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Kuna Crafts, Gender, and the Global Economy

Kuna Crafts, Gender, and the Global Economy

In this study, Karin Tice explores the impact of the commercialization of mola production on Kuna society.

April 1995
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240 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 halftones, 5 maps, 10 figures, 7 tables |

Brightly colored and intricately designed, molas have become popular with buyers across the United States, Europe, and Japan, many of whom have never heard of the San Blas Kuna of Panama who make the fabric pictures that adorn the clothing, wall hangings, and other goods we buy.

In this study, Karin Tice explores the impact of the commercialization of mola production on Kuna society, one of the most important, yet least studied, social changes to occur in San Blas in this century. She argues that far from being a cohesive force, commercialization has resulted in social differentiation between the genders and among Kuna women residing in different parts of the region. She also situates this political economic history within a larger global context of international trade, political intrigue, and ethnic tourism to offer insights concerning commercial craft production that apply far beyond the Kuna case.

These findings, based on extensive ethnographic field research, constitute important reading for scholars and students of anthropology, women's studies, and economics. They also offer an indigenous perspective on the twentieth-century version of Columbus's landing—the arrival of a cruise ship bearing wealthy, souvenir-seeking tourists.


Outstanding Books, 1995

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Theoretical Framework
  • 3. Traveling to San Blas
  • 4. Political Economy of San Blas
  • 5. Mola Commercialization
  • 6. Mola Production, Exchange, and Use
  • 7. Kuna Women Organize
  • 8. Tourism and Molas on Carti-Sugtupu
  • 9. The Mola Cooperative on Tupile
  • 10. Molas and Middlemen in Mansucun: A Discussion of Female-supported Households
  • 11. Insights from San Blas: Crafts, Gender, and the Global Economy
  • Appendix: Methodology Notes
  • Glossary of Kuna and Spanish Terms
  • References
  • Index

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Carti-Sugtupu, 1985. A steady stream of camera-laden tourists poured through the narrow path connecting the dock with the island's main pathway. The pathway was lined with Kuna women ready to sell their molas. As I wandered around, the cries of "twenty dollar....... ten dollar" were accented by groans of "turista nued suli" (bad tourist, i.e., someone who did not buy a mola). One of my Kuna friends pulled me over and asked me to convince an indecisive tourist to buy a mola. She said, "if the ome sippu [white woman/tourist] doesn't buy my mola, my children will not eat fish."


Tupile, 1985. "Mormaknamaloe ... mormaknamaloe" [go sew molas ... go sew molas] ... the cry became louder and louder until I saw my friend Rodolfina standing in the open doorway to the kitchen. "Tage Nagagiriyai ... cooperativa anmarnae mormake" [Come on, Nagagiriyai—my Kuna name—we are going to the cooperative to make molas]. I went outside and joined a colorful stream of Kuna women and children walking in small groups all headed down the main path to the cooperative building. As the morning progressed, we sewed and we talked. The children played under our feet, crawled onto their mother's laps, and ran around. When the sun was nearly overhead, we started packing finished molas stored in a large wooden cupboard into a clean rice sack. A trusted friend of the cooperative was traveling to Panama City and would take the molas with him. The cooperative's administrator, a Kuna woman, would meet his plane and take the molas to sell in the cooperative's retail store.


Mansucun, 1985. Albertina, her husband, and their two young children had just returned from a day's long expedition to harvest coconuts. Their teenaged daughter, who had stayed behind to care for her tiny infant, greeted them when they entered the door. I had just returned from conducting household interviews and was sitting on a low stool in the space between the kitchen and the sleeping house writing up my notes. Albertina invited me to go to the store with her to buy cloth for a new mola she wanted to wear to an upcoming puberty ceremony. Before we went she ripped apart an old mola blouse. She asked me why mergi (people from the United States) like old, worn-out, faded molas instead of nice, brightly colored new ones. I said I didn't know. Albertina laughed and said, "Well, it's good for us anyway." In the store we were greeted by a Kuna man who asked Albertina if she had brought a mola. After some negotiation, Albertina exchanged her old mola for enough cloth to make a new mola and a little sugar. She was eager to start her new mola, so we hurried home.


