By: Ximena de la Pava
Photos: Luis Eduardo Guillén y Carlos Gómez
The highway that borders Penonomé offers a panoramic view of the series of hills with rounded and sharp peaks surrounding Coclé. Today we ascend to the community of Membrillo, where Alfonso Martínez awaits us. A few days ago, in the Craft Market of Panama Viejo, he promised to take us to the only soapstone mine in Panama, and today he is honoring his word.
Soapstone, or Belmont stone, also called steatite, is a mineral formed by layers of volcanic sediment that has undergone a metamorphosis caused by heat, chemical agents, and pressure. The result is a flashy stone of various colors, with a surface etched with veins and decorated with interesting designs that can even take on geometric shapes.
Now Luis and I are climbing the mountain, trying to guess if these are the La Vieja and El Viejo hills, or perhaps the Chichibalí and the Picacho. Rain threatens to pour, making us fear we will have to cancel our trip. But finally we see the school and, under the eaves, an impatient Martínez. He gets in the car and tells us where to turn off to get to his community. When the road ends, we park on the side and continue by foot on a path that was once haphazard, but today the community uses to develop its rural tourism program.
He tells us that Lorenzo Martínez (who, he believes, is a relative), discovered the mine in the 1950s, when he tripped on a colorful stone, so smooth to the touch that he thought it was ideal for carving. That first Martínez could not have imagined that he had discovered a seam of the same stone that the Egyptians carved thousands of years ago and which is very popular in Africa, where it is credited with curative and spiritual properties. It’s a smooth stone, made of talc, which can be carved with a knife, as easily as you could carve a yucca. This pioneer couldn’t have known that, half a century later, the tradition he started would sustain at least seventy of the ninety families that make up the community today.
Soon we arrive at Martínez’ house, in the middle of a forest reserve near the entrance of the mine, where his brother, Sixto, is waiting for us. From this moment on, this is a dual interview: the pair answered all of our questions in unison. Sixto gathers his tools: coba, machete, chisel, knife, and sharpener. His petate, a kit bag woven from acorn palm, hangs on his back. We follow the road along the shore of the river, sometimes crossing it, mostly skirting it. Suddenly, Sixto stops and begins to jab a stone under the transparent water with his pick. “Look, look here!” he exclaims and we see how the stone begins to shed its layers to expose its reddish center.
When the volcano erupted, hundreds of years ago, it hurled rocks of different types and colors that amalgamated from the pressure until they formed these unique stones. The carvers must go into the mine, because not all of the stones are on the shores of the river like the one we’re looking at. They must dig the stones out with their picks and machetes, carry them in their petates, climb down to their homes to finish the work, and retrace the path we climbed this morning with their carvings on their backs, in order to sell their works. It’s men’s work.
We don’t know why they carve elephants. Maybe it’s because towns united by soapstone, in other corners of the planet, make them. The Membrillo people also carve iguanas, toucans, turtles, and frogs–more appropriate animals for this tropical environment. I ask if the shape of the stone is what inspires the carving. They say no, that the inspiration comes from within, from their hearts. Nevertheless, I observe how Sixto handles the piece over and over again until suddenly, as if it were an incantation, he says that a rooster can be made from this stone. “Yes, a rooster,” he confirms. I think the stone and the carver make the decision together.
Stone is not the only element carved in Panama. About 370 miles from Penonomé, in the middle of the world’s wettest rainforest, under a canopy of trees so dense it’s known as “Darien’s Cork,” the Wounaan people have been familiar with the precious cocobolo wood since the beginnings of time.
This wood, which interestingly, is harder than soapstone, is valued for its natural color, which can range from a golden yellow to red, and brown to black, depending, they say, on when the tree was cut.
We met Martínez at the Handicraft Fair in Panama Viejo, thanks to an invitation from Damaris Delgado, the chief executive of Artesanías Nacionales. She also introduced us to Celia, who comes from Vista Alegre, a community eight hours up river from La Palma, in Darién, and Augusto Flaflor, who was at the fair representing the Artisans Cooperative in Río Tapetuira, in the jungle.
