During the first couple of weeks of quarantine last year (in which time I was furloughed so I had A LOT of time on my hands) my mother and I spent most of our days working on different craft projects. The first week we baked and then for the next two all we did was sew. I made myself a denim shoulder bag out of an old pair of jeans, we fixed some dress and pant hems, we even made some new curtains for the living room out of fabric that had been in storage for years.
While in storage, my mother dug through some old boxes and also found a bunch of scraps of mola she had bought years ago on one of our trips to Panama back when I was a kid. I think her intention was to create a vest or a small handbag but she never got around to it. More than 2 decades later, in which time she clearly forgot about it, she figured it was time to give it a fashionable purpose.
Now you may be wondering, what is a mola? Well, molas are brightly colored textile art – the product of an ancient sewing tradition from the Kuna tribe from the San Blas islands of Panama.* It involves cutting and stitching layers of colored fabric using a reverse applique technique to create patterns and pictures. The fabric is layered then cut away to create a design and it is a process that can take up to 100 hours to make ONE mola. The name, “Mola,” literally means cloth or clothing in the Kuna language and are traditionally used to make blouse for the Kuna women.
The geometric patterns are complex and are very difficult to recreate, which is why I truly admire as these are done with little more than needles and scissors. No two molas are alike as the women behind these works of art get their design ideas from the world around them. Traditional designs are inspired by animals, local flora and geometric shapes though some molas have begun to include references to the modern world featuring elements of pop culture and technology, such as airplanes.
This ancient art survived colonization and has been a way for the Kuna people to express themselves for generations as well as a major source of income for many of them. These are usually sold in panels and people will either add them to clothing like tees and dresses. My mother once took two similar green molas and added them to a black dress as sleeves and now this one lives on the back of one of my denim jackets. Nowadays you can find mola designs on non-traditional styles such as headbands, belts, pillow cases and even shoes.
What I love about this particular design is that it features an “M,” something that even my mother didn’t notice when she initially bought it. You would think this was commissioned or something considering how perfect it is. Apparently, she selected it for the size of the piece and its colors. It wasn’t until we pinned the mola to the back of the jacket that she even noticed. She took that as a sign that it was meant for me from the beginning. It meant a lot to me as this was just a couple of weeks before my 30th birthday.
As far as I know my family doesn’t have any Kuna ancestry, we are of Ngäbe-Buglé descent, however, both, along with the other 5 unique indigenous cultures, have played an integral role in creating Panamanian culture as it exists today – a culture and heritage that I am proud to be a part of.
As a native New Yorker (born and raised) of Afro-Indigenous Panamanian descent, I find it fun adding some pieces from my cultural heritage into some of my outfits. Though I don’t do it often, I find this to be a great reminder of where I’m from and how far my family has come. That’s also the reason why I decided to debut this new piece by styling it simply with some high waist jeans and this graphic tee by Essence Design Shop – a Black Owned online t-shirt retailer with may unique designs including many that celebrate Latinx and Caribbean cultures. Simply perfect and just in time for Latinx Heritage Month.
I truly hope to finally head back to my mother’s land next year, to visit family that I haven’t seen since the last time I went back for my great grandmother’s funeral in 2007. Should I be able to I will be sure to share the experience with you as well. Now that it is finally getting cold enough to need a jacket, I will be sporting this one more for most of the fall, keep an eye out on Instagram for those additional outfits that I’ll be sharing soon.
~Get the look~
Trucker Denim Jacket (1X) | Levi (gifted)
Curvy High Rise Black Jeans (16 Short) | American Eagle (old, similar here)
Medium Oxblood Shopping Bag | Telfar
“Panamanian Mixed With” Tee (XL) | Essence Design Shop
*My mother and her family are from Isla Colón in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago located in the Bocas del Toro province, though most of the family now resides in the capital.
How do you incorporate a bit of your culture to your wardrobe?