The most famous handicrafts in Panama are molas, the intricately stitched, brightly colored, geometrically patterned squares of fabric made by the Kuna (or Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group. They are gorgeous, but they are not the only culturally authentic handmade art being produced in Panama. In the Azuero Peninsula lacemakers with flying fingers create intricate components of the perfect pollera, the national dress of Panama.
We are not craft people. We don’t seek out craft markets. We don’t buy “traditional” “indigenous” or “locally made” key chains or coin purses or headbands to commemorate our travels. If you offer to show us some handicrafts we are sure to walk swiftly in the other direction. Too often “handicraft” is just code for “Chinese-made crap you could buy in any tourist market in Bangkok, Boston, or Budapest”.
But sometimes not.
When we took part in the annual carnival celebrations in Panama, which is at its most carnivally in the Azuero, we were impressed by the country’s elaborate national dress called a pollera and some of the complicated ingredients to this strangely chaste yet sexy get-up are handcrafted in the traditional way by artisans in the Azuero.
From Peace Corps to polleras
Bonnie Birkin knows the Azuero and its artisans better than most. The Iowa native was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Guararé area of the peninsula in 1967, then she returned to the US where she pursued a career in international economic and community development. But she never quite shook the people she met in the Azuero and in 2005 she returned to live near Guararé full time. In 2009 she started a foundation and guest house called Casa del Puerto to promote and preserve the work of the many craftspeople living in the area.
Once you’re at Casa del Puerto, with its seafront location, homey rooms, and full apartments, Bonnie’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the area’s crafts will soon infect you too. It won us over pretty quickly and one afternoon we headed out with Bonnie to see some handiwork first hand.
The modern-day pollera is a souped-up version of the flouncy skirt and off-the-shoulder blouse which was a common costume in Spain and one imposed on indigenous servants who worked for the Spanish who were busy conquering Latin America in the 1500s. Fed up with sweating it out in their European finery, Spanish women living in the region started wearing the much breezier skirt and blouse combo themselves, but in richer fabrics and with increasing amounts of jewelry, detailing, and other finery.
One important new element to the outfit was fine, handmade lace, and that tradition is alive and well in Panama as we saw when Bonnie took us to see the flying fingers of Jessica Hernandez, a second-generation lacemaker.
The lacemaker’s magic
The ingredients were simple, a few wooden toggles (called palos), some thread, some straight pins, and a wheel-shaped, padded contraption stuffed with sawdust called a mundillo. But what this 16-year-old girl was able to do with those humble ingredients was incredible.
Jessica’s fingers instinctively moved and arranged the toggles of thread, pinning some in place before moving on to the next configuration. As she worked, the toggles collided making a pleasant wind chime-like tinkle. She rarely bothered to look at her hands.
Before long, Jessica had deftly added to the strip of lace already in progress on her mundillo. Depending on the intricacy of the lace, it can take two days to make a 3 foot (1 meter) long one-inch (2.5 cm) wide piece of pollera lace. This handmade lace goes for up to US$35 per yard and a well-decked-out pollera could include 30 yards of the stuff.
See Jessica’s flying fingers for yourself in our video of her lacemaking process, below.
But lace is just one piece of a pollera
As impressed as we were with the lace, Bonnie was quick to point out that there are dozens of other handcrafted components that go into a pollera, from the hand-embroidered two-tiered skirts to the elaborate hair combs and head jewelry, called pajuelas and tembleques, to the solid gold necklaces (the more the better), to the large, fluffy wool pompoms, called motas, which must match the color of the traditional flat shoes.
When all those pieces of art come together, a process that can take up to six months and end up costing tens of thousands of dollars, the results are stunning. If you want to really binge on polleras, plan to be in Panama during the annual Parade of 1,000 Polleras held in the streets of Las Tablas on the Azuero Peninsula every January. Then go see Bonnie in Guararé.
Here’s more about travel in Panama