, from jungle and village life to images in dreams, fantasies and imagination. Designs may include interpretations of events in everyday life, history or simply objects seen on the island such as seashells, birds, fish, boats, fisherman or turtles. Their culture plays a major part in the inspiration and design of the mola. Tribal teachings, superstitions and traditional themes from Kuna legends and culture are often recorded in fabric panels.

Conversely, Mola designs are also inspired by modern graphics, such as pictures from books and magazines, cartoons, comic books, trademarks, labels and advertisements, which all offer endless ideas for Mola design. Clearly, popular patterns run the gamut, from traditional geometric designs to Kuna legends to modern icons, including cartoon characters like Batman!

“Visitors shouldn’t see their use of modern images as some sort of sell-out," says Mari Lyn Salvador, editor of The Art of Being Kuna. "Instead, it’s their way of observing and using current patterns and details in their art”. Prices of molas vary, depending on size and quality, but, as Salvador notes, mola sales help to provide economic independence for Kuna women and their families.

To the Kuna women, the mola represents their past, present and future. It is a platform for them to express their love of history, culture and nature; and today it is also a means of supporting their families. A visit to Panama is the perfect opportunity to explore a culture unlike your own - one that is as colorful as their craft.