Jewish Sightseeing HomePage   Jewish Sightseeing
  1999-03-12 Panama Molas


Panama City

Molas for moolah 

Jerusalem native wins fame as vendor 
 of textiles by Panamanian Indians

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, March 12, 1999 


By Donald H. Harrison

Panama City, Panama (Special) -- How did Flory Saltzman, an immigrant from Jerusalem, become the lady so often quoted in newspapers and magazines around the world about the colorful molas (blouses) designed and sewn by the Kuna Indians of San Blas? 

Saltzman modestly declines to call herself an expert on the molas  which she has been buying and selling since 1953, although obviously in those 46 years, she has learned quite a lot about the traditional multilayered cloths and their storytelling designs. 
Perhaps, she ventured, it's the old real estate story of "location, location, location." The shop which she has occupied since 1961 is on the grounds of the Hotel Panama in the heart of the city. 

When foreign correspondents covered political rioting in Panama in 1964 and 1971, as well as the "war" in 1989 (in which United States troop captured Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, whom it accused of drug-smuggling), many foreign journalists stayed at the venerable old hotel. 

Looking for other things to write about on slow news days, the correspondents found the complex designs of the molas --  especially as explained by Saltzman -- irresistible feature story copy.

Flory Saltzman and one of her many molas
Another reason she is so often quoted, Saltzman suggested, "is because I like to talk." In the mornings, she conducts a running seminar on the "history of the mola " between waiting on customers, answering the telephone and directing staff members where they can find just a little bit more storage space for the molas  which she sells at prices ranging from $1 all the way up to several hundred dollars."I have a million and a half molas, " she says, adding that she is speaking only figuratively.  So well-known is her interest in the textiles--which often are converted into purses, table mats and even bedspreads--that Indians from the San Blas Islands line up outside her store before 7:30 a.m. Each morning to sell their wares. 

"I buy everything they offer," Saltzman says. But the vendors must be at her store before 8:30 a.m. Or they will be sternly sent away. Saltzman explains that she considers the time after 8:30 a.m. To belong to her customers. 

Each layer of cloth is a different color. If the artist has stacked a blue cloth on top of a yellow cloth, an orange cloth on top of the blue one, and a red cloth on top of the orange one, she must cut through three layers of the handstitched textile in order to use yellow in her design. 

"Let me teach you how to choose a mola," Saltzman told a customer who made the mistake of looking at a stack of them by turning up the corner of each to see the colors. "You wouldn't buy a painting for its colors. You buy it because you like it, and if you like it, the colors don't matter." 

She spreads a mola on the floor and with a pointed indicated two turtles. "Generally turtles always look the same," Saltzman said, "but here she (the unknown Kuna artist) shows one happy and one not so happy. She manifests happiness by having this one's head up; sadness with this one's face down. 

"'Happy' has a star; 'sad' doesn't.  What is making this one so happy? The birds are far away and nothing is bothering her. What makes her sad? Her children are leaving. (Saltzman points to little turtles crawling away, with their heads up.) When children leave they are always happy.  When they stick around the house, they are never happy." 

Not all the stories depicted on the molas  are derived from the indigenous folk tales. Saltzman said many Kuna Indians work as civilians for the United States military in a variety of jobs, and like to participate in weekends in such sports as baseball, basketball and soccer. Sports designs on molas  are common. 
Kuna Indian and Mola Similarly, the Kuna learn stories from the Bible and sometimes make representations of them. For example, said Saltzman, pointing to another mola, "here is Eve after she ate the apple.  Eve is very ugly. Here she is before she ate the apple. She is very pretty.  Here, before, is a tree full of birds; here, after she ate the apple, the tree has no birds ... I like it. It tells the story better than the Bible." 

Given the Indians' expanding interests, it was not such a big jump for Saltzman to ask them to make some items that her fellow Jews might enjoy -- items like challah covers, tallit bags, and kippot.As Hebrew lettering and Jewish ceremonial objects are new forms for the Kuna people, sometimes the letter lamed in 'Shalom' will come out 

Kuna Indian with her mola
backwards, or there won't be enough candlesticks on a channukiah. Saltzman says she purchases every Jewish-themed mola, no matter what."That's why when I sell one that came out right, it is more expensive," she said.