The Block

A mola, a signature craft of Panama’s Kuna women and one of their most important activities, was made for this block. The term mola can mean ‘cloth,’ ‘clothing,’ or ‘blouse,’ but most often refers to the front and back panels of the traditional blouses worn by Kuna women. These panels are always similar, but never identical, representing both continuity and change. Kuna men sometimes have small mola pieces on their collars, cuffs, pockets or waistcoats. Believed to have evolved from the ancient practice of body-painting or tattooing, the art of mola-making has for centuries been handed down through generations of women, some of whom will take up to 100 hours to complete one.

For this piece, blockmaker Happy Howells Mireault has used a reverse appliqué technique in which layers of cotton were cut, and the raw edges turned under and stitched, to expose the underlying pieces of fabric. The fish design is a fitting pattern choice since Panama’s indigenous name means ‘abundance of fish’. The characteristic lozenge-shaped slits are called tastas, and the triangles and dots are nips and pips. Finely detailed chain, cross and straight stitches enhance the design. Nature generally dominates the mola theme, but ideas also come from realistic observances of everyday life or from images conjured up in dreams, fantasies or the imagination. Adapting to the modern world, Kuna women now produce mola designs on non-traditional objects such as bags, stuffed animals and Christmas decorations, in order to earn extra income.

SS Kentuckian, Panama Canal
The Panama Canal during the 1910s
Panamian polleras
Kuna Woman sewing
Sewing mola
Panama Embera0605
Embara-Wounaan girl

Cultural Profile

Panama’s arched shape reflects both its role as a bridge between two continents and a passageway between two oceans. Located on a narrow strip of land that connects North and Central America to South America, the country is bisected by the famous Panama Canal, which joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, earning it the title of ‘crossroads of the world.’ The canal, completed in 1914, stretches 80 km from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colón on the Atlantic side; over 12,000 ocean-going vessels pass through it each year. An engineering marvel, the canal has played not only a vital role in Panama’s history, but was, and continues to be, one of the most significant waterways in the world. Construction of the canal brought more than 150,000 immigrants to Panama, changing the country’s ethnic and cultural composition. Approximately 70 percent of the population is mestizos (mixed European and Native American descent) or mulattoes (European and African heritage). The official language of the country is Spanish, although English is widely spoken. As well, about half a million indigenous people have retained their language. Almost half of the population lives in the metropolitan area of Panama City and Colon, the capital, while 40% of the territory is still covered by pristine jungle forests home to a diversity of animals and plants.

Panamanian culture stems mainly from European musical, artistic and literary traditions brought by the Spanish, with African and Native American influences have been added into the mix. This has resulted in cultural forms unique to Panama. The tamborito (traditional dance), is descended from Spanish customs but incorporates native rhythms, themes and steps. The traditional dress for women is the pollera, consisting of a ruffled blouse and skirt adorned with floral or bird designs. It is said that 13 yards of fabric, or 11 meters, are needed to make a good pollera. Originally a dress for lower class women, the pollera has been adopted by all and is now worn with elaborate jewellery and headdress. Women from indigenous groups retain their traditional dress in rural areas.

Rural culture, in which folk songs and handicrafts are preserved, contrasts with urban culture. National crafts include gold and silver jewelry, carving in exotic woods, soapstone carving, weaving, ceramics and multi-coloured pottery. Women of the Embera-Wounaan tribe from the rainforests of the Darien peninsula, make colourful baskets out of the Chunga palm leaves. The Ngabe people are known for their chacaras, bags woven out of natural fibers. Jewellery and small carvings are made of tagua nuts, produced by some palm trees, a white, ivory-like material that can be carved or dyed. The country is also known for its sombrero pintao, or ‘painted hats’, not to be confused with the Panama hat made in Ecuador. The pintao is made of junco and bellota fibers, some of which are dyed black to give the hat its distinctive traits. The historic district of Panama City, well-known for its colonial architecture dating back to the 17th century, was designated a World Heritage site in 1997.

Panamanians are a hard-working people who enjoy their leisure activities. Substantial time is spent at family gatherings, which provide opportunities for parties, music, dancing, food and conversation. Carnival is celebrated in the days before Lent. Known as ‘Los Carnavales’ to Panamians, it includes parades, exuberant costumes and street parties.

People have been coming to Canada from Panama since 1974 and there are currently over 3,600 Panamanians now living here.


Sponsor: Kathleen Irwin, Helen Irwin and Margaret MacLachlan | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons