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The Panama Hat and Ecuadoran Identity

The Panama Hat and Ecuadoran Identity

Posted by Juan Gavasa on October 04, 2014

Hats and hat-making have formed an important part of Ecuadorian identity, in times pre and post conquest. Since 1920, the family of Luis Lopez has been making hats, and since the 1940s, his been working out of La Ronda, a historic sector of Quito which has undergone an artistic revitalization in recent years. The owner of Humacatama Hats, Lopez learned the craft from his father and grandfather.

Lopez explained to TeleSUR that two hats which came to Latin America with the conquest are the English bowler hat and the Spanish Cordobes Hat. Once imposed on populations, their style and form changed slightly to having higher tops and wider rims.

Speaking about the history and use of hats brought to the colony, Lopez said, “Indigenous people, especially women, have the custom to not let the hat cover their whole head. It is simply balanced on top. If you have noticed in all of Latin America, indigenous people use it as only an accessory.”

Typical of Ecuador is the toquilla straw hat, coming from the Carludovica Palmata plant native to the coastal region. It was used by workers at the site of the Panama Canal and was the hat of choice by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt when observing the progress of the Canal in 1906. From this moment onward, it became known as the Panama Hat, despite its production base being in Ecuador. Endemic to the coast of Ecuador, toquilla straw continued being the material of choice, and the hat was exported worldwide.

Archeological evidence of the first toquilla straw hats dates back to 1600 BCE in the Manabi coastal region of Ecuador. The weaving technique became part of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012.

“The knowledge and practices related to the toquilla straw hat are transmitted from one generation to another and provide the bearing communities with a sense of cultural identity and continuity, serving as a reference of social cohesion among different groups living in coastal and Andean regions of Ecuador,” said the UNESCO site on its inclusion.

Lopez highlighted that the quality of toquilla straw is unique, to Ecuador. He said, “After the inauguration of the Panama Canal, toquilla straw hats were exported to the world, they were made in Ecuador and unfortunately they were called and became known as the Panama Hat. It took the identity of the hat from the country, where it was called the jipijapa hat or the manabita hat, or the Ecuador Hat, but the work and production has always been realized nationally.”

The quality of a Panama Hat is measured by the finesse of the straw in degrees. The higher the degree the higher it commercial value, which can cost as much as US$25,000, and can take up to six months to create.

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