Many years ago I visited The San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. This was a very beautiful experience. As part of a gay cruise we made a stop to see the Panama Canal to visit the Kuna people who live on the San Blas Islands.
They came to pick us up in their canoes and in less than 10 minutes we were in paradise. On our way there, we even saw a beautiful baby dolphin playing around our canoe, greeting us in a very charming way. Once we arrived at the islands, the Kuna people greeted us with the same joy and candor that our little dolphin showed us.
The Kuna are considered the best organized indigenous group in Latin America. They have a well-structured political system made up by a system of chiefs called “Sahilas” that are in charge of the system of taxes, domestic laws and civil order. Although the Kuna are Panamanian, their land is sovereign and the Panamanian government have restrictions in that territory. The Kuna are workers and their tasks are defined according to gender.
Talking about gender, there was a detail in this society that stole my heart.
One of their most important crafts for sale are the “Molas,”pieces of fine cut cloth that are artfully sewn together, reflecting images of Kuna culture, nature and animals. The famous Molas are made by hand by Kuna women and gay men.
The attractive attire of the Kuna people in their surrounding environment offers an excellent opportunity for photos. We decided to buy some Molas. We were told that the best ones were sewn by the gay men in the island. They were a little more money, but indeed their beauty was striking. When we arrived at the area where they were being sold, I encountered someone I thought was a gay elder, standing in front of beautiful examples of his craftsmanship.
How did I know he was a gay man? The line of makeup that went from their forehead to the tip of his nose, identified him as gay. We were told that, tradition dictated that only women and gay men employed this distinctive mark.
The gay community is much respected in The San Blas Islands. They are considered especially talented artists and they live peacefully within the community, without the fear of being shunned or discriminated against. I was surprised that these islands escaped the Catholic prejudices that for sure the Panamanian mainland suffers from.
As I was standing in front of this man, choosing which “Molas” to buy, he candidly knelt down, placed a beaded anklet on my right leg and perched his pet parrot on my shoulder. He asked me if I was gay and I told him I was. I introduced him to my then boyfriend and he giggled playfully. After buying the Molas, we decided to go to the beach. The crystalline waters were amazingly beautiful. You could even feed the fish that came right up to you.
I had a great time in The San Blas Islands. Once we were canoed back to the cruise, I looked back and with pride remembered the paradise that I just experienced. A group of people who experienced equality, respect and admiration. All of these attributes were the tools that helped carve the perfect society. A society where gay and straight people live in perfect harmony, and in peace.
I wondered then, and I still wonder today; who are the “savages”, the Kuna, or us, who still haven’t learned to coexist in our so called “civilization”? The lesson I learned that day will remain with me for my entire life.