Mola: Cuna Life Stories and Art

F 1565.2 .C8: F is “History of the Americas”, F 1201-3799 is “Latin America. Spanish America”, and F 1561-1577 is Panama.  Mola was on the commended list for the1996 Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (sponsored by the national Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs).

Author: Maricel E. Presilla
ISBN-10: 0805038019 ISBN-13: 978-0805038019
City and Publisher: New York: Henry Holt and Company
Copyright Date: 1996
Author’s Website:

Reader’s Annotation: The Cuna people live on a group of islands off the coast of Panama.  Their culture and their lives are told through their Mola, hand sewn clothing that doubles as art.

Summary: Mola: Cuna Life Stories and Art explains the history, values, and everyday lives of the Cuna people.  Originally from Panama, they now live on islands just off the coast.  Their traditions are reinforced through their art, fabric panels sewn by the women.  The Cuna people are semi-independent from Panama, with a distinct cultural heritage that includes an honored place for women.

Critical Evaluation: Mola is told in simple yet poetical language.  Descriptions of the landscape, flora, fauna, and Cuna people provide a detailed and well balanced picture of the life and environment in the San Blas Islands.  The book is written for Western children and caters to that perspective, yet manages to explain another culture in a non-diminutive way.  The Cuna people are not exoticized or portrayed as primitive.

Illustrations: Mola’s illustrations are exclusively photographs of Mola panels.  The panels are chosen in a way that perfectly illustrates the text (or perhaps the text is written in a way that perfectly illustrates the panels).  As the book unfolds, the reader not only learns about the Cuna people, but also learns how to read Cuna art.  In effect, the story has been co-written by Cuna women.

Reading Level/Interest: Ages 4-10
Curriculum Ties: Latin/Central America, Native peoples, Art and Folk Art
Booktalking Ideas: Bring in some Mola or blow up pictures from the book and ask students to tell you what is going on in the picture.  Show other pictures and read their excerpts.

Genre: Non-Fiction

Challenge Issues: One page shows and discusses a Cuna flood legend, explicitly comparing it to Noah in the Bible.  This depiction may make certain parents edgy, as with any discussion of religion.

About the Author: Maricel Presilla is originally from Cuba, but now lives in New Jersey.  She is interested in both the food and culture of Latin America, and has written a book on chocolate (with recipes) for adults as well as two other children’s books.  More at and at


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