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The Hands of the Goldsmith

There are many types of polleras in Panama but the spectacular santeña, from the Los Santos province, is one of the best known. Besides the luxurious skirt, the woman who wears a pollera also wears many pieces of jewelry manufactured by the expert hands of gold and silversmiths who specialize in traditional Panamanian jewelry.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez

The day we set out to find him, Alonso Delgado was in the workshop of the Joyería y Empeño San Cristobal in the town of Las Tablas; he came to the door to see who wanted to speak with him. Heavy-set, wearing a frown and a welder’s goggles, Delgado tried to be friendly but his work was calling: “I will gladly meet with you, but after five o’clock…I’m very busy now,” he said emphatically in his santeño accent.

Anxious to return to his work, Delgado turned around and disappeared through a doorway. In the adjoining shop, customers were waiting to receive their merchandise. High above, in the glow of stained glass illuminated by recessed spotlights, the golden pollera jewelry shone: a filigree rosary, a necklace, and flat and guachapalí chains. Minutes later, Delgado reappeared and motioned us in, where we met the light-skinned, light-haired owner of the jewelry store, Ronald Munoz.

Muñoz, from Las Tablas, is in the pig-breeding business. One day he won five piglets in a raffle and began fattening them up. When the year-end holidays arrived, he changed his original plan and decided not to kill them for market, and instead let them breed. “I now own Finca Epiphany, one of the largest pig farms…I’ve got close to 12,000 animals,” he says proudly.

In 1995, with a booming pig and cattle business, he decided to open a pawnshop. He soon realized that much of his clientele was looking for jewelery for the polleras they had inherited. He looked into the pollera jewelry market and realized it had potential.

“I asked a childhood schoolmate who was a goldsmith and he said he had more work than he could handle. I was living in Ancon, Panama and traveled to Los Santos to check on my cattle. A woman I hired to work in my house there told me her husband was a goldsmith.” The woman’s husband turned out to be none other than Alonso Delgado.

Delgado was at work in a long, narrow cell behind the jewelry store, melting silver to make chata and guachapalí necklaces. He began his career as a jeweler working for Nicaraguans in Panama City. “I was thirteen and what they paid me wasn’t even enough to cover my food. I began focusing on traditional jewelry with Victoriano Galástica from La Enea, Guararé. He got me interested in this,” says Delgado, without taking his eyes off his task.

In the workshop, where Delgado is boss, the temperature on the air conditioning unit reads 20º C., but it feels far from cool. The four walls of the ten-by-ten-foot room are lined with furniture, machinery, and tools, and there are posters of smiling girls on the walls. A torch spits fire as César Almanza, another goldsmith, approaches one of the desks. The young Almanza, who has worked at the shop for ten years now, inspects the pieces in front of him and pronounces his diagnosis: some are damaged; others are ready to be added to one of the pollera’s necklaces. When Delgado and Almanza are unable to handle the workload, Muñoz calls on Eroteides Escudero, who works from his home in La Palma.

The magnificence of the santeña pollera’s jewelry lies in the handmade quality of its chains, earrings, hair combs, bracelets, rings, and the golden decorations applied to the face, crafted piece by piece. The job requires not only patience, a good eye, and a very steady hand, but ancestral knowledge as well, like that of the Villarreal family, one of the craft’s greatest exponents. As Delgado puts it, “there are several goldsmiths in La Palma. The Villarreal family has always been dedicated to the craft. We have taught others.”

The Villarreal Family of La Palma

La Palma is a village in the Las Tablas district on the road to Pedasí. The afternoon was gray and just a few people stood in the doorways of the houses taking the air. Rain would soon begin to fall. At the entrance to the village a house advertised grilled chicken, sausages, and burgers, and also “blow drying and straightening” services for hair. A bit further down the street is a convenience store, a garden out of which music drifts, and another dark eatery with plastic tablecloths, serving chicken, meat, and soup.

