In the 2010 census the Guna numbered 80,526. Most of them live in Guna Ayala, a special indigenous region declared by the government.
The Guna comprise about 20% of Panama’s total indigenous population. Many Guna people speak Spanish, the official language of Panama, and some speak English, due to the historicalassociation of the US with the Panama Canal.
The Guna live in forty-five island communities in Guna Ayala. Their small islands are crowded with closely-placed huts and people living in close proximity. The brightly colored molas worn by the women stand out dramatically.
The climate of Guna Ayala is hot and tropical and living conditions on the islands remain relatively primitive. In the 1970´s piped water became available and now most Guna have access to clean water. Many islands have elementary schools built by the Panamanian government.
The Mola handicraft has some similarities to that of the Vietnamese H’Mong. Most mola designs are related to the natural environment and the daily life of the Guna.
The Mola craft began one hundred and twenty years ago, at the end of the 19th century. It is not known how the appliqué technique used to sew the mola panels was acquired by the Guna women. Cloth for the molas was obtained by trade and as gifts. The oldest mola, now in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was found in 1906.
The word Mola refers either to one rectangular panel or to the complete blouse worn by a Guna woman.
Mola panels are sewn in pairs, one for the back and one for the front of the mola blouse. The panels are sewn together on the sides and a yoke with sleeves is added to form the blouse.
Many museum collections and private collections of molas include only the mola panels and the relationship to the mola blouse is lost. It is important to understand that the mola panels are sewn together to create the blouse of a Guna woman.
The complete ensemble includes a headscarf, the mola blouse, a wrap skirt, beads wrapped around the lower arms and lower legs, and sometimes a nose ring.
For special occasions, more elaborate molas are worn, and some face paint is applied and jewelry is worn. The complete ensemble is very colorful. Guna women choose from a selection of blouses, headscarves and skirts each day, and match each of the components according to their aesthetic sense.
Molas are created from layers of fabric. Beginning with abase layer, a second layer is placed on top and a design marked out and sewn with a technique often called “reverse applique”. A small amount of fabric is cut through one layer and a narrow strip is folded under and stitched into place on the layer below. This continues until the design is complete.
The quality of a mola can be assessed by observing the size of the stitches. Very small stitches are a sign of a high quality mola, though some outstanding molas do not have fine stitching.
Molas are sewn to be seen from a distance of one to two meters where the stitching would not be seen.
Molas need to be sewn carefully to keep the layers together and withstand the movements of the woman as she performs daily activities. Filling large areas of the mola panel with stitching increases the strength and flexibility of the mola.
Here are some examples of Molas: