It is said that when certain plants are brought to non-native lands, their fruits subtly adopt new characteristics from the difference in the soil. In the case of the pollera (pronounced poy-AIR-ah), the national dress of Panama, this has also been the case. Flowing with ornate flower-print ruffles and crowned with baroque combs and hairpins, echoes of 16th- and 17th-century Spain appear to live on in modern Panama.
The Panamanian pollera and accompanying hairstyle do have several elements in common with the dresses of Cordoba, Valencia, and Salamanca, but after several hundred years in the culture of Panama, the pollera has become something symbolically Panamanian.
At this very moment, Panamanians are dancing, drinking, and full-on reveling in a celebration of these gorgeous garments and their associated traditions: the Festival Nacional de la Pollera. This annual festival is hosted by the town of Las Tablas, capital of the Los Santos province within Panama’s Azuero Peninsula.
Although pollera traditions in Panama go back several centuries, the Festival Nacional de la Pollera was established only about fifty years ago as a three-day event to showcase Panama’s national dress in a series of parades and competitions occurring alongside devotions to the patron saint of Las Tablas, Santa Librada.
Las Tablas is essentially known for two things: jaw-dropping polleras and manic parties. And they’ve been showcasing their talent for both since last Friday, to culminate in the closing festivities — wild street dancing and a float parade — tomorrow evening.
Some highlights of the festival:
- Hundreds of young Panamanian girls whirling and twirling in their pollera best
- A competition to judge the skill of Panamanian artisans in preserving the tradition of the pollera across 5 key categories: cross-stitching, embroidery, chalk & shadow, and their gala (the “deluxe” version of the pollera) and montuna (the less formal version) representations
- Competitions for folk musicians and the makers of instruments including violins, tambores (drums), and mejoranas (little guitars)
- Visitors from all over Panama (and beyond) flooding the streets; the crush sometimes gets so hot that officiators douse the crowds with water from huge hoses
- Masses held in honor of the local patron saint, Santa Librada
- The crowning of the Reina de la Pollera (“Queen of the Pollera”), chosen by popular election
If July finds you in Panama, you can’t do better than to stop in Las Tablas during its biggest bash of the year to experience Panamanian pride and culture on gorgeous display in the Festival de la Pollera.
Celebrating Panamanian Culture All Year Long
Throughout the year, towns across the country hold smaller local celebrations featuring polleras, crowning their own local reina and parading the glowing girl on a float that cruises through the middle of town. Several hours go into the preparation as attendants adorn the queen with all the combs, pins and other golden objects that go in her hair before she spends the afternoon dancing on the float surrounded by other youths dressed in traditional festival attire.
The most intricate and well-respected polleras are handmade in places like Nata, Acla and Las Tablas — all heartland areas of Spanish civilization within Panama. They can cost several thousands of dollars each. I imagine many a modest-income father across the nation fretting as he sells off a pair of cows to pay for this tradition to continue. This is not a negotiable expense for those who are able to afford it. It would seem that daughters affect fathers in the same way everywhere.
Regardless of when you visit Panama, you may have the opportunity to catch one of these colorful events. And later this year, as the rainy season winds down in Panama, November brings a plethora of national holidays and countrywide festivals in which the Panamanian polleras will be out in full bloom.