A culture can be identified in various ways- songs that are sung, dances performed, clothing worn, religion practiced, and so forth. One material culture item that is culturally identifiable to the Ngäbe of Panama is a chacara. A chacara is a type of bag which can range from a small fashionable purse to a large utilitarian “burden basket” used to carry firewood and foodstuffs. Traditionally, it was made from a fibrous plant, pita. The plant, which resembles aloe, is harvested and stripped along a special tree trunk called balsa. It is then washed and sun-dried for several days. The fibers are then rolled against one’s thigh to create even and smooth long strands. The natural hue is a dusty khaki, but traditionally the fibers were dyed with berries, clay and other pigments from the natural environment. Now, the fibers are also dyed with store-bought paints. These strands are utilized to weave beautiful and intricate chacaras.
Only women create chacaras, but both sexes utilize them. A woman’s first chacara is woven during his first menstruation. Secluded in the home with only female elders giving guidance and wisdom, the young adolescent creates a chacara she will always remember. Women that are skilled at making chacaras are revered in the community and seen as hard workers. In every home one can find a plethora of chacaras, and often women sitting together, with babes at the breast, making one. Nowadays, chacaras are also made from recycled plastic strips and string. Patterns range from basic circles to triangles and words, ranging in all colors. Women chiefly carry a larger chacara using their heads; placing the thick strap on their foreheads. Whereas men utilize their upper body strength, placing the straps on their shoulders and around crossed elbows. Aside from harvests, large chacaras are used to haul laundry to and from the river, hike in goods from town, and carry babies.
A chacara is a central piece of Ngäbe identity. Daniel, the 90+ year patriarch of my community, recently explained it as “a chacara is our dance. The burden basket is the dance of another culture, and the backpack of yet another.” In literal terms, a chacara can indeed be seen in many Ngäbe dances. Slung across the chest of the male dancers, the chacara vibrates as feet are stomped in a processional line while chants are echoed with the females. Chacaras serve as a visual balance of the modern merging of ancient customs with western influences. Even as the dialect Ngäbere is lost and more technology gained, a chacara withstands the natural flux of culture. As Daniel so eloquently put it, it is our dance.