When I arrived in San Blas in 1981, concerned with the effects of craft commercialization on women's access to economic resources, I had planned to study mola commercialization on the island of Tupile. During my initial three-month stay, a resort hotel illegally owned and operated by a North American family in San Blas was attacked. In the skirmish that followed, a Kuna man from Tupile, serving as a Panamanian National Guardsman, was shot and killed. Antiforeigner sentiment ran high within the Tupile community, and I was asked to leave for at least one month until the community had taken the needed time to process and mourn this man's death.


Members of the mola cooperative on Tupile were eager for me to begin my study and did not want me to leave. They made a formal request to the first sakla (head local leader) that I be allowed to stay. The sakla said no but made it clear that I was to return in one month and gave me an official travel pass so that I could travel to other Kuna communities with the status of a member of the Tupile community. The cooperative leaders quickly arranged an itinerary for me and sent me off to visit other local chapters of the cooperative throughout San Blas. This incident provided me an unexpected opportunity to travel extensively throughout the San Blas region. It quickly became obvious to me, as illustrated by the foregoing scenes, that the organization and effects of craft commercialization varied tremendously throughout the region.


This book is about the commercialization of Kuna women's clothing for sale in the global market. Mola blouses, worn by the Kuna women of San Blas, Panama, have been commercialized since the 1960s and in the 1980s provided a primary source of income for the entire San Blas region. I explore the effects on the division of labor by gender, social differentiation, and the commoditization of ethnicity of the shift from mola production for use to production for exchange. The political and economic history of the San Blas region is situated historically within a larger global context of international trade, political intrigue, and ethnic tourism.


The comarca, or district, of San Blas, often called Kuna Yala, lies along the northeastern coast of Panama. Kuna Yala literally means Kuna Land. The Congreso General Kuna has petitioned the Panamanian government officially to change the name of the region to Kuna Yala. Although this change has not yet been formally approved, many non-Kuna government officials have already begun to refer to the region as Kuna Yala. Like Howe (1986b:xiii), I fully support the use of Kuna Yala but agree that it does not adequately distinguish the coastal Kuna territory from other Kuna Yalas and so have decided also to use the name San Blas. San Blas comprises a long, narrow strip of mainland jungle extending two hundred kilometers along the coast and fifteen to twenty kilometers inland and an archipelago of 365 small islands. This area is home to the Kuna, one of Panama's three major indigenous groups.


In addition to the San Blas Kuna, or the island Kuna, as they are commonly called, there are Kuna who live outside of the comarca. Approximately 10,000 Kuna live in Panama City and Colón, the two major cities in Panama (Eligio Alvarado, personal communication). Many of these individuals still retain close ties with San Blas and consider the region their home. Seven villages with a total population of 804 are located in the Darién region near the hydroelectric dam (Wali 1984). A few other small communities are located in Colombia.


According to the 1980 Panamanian national census, the total population of San Blas was 28,567. There are fifty-four communities ranging in size from seventy to over two thousand inhabitants. Forty-two of these communities are located on small islands, ten are situated on the mainland coast, and two are inland on the riverbanks (see maps 1 and 2). All the inhabited islands are located no farther than one mile from the mainland coast and the mouth of a freshwater river. Proximity to the coast makes daily travel from the islands to the Kuna's agricultural fields, situated on the mainland, possible. Freshwater mainland rivers provide an easily accessible source of water for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes.


The Kuna are internationally known for their grass-roots, innovative approaches to the economic development of the San Blas region. They have received funding from international sources for projects to protect the rain forest from deforestation, to build an urban Kuna village similar in style to their home communities, and to develop a crafts cooperative to improve women's opportunities for generating income. Other, locally funded projects have focused on retaining local control over the tourist industry, demarcating and protecting the boundaries of their land, supporting cultural events, and conducting social research on issues relevant to the social and economic development of the region. Indigenous groups worldwide have expressed great interest in learning about how the Kuna have achieved a considerable degree of economic, political, and social autonomy.


