Saturday, January 24, 2009

Panamanian pollera on display on mural in Philadelphia

Thanks to Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, the images of some of the artists who have promoted Latin American culture in the region have been captured on the walls of the office of Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas ("Latin American Cultural Roots"), a nonprofit arts organization that I co-founded in 1991 along with Yolanda Alcorta. One of these is Elba Dormoi, who came to the United States from Panama at an early age and promoted both the folk dances of her country and the popular salsa and merengue dance rhythms for over 40 years in conjunction with her husband, the late Ted Dormoi. This mural shows her wearing the beautiful pollera, the dress most identified with Panama. If you're interested in seeing this mural firsthand, go to the corner of 5th and Somerset Streets in North Philadelphia and walk a half block east along Somerset Street to see the full mural. Elba's likeness appears at the back of the building facing Orkney Street.

This description of the pollera comes from the book Festivals and Dances of Panama by Lila R. Cheville and Richard A. Cheville:

The pollera is spectacular from a distance, but closer observation reveals a folk art of exceptional skill and complexity. Almost every part of the dress is made by hand, from the attractive embroidery on the blouse and skirt to the delicate ornaments tucked around the gold combs in the hair. Visitors should not hesitate to approach the lady empollerada to examine the craftsmanship visible in each flower, the delicacy of the stitches in the gathers, and the painstaking skill reflected in the handmade lace decorating the ruffles. She is proud of her pollera and genuinely pleased to display her dress and her jewelry.

One of the most satisfying things for me is to have seen this organization grow and establish a presence in the Latino community in Philadelphia, promoting the culture of the entire Latin American region through the collaboration of all those who have performed, displayed works of art or given workshops over the past 18 years, as well as those who have coordinated or done the less glamorous administrative work. You can go to the Raices website at to learn more about the organization and its programs.