NARGANA, Panama -- In an 11th-grade classroom on this tropical island, the students have the deeply bronzed skin and black hair typical of ethnic Kuna people.
That is, all except one: Mayli Gonzalez looks like she’s from a Nordic realm. Her hair is blondish white and her skin is as fair as cream.
The 16-year-old girl is an albino, and she is not unique among the Kuna, a band of indigenous people who live in Panama and Colombia, with the largest population in the San Blas Islands off the Panamanian coast. Indeed, demographic experts say Kuna have what is perhaps the highest rate of albino births on Earth. Albinos dwell in nearly every village. Over past centuries, they have oscillated between esteemed social status and rejection.
Social scientists say there is one albino born for every 145 Kuna Indian births, a rate higher than in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where albinos also are numerous, and far above the global average of somewhere around one in 20,000 births.
Albinism is an inherited condition characterized by a complete or partial lack of pigment in the skin. Albinos occur in all races and can be of either gender. They are highly susceptible to skin cancer and eye disorders caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
So it is perhaps a cruel twist of genetic fate that so many albinos dwell under a harsh tropical sun on these coral-ringed islands. “They start having skin problems at a very early age,” said Dr. Gioconda Gaudiano, a dermatologist in Panama City who travels frequently to the Kuna region to treat albinos, some of whom die at a young age. “By tradition, they don’t look for help.”
About 50,000 Kuna people live in three autonomously governed areas off Panama’s northeast coast, mostly on islands away from the jungle-covered mainland. Kuna women are widely known for their daily use of colorful blouses made from molas, or applique textiles created with quilted geometric patterns.
The Kuna traditionally survive by farming plantains and coconuts, and fishing – outdoor pursuits that expose them to the sun.
“It’s impossible to stay inside,” Gaudiano said. “They really need to go fishing and they need to go farming.”
Sitting under an open-air hut covered with palm fronds, the community leader, or saila, Maximiliano Ferrer, explained that albinism is understood far better than it once was.
“People know that you have to take care of yourself with a hat, long-sleeve shirts and (dark) glasses,” said Ferrer, who is an albino. His left ear lobe sported a broad bandage, the result of his latest treatment for a skin lesion.
Ferrer noted that Kuna mythology treats albinos as a special race that would rescue people from disaster, especially during lunar eclipses, when they would climb to rooftops to frighten away a jaguar or dragon believed to be devouring the moon.
“We have this idea that with eclipses and hurricanes, the albinos are the ones who can save people,” Ferrer said.
The mythology gave rise to the term “children of the moon” for albinos.
“People say, ‘Oh, they are the moon children. They’ve always been accepted and held in this higher position.’ But that’s not really the case,” said Kelly Allen, a researcher of albinism who is in Panama on a Fulbright scholarship.