Kuna women's contributions to this process, although recognized locally, have been mostly ignored by economic development planners at the regional and national levels and even by other indigenous groups seeking to learn from the Kuna. Kuna women, although their interests sometimes conflict, have not accepted this passively. They have become active in national and local politics and have used the mola cooperative as a way to make their voices heard locally, regionally, and nationally. Cooperative leaders hope that this book will make economic development planners sit up and take notice of the potential income-generating opportunities as well as the exploitation of producers that comes with the commercialization of crafts made by women. One woman summed up how important craft sales are for many Kuna women: "For us women who speak no Spanish and who have not attended school, how else are we to feed and educate our children? If we go to the City [Panama City], we can only work as domestic servants ... they abuse us. Selling our molas is the only way we can survive" (all translations are mine unless otherwise noted).


When I returned in 1984 for a year, my study had grown to include three Kuna communities. Whereas much of the literature at that time argued that, with a shift from a subsistence-based to a primarily cash-based economy, women, particularly women living in egalitarian-based societies such as the Kuna's, lost their former access to resources, this did not appear to be true for Kuna women. I hoped their experiences would contribute to the debate over the origin of women's oppression and would provide lessons about ways either to prevent or to begin to reverse the negative and unequal impact of economic development, often equated with modernization, on women relative to men.


What I discovered, as have other researchers, is that the more we learn about women and economic development, the more complex the issues become. For the Kuna, the effects of mola commercialization have been mixed. Some men and women have benefited in specific ways at particular points in time. Others have not been so fortunate. The intersection of class, gender, and ethnicity is historically specific, changes over time, and defines Kuna women's and men's relationships to the global economy and to political forces at work within that context. Human agency, the involvement of people in creating their own social history, further complicates the picture. Unfortunately, there is still an enormous gap between our theoretical understanding of how gender, class, and ethnicity operate and the practical application of those understandings to economic development policies and projects affecting and often further impoverishing women throughout the world. I intend this book to be useful to practitioners as well as to scholars by (a) discussing theoretical issues related to women and the commercialization of craft production; (b) raising policy issues; and (c) documenting a grass-roots-level effort to ensure that craft commercialization benefited impoverished, rural women.


The first six chapters situate San Blas and mola commercialization historically within the global political economy. These chapters contribute to theoretical debates related to gender, craft production, and the global economy by showing (1) the dynamic intersection of gender, class, and ethnicity at the regional, national, and international levels, and (2) the interrelationship between human agency, craft commoditization, and craft consumption. Chapter 2 provides a theoretical context for the book and some background information about San Blas. Chapter 3 is an ethnographic account of a Kuna woman's trip from Panama City to her home community in San Blas. This chapter provides contextual background and is an introduction to the region and the Kuna people. Chapter 4 reviews the history of San Blas and its increasing articulation with the world economy since the late 1800s. Chapter 5 presents the history of mola commercialization and its relationship to agricultural production, tourism, and the international market for ethnic crafts. Chapter 6 details shifts in the organization of mola production, marketing, and use and the implications of these changes for Kuna men's and women's earnings.


Chapter 7 describes the purpose, history, activities, and difficulties of the regionwide mola cooperative. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 present case studies of three San Blas communities, specific households within each of those communities, and the effects of mola commercialization on the division of labor by gender, household subsistence production, and access to cash income. Although some historical information is presented, these later chapters focus primarily on life in these villages in 1984 and 1985. Chapter 10 ends with a discussion of female-supported households in San Blas. Authority or power, decision making, and sources of economic support in female-supported households are discussed in the context of the three case studies. Chapter 11 presents the implications of the study, both theoretical and practical, for our understanding and for effecting social change at the global and local levels.




“This book is the first effort to describe molas in full sociocultural context, systematically dealing with the history, symbolism, production, distribution, and even linkages to politics and kinship, as well as economics.... This book should equally interest those who care about gender studies, economic development, handicrafts, and Latin American indigenous or peasant populations.”


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