University of New Hampshire
Mentor: Dr. Barbara K. Larson Associate Professor, Anthropology
West Indians in Panama: Issues of Identity
This project explores the complexity of identity issues among Panamanian immigrants and their descendants. It focuses on Panamanians of West Indian origin as one example of a group of immigrants who have historically existed in Panama since the constructions of the Panama Canal Railroad between 1850 and 1855, and of the Panama Canal by the French between 1880-1889 and of the United States between 1904-1914. Approximately, 150,000 West Indians immigrated as laborers from the Antilles (West Indian islands of Barbados, British Guiana, Curacao, Fortune Island, Gaudeloupe, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad). The West Indian population arrived as aliens to the isthmian territory, and after the construction of the waterway many integrated and assimilated into Panamanian society. The purpose of this study is to identify Afro-Panamanians of West Indian descent who are members of the Antillean community within Panamanian society, to elicit material on their family background history, and to determine how they perceive their own social-cultural identities in the context of Panamanian society and culture.
This research relies on three main sources of data: The examination of secondary sources and Panamanian textbooks to analyze how they represent issues of immigration and Panamanian culture and identity; interviews with the President of the Association of the Antillean Museum of Panama, and interviews with a small sample of six West Indian individuals. These individuals were drawn from a population of second-generation West Indians who retired from the Panama Canal as laborers, and from among my mother's Panamanian colleagues. My conclusions will compare and contrast the differing perceptions of these three sources regarding issues of West Indian identity and immigration in Panama. In particular, they will examine differences between second and third generation West Indians, and explore the internal and external factors (such as language and discrimination) which have shaped their identities.
Mentor: Barbara Larson - Professor of Anthropology
The Cultural and Political Values in the Molas of San Blas
This project explores the cultural and political functions of the Mola in the lives of the Cuna women. The Mola is a garment that is worn as a blouse by the Cuna women of San Blas; a region located on the northeastern coast of Panamá. Traditionally, the garments' appliqués were sewn exclusively for personal wear. However, in later centuries the Molas have made a shift from functional clothing to fulfilling a dual role objet' d art, that has created a budding textile industry within the matrilineal society of the Cuna.
My study examines the evolutionary role of the Cuna women through the fabrication of their Molas. This study was conducted through in depth literary review, and actual viewing of over 300 Molas as primary sources. These collections are found at both the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut. My analysis of the Molas was based on critical analysis of their motifs and how they have changed over time to determine the categories of Molas that are most prevalent in the culture of the Cuna. In the context of textile production, my observations reveal that the production of Molas has placed women in a position of economic authority on the San Blas islands and while the Mola continues to be made for personal use, it represents a symbol of ethnic and political identity locally, regionally and internationally.