Kevin Alémancia strides through the pathways of Sugdub, a compact island in the Caribbean Sea about five miles off the coast of Panama. Everything about the 22-year-old contrasts with what’s around him. He carries a gleaming white iPhone, his black-and-white striped shirt is from Zara and he wears black stud earrings, a stark juxtaposition from the gold jewelry popular among the Guna people of Panama.
Children in school uniforms — white polos, dark pants and plaid skirts — look up from their soccer game as Alémancia leads a group of tourists outside their school, which is one of the largest buildings on Sugdub. Beyond its thatched roof and vibrant blue walls lay symmetrical rows of homes made of bamboo or wood. A shirtless little boy fidgets with an empty plastic container as he sits on wet sandy ground in an alleyway, the only type of flooring here. Next to the boy, a young girl stitches a colorful Guna fabric called mola. The village’s narrow pathways connect 300 families who live in shelters so airy that nothing is a secret on the island. Residents walk between homes and paddle mahogany boats between islands.
But Alémancia, a Guna Yala tour guide, sailed to the island on a motor-powered skiff. He grew up on Guna Yala, the cluster of 365 islands that are home to the Guna people, but dreams of giving up his peaceful island life to travel the world and settle in a city. He’s already ventured to Germany, Finland, Greece, Amsterdam and Thailand. His mother named him after Kevin Costner, an American actor.
“I’m no good in the Guna culture. I’m bad. My life is very different to the Guna people because I travel the world,” Alémancia said on a Friday morning in March on the island of Perro Chico. “My friends say I’m not Guna. My face is Guna, but people say, ‘Kevin, you’re crazy.’”
Alémancia is not the only Guna who dreams of life beyond the islands. The Guna are one of seven indigenous Panamanian groups battling to save their culture from disappearing. Younger generations are rejecting the native traditions, from their language to boat making and basket weaving, in favor of city life, modern gadgets and higher education. All seven groups are distinct and autonomous. But they are also Panamanian citizens, and they’re facing a heartbreaking reality: Their society is changing at a pace they can’t keep up with.
“Indigenous communities in many parts of the world struggle day-by-day to maintain their language, cultural heritage and homeland,” said Eugene Hunn, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington.
Indigenous people have faced attacks on their culture for centuries. This generation’s battle is to maintain their culture amid today’s technological revolution. The best way to preserve those critical cultural touchpoints, Hunn added, is to maintain proximity within multiple generations of a family. Grandparents and elders are more effective than schools in teaching children about traditional foods, medicines and native languages, he said.
But young Guna don’t always see these as important lessons.
Young people started leaving their homes in the 1950s when parents sent them to Panamanian universities so they could find more lucrative jobs.
“The parents said, ‘I want to see my kids working in schools, not just girls making fans and baskets and molas and cooking, and boys bringing back bananas,” said Delfino Davies-Reyes, 48, who runs a Guna culture museum on Sugdub. “But it’s difficult. The [young people] forget their culture, like when grandfathers teach how to build boats and houses.”
Today, only about 50,000 Guna people still live on the Guna Yala islands – what many tourists call San Blas – according to the region’s official website, and 250,000 live on the Panamanian mainland, including parts of Panama City.
Unsurprisingly, the people who leave the islands are never the same when, or if, they return, Davies-Reyes said in an interview inside the museum.
“We teach the children how to make baskets, fans, finger dolls, headdresses and canoes. When they come back, they don’t remember,” Davies-Reyes said.
Arhualpa Gomunideo and his family are Guna who chose to stay on the islands. Gomunideo, 55, sits in a hammock and wears rubber sandals and a shirt with a large portrait of Che Guevara, a famous Cuban revolutionary who was murdered in Bolivia in 1967. The small bamboo home with a metal roof and a sandy, rocky floor is lit by sunlight streaming through the walls. There’s a kitchen in the back of the home, and women in traditional tulemola clothes stand in the back while an older man flips through a copy of La Prensa, a Panamanian newspaper.
Gomunideo’s home is near Sugdub’s school in the center of the island. He said Guna schools are overcrowded and underfunded. Children who live on islands without schools will paddle together in canoes to go to class until sixth grade, when Guna education ends. Gomunideo has watched a lot of young people continue their education on the mainland, but he said anyone who attends Panamanian schools is doomed to forget their traditions.
“Culture loss is happening across the country. The government and people in charge have a stake as well. Instead of teaching culture, they teach science and math,” Gomunideo said through a translator.
Arysteides Turpana, 76, grew up on Guna Yala but moved to Panama City to teach linguistics at Universidad Especializada de las Américas. He is retired now, but he lives with other Guna people on the outskirts of the city. He frequents a cafe near the Cinco de Mayo Plaza with vivid blue walls, like the paint often used on the islands, and portraits of indigenous leaders.
