Conscious fashion promotes traditional Panamanian artisans

shoes in a bag
All photos courtesy of Nayleen Quintero

By Elise Kemp

Growing up, Nayleen Quintero was surrounded and nurtured by Panamanian folklore. Nayleen, a 2017 YLAI fellow, is from a small rural village in the province of Los Santos, Panama. She was raised with a love for her cultural heritage, appreciating the indigenous traditions and the beautiful artwork. As her passion for marketing and design grew, so did her dreams to bring the Santeña tradition to life.

While Nayleen moved to Panama City to develop her future career in marketing and branding, her heart was still in Los Santos. She saw a need for local artisans in this community to be given the same opportunities as those in the modern industry. And thus began the company named after the colloquial term for people from Los Santos: Santé (short for Santeños).

A cultural heritage uncovered

drawing of shoes

The art of weaving Panama’s national shoe, the cutarra, is slowly fading away. There are only 65 artisans in the country who produce the Panamanian national shoe for a living. As stated by Nayleen, “a cutarra is a handmade sandal woven for local artesian, a very antique traditional shoe in Panama.” The history of cutarras is not clearly documented:

Oral tradition tells us that cutarras first appeared in Panama with the arrival of the Spaniards, who introduced cattle into the lands of the Azuero peninsula. The farmers of that time, all from the local indigenous tribes probably, used the abundance of leather to make a comfortable and durable shoe that would endure the difficult country work. (The Cutarras of Panama)

The artisans from Nayleen’s village did not have access to high-quality materials and also had very low income. Their cultural heritage of handcrafted materials was being lost.

A cutting-edge, ethical approach providing for local families

Nayleen took a pioneering step into an export market that did not exist in Panama. Santé Cutarras became the first brand to innovate the national shoes of her country. Santé is about much more than a product named cutarras, it is about Nayleen’s passion for the tradition, the history, the identity, and the support of the local economy in her community in Panama.

woman smiling
Nayleen Quintero

“It was a call of my cultural identity and my love for all the traditions of my people [to provide an opportunity to protect this legacy],” says Nayleen. “I found that my people could not make a living from doing what they love to do.”

Santé Cutarras is ethically conscious and aims to save the cultural heritage of indigenous tradition passed down from generation to generation. The company aims to:

  • Innovate the national cutarra with quality, colors, and collections.
  • Rescue and revalue the cutarras as a symbol of the folklore of Panama.
  • Improve the quality of life of the artisan.
  • Prevent the loss of the cutarra’s craftsmanship legacy.

Nayleen also has begun a training program for young mothers in Panama City to learn the craft of cutarra-weaving and begin a skill-development program for employment. While these women are in classes, their children are taken care of free of charge.

Importance of a nation’s cultural heritage

man making shoes

UNESCO recognizes the importance of achieving sustainable development for all people, including those on the margins of social and cultural norms.

Although fashion has become streamlined into the latest trends in department stores, Nayleen’s vision is to break into the industry on an international scale to show the world the value of the hand craftsmanship of the local people of Los Santos, Panama.

“We are bound to be modern in everything, even if for achieving that goal we must do great effort, bearing in mind our history as the best road map to the future,” said Belisario Porras (three-time president of Panama, known as the “architect of the nation”).

An encouraging note to all YLAI Network members

Santé - company logo

Nayleen says that YLAI gave her the chance she had been waiting for. Before she began this project, she felt as if she had exhausted all her options, and when she participated as a 2017 fellow, YLAI showed her to never stop trying. She wants to encourage all members to remember that “YLAI is a door that will always be open.”

The partnership that she has found with fellow YLAI members has strengthened her business and given her artisans a voice in the international market.

She wants to encourage all YLAI Network members to participate in fair commerce — and to walk with her on January 19 in cutarras or other ethically purchased shoes to bring awareness of the impact of the fashion industry on human rights.

Este artículo está disponible en español.