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Madison Avenue’s Secret Conquest

July 2024
2min read

Yanqui imperialismo, as any good Latin-American orator will tell you, is a pretty insidious affair. With the pictures on these pages, therefore, we are happy to report on one of its conquests so subtle and secret that neither the conquered nor, for that matter, the C.I.A. is aware of it. The unconscious victims in this case are the lively womenfolk of the Cuna Indians, who live on the San Bias Islands off the coast of Panama, a tribe so fiercely independent that until recent times no outsider could safely spend the night on their islands without permission. Among them marriage to an outsider often led to ostracism and, some say, ritual killing in times past. Yet they have taken the culture of the norteamericanos to their bosom and in a way that would astonish the advertising men of Madison Avenue, who must only dream of similar conquests at home.

The San Bias Islands are a string of nearly four hundred islets that stretch for some two hundred miles along the Atlantic coast of Panama, within sight of the mainland. Although they are idyllic—palm covered, wafted by soft breezes, and mosquito- and snake-free—the islands were uninhabited, except sporadically by Caribbean pirates, until the Cunas settled on them in the middle of the last century. Perhaps it was the lack of fresh water that made them less than desirable. Cuna women still travel each day in dugout canoes to mainland streams to fetch water for cooking. Then, too, all the islanders had to offer—in a time when gold, silver, and precious stones first lured acquisitive Europeans to the Isthmus—was the coconut, which is still the staple of the Cunas’ meager economy. The Cunas sell the coconuts for about a nickel apiece or trade them for goods, especially cotton cloths.

The Cunas are descendants of the Carib Indians, who, pressed by warring neighbors and ravaged by disease, fought their way from the Pacific side of the Isthmus. Many settled on the Atlantic coast; others paddled to the islands offshore and built crowded villages of huts on more than fifty of them. One of the influences that missionaries who visited the Indians had was that they persuaded the women to give up nudity. And since the women were in the habit of decorating their bodies with paint, they gradually began to transfer these designs, in a unique reverse-appliqué method, to the molas , or panels, out of which they fashioned their blouses. They were strange designs—flora and fauna, abstract patterns, even Christian symbols—for whatever delighted the eye of a Cuna housewife soon appeared on the colorful fabrics. During World War II, when Cuna men began working in the Canal Zone in great numbers, their wives culled new decorative ideas from the newspapers, periodicals, and whatever sundry items the men brought home. This new source of inspiration is still evident in Cuna molas today, as witness those displayed here, from the folk-art collection of Avon Neal and his wife, Ann Parker, who are frequent visitors to the San Blas Islands. She photographed these pictures for us.


A limited number of original Cuna molas framed and mounted are available to American Heritage subscribers. They vary in size from between 13 to 16 inches high and 15 to 20 inches wide. For information, write to Martin Rapp, American Heritage Publishing Co., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020.

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