Ever wondered about the exotic beauty of the Caribbean islands? Have you ever heard of the San Blas Island and the Cuna people who live there? Well, in today’s Word Power episode from English plus podcast, we will talk about the Cuna people, about something very specific, the mola, which is a famous Cuna creation.
Of the hundreds of San Blas islands that dot the Caribbean coast of Panama, only fifty are inhabited, primarily by the Cuna people. The chief claim to fame of the denizens of these islands lies with the women; travelogues, leisure magazines, and movies often feature their dazzling, exotic beauty, complete with nose rings and beaded ankles and wrists. If the Cuna women are their society’s ambassadors to the world, then the mola cloths that they create and wear are their flags.
Molas are vibrantly colored, intricately patterned, hand-stitched cloth panels. Cuna women, who learn the complex process from their mothers, first stack anywhere from two to seven layers of different-colored cloth. Then they cut designs into the top layer and sew the designs’ edges with complementary stitchery. Smaller, similar designs are cut into the succeeding layers, exposing each level of color. The final panels are often so thick that they resemble sculptural forms.
The paramount theme represented in mola design is nature. The earliest examples were abstract interpretations of the texture of brain coral, but the designs have become increasingly complex, stylized images of animals and plants. Although folk-art experts have attempted to invest the patterns with religious symbolism, the designs are probably purely decorative. Each mola is unique; even when a motif is repeated, the final panel, blouse, purse, or pillow shows differences in color and form.
While they may appear ancient in concept, molas actually emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Until missionaries and traders visited the San Blas islands, Cuna women had painted their bodies. In order to conform to visitors’ expectations, they transferred the bright designs to the machine-manufactured cloth that the traders brought and entered the modern world wearing molas. The word itself actually means “cloth.”
The evolution of the mola exemplifies a necessary dichotomy for the Cuna-adopting new ways to survive in the modern world while at the same time keeping their culture intact. The Cuna women initially made their molas for pragmatic reasons, without a thought to selling them. However, when traders offered to buy them, the women gladly accepted the money, returning to sewing and abandoning other duties that they had previously shared with the men. Today, the women’s cottage industry brings substantial income into an economy formerly based on coconuts and helps pay for schools, water systems, and electrical generators.
This dramatic, colorful needlework is found nowhere else in the world, and it is unlikely that replicas will ever be successfully made by machine. While molas are widely sought as works of art, they remain essential to the Cuna women’s traditional dress and their way of life.