First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 31

(gender-fluid individuals) who also make the garment. The Gunas defend their rights to the mola in unending lawsuits, just as they stand guard against any threats to their hard-earned, political independence. Luis Méndez grew up in Guna Yala, a 232-mile land strip along Panama’s eastern coast, where the San Blas Mountains rise precipitously from a littoral plane and endow the “long land” (yar suid) with a multitude of rivers. Most of the population resides on small, nearby islands, which the Guna settled in the 19th century, seeking relief from dangerous pests and animals and easier contact with the network of coconut traders. Méndez’s community was Niadub (Tikantiki), located in the central part of the coastal archipelago. The Panamanian state recognized the Guna peoples’ right to self-gov- ernment following a bloody 1925 rebellion, provoked by a decade-long attempt to force political and cultural integration through a steady stream of missionaries, educators, police, and arrogant civil authorities. The integration campaign included efforts to encourage miscegenation, in part by promoting Spanish-language music, dancing, and annual carnival celebrations. Today many Gunas enjoy cumbia, rock ’n’ roll, and bachata, and there are gifted performers of música ranchera, who sing Vicente Fernández’s lyrics in soaring Dulegaya, the Guna language. However, most of the Guna people continue to insist that changes come on their own terms. Over the years, they have resisted multiple challenges, becoming a model of Indigenous autonomy, not only in Panama but across Latin America. Luis Méndez came of age in the mid-20th century, just after the comarca or autonomous region had formalized its position with a 1945 constitution (Carta Orgánica) and via the National Assembly’s passage of Law 16 of 1953. Law 16 clarified Guna Yala’s relation- ship with the Panamanian state, while the Carta Orgánica strengthened the comarca’s governmental structures by acknowledging the historic autonomy of villages but placing them under stronger regional leadership, including a single General Congress. Previously the Guna people had been split between three confederations. About that time, Luis Méndez moved to Panama City, after completing primary school on Narganá, another island close to his village that had been an entry point for Western educational institutions. Méndez was following a growing pattern of outward migration from Guna Yala, a tendency that accel- erated in the 1950s, stimulated by rising commercialization and the pursuit of wage-generating employment. As migration occurred later in other parts of the country, it became clear that the establishment of Indigenous autonomous regions did not ensure their economic viability or their peoples’ ability to remain the community. A coconut blight had begun to affect Guna Yala’s economy, and young people went in search of new opportunities. They found work in the kitchens of the Canal Zone’s military bases and in the fields and shops of the United Fruit Company, whose plan- tations were located in the far western province of Bocas del Toro. The Guna were grounding themselves in diverse parts of the country. Many headed straight for Colón and Panama City, where they developed a still widespread reputation as dependable cooks, waiters, dishwashers, and janitors. SPRING 2019 | 29