The Wounaan also carve the tagua seed, and are so dexterous that they make true works of art in miniature. The tagua is the seed from a palm tree, which can be ingested by humans and provides food for many of the jungle’s animals. The seeds are collected without damaging the plant, and left to dry until they obtain the required level of hardness. Dried tagua is known as vegetable ivory and its popularity has helped protect elephants by providing a sustainable substitute for their highly prized tusks.
The Wounaan share their territory with the Emberá people, and while for urbanites it may be difficult to distinguish one from the other, they see it very clearly. Apparently, the Wounaan were historically carvers and the Emberá, weavers. But what is certain is that both communities produce another treasure of high artistic value: baskets woven from chunga palm. This work is done by women and begins with the harvesting of the chunga in the middle of the jungle, by women traveling in groups. The process continues with the search for seeds and roots to extract dyes, and later, through a long, arduous process, with the extraction of the fibers, and then drying and dyeing them. “Each basket,” explains Celia, “is a unique work of art because the designs are never the same.” Some of these baskets, so tightly-woven that they can transport water, are be worth up to hundreds of dollars.”
The Famous Molas
If there is a Panamanian handicraft that has traveled the world over, even becoming an icon, it’s the mola, sewn on the beautiful, coralline islands of Kuna Yala, in the northeastern part of the country.
Although today they are true experts in the art of sewing, in pre-Columbian times, the Kuna women painted the molas on their bodies, according to accounts by the Welsh doctor Lionel Wafer, who arrived at Kuna Yala on a pirate ship, and lived there for four years. Apparently, due to the influence of the missionaries, the women stopped painting themselves and transferred their works of art to fabric, which they then wore.
In the market of Panama la Vieja, we run into Ceida Vega, from the island of Mamitup. She doesn’t speak Spanish and we go in search of her neighbor to translate our questions. It is said that the molas represent the way the Kuna women view the world. The labyrinths show the path to God and the symmetries or repetitions “in the mirror” symbolize the duality of life. Ceida points out the nariguera, the nose ring, and the maracas that accompany a woman from the day she is born until she dies. Molas are more of an abstract art than a figurative one and they represent the magical worldview of the Kuna.
In the western part of the country, directly on the border with Costa Rica, another ethnic group resides. The women there are well known as seamstresses. The traditional dress of the Ngabe-Buglé women is becoming fashionable in Panama; their nawas and stylized necklaces woven of beads are being worn in the city and on the beaches.
Another story is sewn in the middle of the country. Classified as one of the most beautiful folkloric outfits in the world, the pollera, a skirt-dress inherited from the peasant dress of Spanish women, is an institution and a source of pride for Panamanian women. Behind it, a large chain of traditional trades, including goldsmiths, lace makers, lace cushion makers, perforators, and “assemblers” survive.
The list of Panamanian handicrafts is endless. For example, in Coclé, there is the famous painted hat is woven from acorn palm. In Portobelo, paintings are made with mirrors and other accessories, and music boxes are painted with vibrant colors. On Isla Gobernadora, in the Pacific Ocean, three artisan workshops make beautiful adornments for the home from the leaves of the coconut palm. In Panama la Vieja, Misael Atlás makes award-winning monkeys, reptiles, and sloth figures out of coconuts. During traditional celebrations, devil masks are made, and clean and dirty devils compete in luminosity. Panamanian hands make unique clothing as well, such as guayaberas, leather bags, and sandals.
And what is missing? People like Ximena Rodrigo, a direct descendant of the Emberá, and Jackdielitza Huertas, from the noble whitewashed town of Las Tablas, making modern design pieces from traditional indigenous beads and the sophisticated tembleques, or headdresses used with the traditional pollera. They are leading the leap to the future, guaranteeing with their work that these ancestral traditions continue to be valued as consumer products by the modern world.