Turpana said some Guna people raise families in Panama City and never return to Guna Yala. Their kids, like children of immigrants everywhere, assimilate into their new culture and often shun the ways of their parents.
“Panamanian culture thinks it’s the superior culture and Guna culture is bad. The young people have embarrassment about our culture because of the attack over our culture. So they learn to believe that Panamanian culture is the superior culture,” Turpana said.
Younger Panamanians, especially the ones who move to the mainland, forget the Guna language, Turpana said. It is impossible to preserve Guna culture if the people only speak Spanish, he said.
“There is no allegiance to the culture. They don’t want to speak the language. Passing on this knowledge is the responsibility of the parents,” Turpana said. “People tell us our culture is not good. This is a psychological attack on the Guna culture.”
Hunn had something similar to say: “Indigenous languages, I believe, are rich repositories of distinctive cultural heritage and are very difficult to maintain in the face of ‘imperial languages’ such as English, Spanish and Mandarin,” he said.
José Leandro Morris, 51, agrees. He spends his days working with tourists on Perro Chico Island, also in the Guna Yala region. He spoke through a translator under a canopy outside a food shack on the palm-tree-covered island, which is about 30 minutes by boat from the mainland. Morris, who lives on Malatupo Island, which is on the eastern side of Guna Yala, said he learned Spanish so he could talk with visitors. He grew up speaking Guna, an indigenous language that evolved from Chibcha, an extinct indigenous Colombian language.
“People here still talk in our dialect, but more people speak Spanish. But our culture is still here. If you look at the women here, they still dress traditionally,” said Morris, who was wearing a black shirt that said “Discover Guna Yala.” “All we need is agriculture and fishing to maintain our families.”
The Guna are trying to sustain their culture by creating a tourism industry, the most lucrative business for indigenous people in Panama. People from the seven indigenous groups across the country sell their wares to tourists in Panama City. Enbera and Guna women are common fixtures in the wealthy areas, where they stand under tents and sell molas, handmade bracelets and souvenirs.
Elisabeth Cabrera is one of the Enbera women who runs a stand at a market in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood. Her small sons hovered around her legs as she gestured and smiled at mostly English-speaking tourists on a Saturday in early March.
“My father and mother always wanted to move to the city. I live here with my family, but I still learned our traditional recipes and our history. Some people want to forget where they come from, but it is important for me to honor my ancestors before me,” said Cabrera, 42.
Historic moments, like the Guna’s revolt against Panama for autonomy in 1925, are difficult to research and in danger of being forgotten. Cultural practices — Guna Oktoberfest, burying the dead in hammocks and making therapeutic sandpaper dolls to ward off diseases, for example — will fade away unless today’s indigenous people record it on the internet or in books.
But organizations like the Uaguitupu Foundation and One Common Heart are working to provide for basic indigenous needs and preserve culture. Uaguitupu sends health care personnel to the Guna Yala islands to offer medical care to the Guna. One Common Heart, based in Acton, Massachusetts, works with the Enbera people to teach language and life skill classes.
Dr. Tamara Kellogg runs One Common Heart. She travels between her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Darien rainforest in eastern Panama, where the Enbera people live. She said indigenous cultures are, in general, fragile and easily devoured by more dominant societies.
“We want to offer the Enbera people choices about maintaining traditions in the forest, but industrialization in their culture has costs,” Kellogg said. “Panamanian colonial commercial culture reaches in and sells them products.”
Modern technology is changing the indigenous way of life, but it will be instrumental in preserving the culture, said Hunn, the anthropology professor.
“I remain guardedly optimistic for indigenous revivals, which, ironically, may be facilitated by modern global technologies such as the internet, which may allow indigenous people to maintain contact with their home communities even while living, working or studying at a distance,” Hunn said.
Alémancia, the Guna Yala tour guide, wants to make sure the world never forgets indigenous history or culture. And that his fellow villagers never forget the flagship parts of who they are: fishing for lobster, crafting molas and tulemolas, warding off evil spirits with bracelets called winnis, attending indigenous church services and speaking their dialect.
Even though a lot of his Guna friends moved to Panama City and left their native culture back on those sandy beaches and the impossibly turquoise blue sea, Alémancia still spends part of the year on the islands. He is determined to save his culture from extinction.
“When I travel the world, I lose my culture. But when I’m here, I have to protect my culture,” Alémancia said. “When I’m gone, I miss my culture. I’m Guna, I’m not a tourist. I’m Guna matata, I like to say.”