Taller de Junco y Pita

On Saturday, a few of the artisan women of Azuero joined us in Bajo Corral to learn about the artisanal plants, Junco and Pita. As explained in the previous blog, the Junco and Pita plant fibers are used to make the traditional Panama hats. Sandra and I drove the “happy van” around the peninsula to pick up the various artesanas. We arrived in Bajo Corral and met with Augustina, who I met last time. She took us on a trek through the tropical-dry forest to show us the Pita and Junco and explain how to harvest the fibers.

First, we saw the Pita. Only one leaf is needed to make the hat. The leaf is cut from the plant and then crushed with a rock to remove the green skin. Once the the fibers are revealed, the leaf is boiled for 20 minutes. Afterwards, the leaf is dried and then the fibers are scraped out with a spoon or a fork. The thin pita fibers, called cabullo, are used to sew the hat together. While Augustina was explaining all of this, it started raining and, unfortunately, I was unable to get any good pictures of the Pita.

The rain (more like torrential downpour) continued when we had returned to Augustina’s house, so we decided to wait it out while we ate lunch. Sandra had prepared us a traditional campo soup (really it was not-so-traditional, since she is from El Salvador and does not live in el campo, but still delicious). As we ate, we discussed the difficulties of regional and language differences.

Even within Latin America, there are a multitude of accents and dialects that differ from country to country and from region to region. Certain words that are normally used in El Salvador are curse words here in Panama (for example, the word for dog, “chucho” in El Salvador, and “perro” in Panama). In Spanish, the word for “now” is “ahora.” However in Panama, “ahora” means “maybe in an hour” or “sometime later.” The word for “right now” is “ya.” This is different from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. It was amazing to eat a meal with and learn from the Artesanas de Azuero. After lunch, when the rain had stopped, we walked down the road to see the Junco.

About a handful of Junco stalks is needed to create the Panama hat. Once they are cut from the main plant, they are dried in the sun for 3 days. Then they are soaked for at least 1 day in the same creek from which they grow. Lastly they are dried again, and a needle is used to separate the fibers in each stalk (pictured below).

Throughout the day, we saw a multitude of medicinal plants. The Pomarosa tree is used for maternal health. We smelled a plant that is used to cure headaches. Augustina has a Calabazo tree in her yard, so I was able to collect semillas to plant back at the project. The Calabazo fruits, once dried, can be made into totumas, which are used as cups and bowls. Augustina also had a giant lemon tree in her yard; they were almost the size of my head! It was a vital reminder of how much we depend on the natural world for our survival. Many modern medicines stem from these plants and the world around us. Preserving this knowledge is essential, especially as our climate begins to change.

By the end of the day most artesanas left with an armful of plants and seeds to take home and grow in their yards. I think they learned as much as I did, and it was amazing to see how their energy and passions were renewed. I am grateful to have shared this day with these artesanas, who care so much about the natural world. It is refreshing to see this passion in the older generations, especially when we only tend to see the young generations taking action. I cannot wait to work more with them and learn from them. They each have a wealth of knowledge from which they can share with the world.

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