The crowded town is gathered around the church, the park, and the Villarreal family, whose home is flanked by two very green orange trees. They say that the goldsmith tradition began in this house with Ezequiel Villarreal, the family’s grandfather. The business continued with José de la Cruz Villarreal and currently is in the hands of Marlon Villarreal, who we find in Las Tablas, behind the counter at the Taller Villarreal workshop. He is preparing the material for several bracelets while his father sits beside him, shaping silver chips. Behind them, a worker untangles gold thread.

José de la Cruz Villarreal, who is now sixty-seven, began silversmithing at fourteen. He speaks seldom and slowly, perhaps because the Thousand Pollera Parade is just around the corner and he still has many garments to finish. In fact, Marlon informs us that the smiths engaged in this art are so few that sometimes “he has to say no,” and the workshop is unable to take new orders until after Carnival…

I ask him why there is such demand for the santeña pollera garments. Why are so many women willing to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on traditional jewelry? “I don’t think its vanity really, but rather that people here love folklore,” Delgado suggests. “There’s a lot of activity and the daughters of the women of Las Tablas are always buying jewelry,” says Muñoz. Ennio Ortiz, owner of Taller Artesanal Joyeros, a newcomer to the Las Tablas market, has a similar opinion: “There are always beauty queens, pollera skirts, marriages…”

In her book La pollera panameña, the late folklorist Dora P. de Zárate explains: “It would seem that Panamanian women are quite rich,” as evidenced by the “large amount of jewelry adorning this outfit, making it one of the most expensive known… [But] the jewelry is a sacred heirloom passed down from generation to generation” and is only used to adorn the pollera.

New generations often find themselves limited to providing complementary jewelry to existing polleras: adding a necklace or repairing one, contributing some mosqueta earrings to replace plain hoops… and, finally, placing everything “at the bottom of family chests at home or in bank vaults,” until the next parade, marriage, or celebration.

Pollera Flowers

Tembleques are the flowers worn in the hair of women wearing polleras, always in pairs and always as part of the same hairstyle: parted in the middle and tied back with two ribbons behind the ears. Traditionally made from fish scales, women nowadays opt for pearls, beads, spangles, and even sequins.

As with the goldsmiths, there are a limited number of artisans in the Azuero region (provinces of Herrera and Los Santos, mostly) who are famous for their work with tembleques. Amarilis Samaniego and Digna Henríquez Pinilla are two such women.

Samaniego, who lives in La Villa, Los Santos, tells us her mother and grandmother taught her to work with the fabric used in polleras and she then became interested in the region’s traditional costume. “I learned the stitches practically by myself,” she says, and began making the tembleques in much the same way. “The designs are my own ideas,” she says.

As folklorist Dora P. Zarate wrote in her book La pollera panameña, the tembleques mimic the shapes of flowers, insects, and birds. The hair of a woman wearing a pollera is often adorned with lilies, chabelitas, roses, butterflies, scorpions, and even peacocks.

A complete set —twelve pairs for an adult woman and ten for a girl— can take ten to twelve days to make. Of course certain pieces take more time than others; a “tapaoreja” or a “tapamoño” requires more work than a “filler” or jasmine flower.

Digna Henríquez Pinilla of Chitre studied with Samaniego. “After retiring I was interested in learning new things and giving free rein to my desires,” she says. Having always enjoyed weaving and embroidery, she enrolled in Samaniego’s classes at the School for Young People and Adults. “I learned ocueño embroidery, cross stitch, and how to make tembleques. My masterpiece was my coquito-style pollera,” she says.

Henríquez Pinilla doesn’t sell much on the market, “because people don’t want to pay the prices.” Her tembleques are mainly for her own use and that of her family (at Carnival time the family organizes its own strolling “tuna” chorus), but some people manage to make money by creating tembleques. As De Zarate wrote, “the manufacture of tembleques constitutes a domestic industry that contributes much more than just money to the family budget.”