Celebration of traditional dress in Las Tablas, Panama
The Azuero Peninsula in Panama is known for its festivals. I was fortunate to attend a colourful one this January – the Thousand Polleras Parade (Desfile de las Mil Polleras) in Las Tablas. The pollera is a traditional Panamanian dress originally of Spanish origin which has evolved over time. I’ve read different versions of its origins. One said it was first used by female slaves in the Darien province during the earliest Spanish settlement. Another version suggested the dress was an imitation of Spanish ladies. Whatever its origin, it is a beautiful dress and and a local tradition at special events.
Las Tablas is the capital of the Los Santos province with a population of around 9,000 people (as of the 2010 census). It is recognized as a centre of Panamanian folk culture. My husband and I arrived in Las Tablas just before 11:00 am on the day of the parade. The town already had a festive air. The main streets were closed to vehicular traffic. Empty chairs lined the street, reserved for later parade watching. Craft stalls were getting organized. There were street food vendors on every corner. We spotted the occasional woman already decked out in her pollera outfit walking among the others on the street. These women stopped and posed, holding out their wide skirts, for anyone who wants to photograph them. It was also common to see them pose with a spectator for a photo.
The formal pollera is made of white fabric (linen, cambric or voile) with embroidered designs. Ribbons called “gallaradetes” hang from the waist. Pompoms hang at the front and back from neck bands in the blouse. Soft satin slippers of the same colour as the pompoms are worn. Hair is parted and braided behind the ears and decorated with beaded ornaments known as “tembliques”. The outfit is topped off with many gold chains. The all-white pollera with embroidery done in white thread is for important events, such as weddings and sweet 15 parties. The Pollera Montuna (or working pollera) consists of a full skirt made of calico. A “pintao” hat is worn with the outfit.
The formal montuna outfit for men consists of a white long-sleeve shirt with a closed neck, long black pants, a traditional straw hat with black lines, a small bag hanging to the left, and black and white shoes. A more casual traditional men’s outfit is composed of a long-sleeved shirt with embroidery on it, knee-length pants, a white straw hat, sandals, and a long knife wrapped in a leather case.
We wandered through the streets and in the shops for a while. We had something to eat. By 12:30 pm many of the chairs alongside the main street were filled. We found a piece of curb in a shady spot and sat down to watch and wait. At 1:00 pm a band began playing a few buildings down. Loudspeakers on the patio behind us blasted music. More and more people filled the street, walking, visiting. Some were in traditional dress. We expected we’d have a couple of hours to wait for the parade, but the street already seemed to be a party.
At around 3:45 pm, the parade started. I subsequently learned this was a later start time than in previous years.
At 5:15 pm the parade was still going strong, but we were very hot, having lost our shade some time before that. We pushed our way through the crowd into a restaurant down the street for a quick bite to eat before catching the bus back to the town we were staying in. As the bus pulled out of town shortly after 6:00 pm, I looked back to see the parade still in progress. We passed an outdoor party area in final preparations – speakers, bar area stocked. The party would go on into the wee hours.
There are 12 yards of fabric in one pollera. A formal pollera can take up to 8 months to make and cost between $4,000 and $10,000. Many are handed down from generation to generation.