Panama Hat Meets Process Theology
Patricia Adams Farmer
Patricia Adams Farmer
Sometimes a hat is just a hat. But sometimes it’s more. Sometimes a hat is a way of life, a community, an art form, a sustainable way to be alive and productive and happy and secure in the world. In the case of the Panama hat-- so famously not made in Panama-- we have a kind of straw hat that can, if we ponder it a bit, provoke a fresh image for spiritual and planetary well-being.
For more on the makings of the Panama Hat, visit the highly informative website of Brent Black (BrentBlack.com), who works with Kledyer Pachay and other weaving families to improve the lives of weavers with the "Montecristi Foundation."
Imagine Such a Place
I can’t help but think big thoughts about straw hats because I am a process theologian who currently lives only a stone’s throw from the epicenter of the famous Panama hat. And, no, it’s not even close to Panama (more on this later). The Panama hat village of Montecristi spills down a gentle mountainside on the languid coast of Ecuador. The village is organized around a stunning church, an important center of culture and worship where pilgrims come by foot from miles away on special festival days. This lovely village of Montecristi is also the birthplace of one of Ecuador’s most famous presidents, Eloy Alfaro, who brought about “The Liberal Revolution” of 1895. But it is most famous of all for its hat weaving, a tradition that goes back to the beginning of recorded history. It also has a heck of great Italian restaurant. Imagine such a place!
Better yet, come and visit and buy a Panama hat. If you do, I’ll introduce to our new friend, Kleyder Pachay, a hat-purveyor of a family owned business, who springs from a long line of hat weavers. He invited us into his house where he has a special room where dozens of valuable hats are carefully stored away in tall cabinets and many more unfinished ones in a large, creaky wooden trunk. Some of these hats will be sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars each in Japan, Italy, and of course, North America. Kleyder proudly pointed out a framed certificate above the trunk, official recognition from UNESCO (the U.N. cultural organization) celebrating Montecristi’s long heritage of hat weavers. Inside, the trunk is stacked high with dozens of hats that looked finely woven, indeed. I was afraid to touch them, but he insisted, so I ran my hand over the brims and the crowns, the weave so tight and fine they felt like fine linen. “But they’re not finished,” I said, noting the loose edges. Kleydel explained that many hats are woven to a certain point and then exported around the world to be blocked and finished in various styles on site. Of course, many hats are finished right here in Monetcristi by Kleydel himself or his mother (an expert weaver) and sold to lucky tourists and locals like me.
Montecristi hats are the finest hats in the world. They have shown up on the heads of presidents and kings and queens and movie stars and mobsters alike. Kleyder showed me a photo of himself with his most famous customer, the president of Ecuador. When he showed me a stack of hats on their way to Rome, I asked about the pope. Sure enough, President Correa of Ecuador commissioned Kleyder Pachay to have his finest weaver make a hat for the much beloved Pope Francis—El Papa Francisco.
I swooned on the spot.
I picked up several cream-colored, unfinished hats, so weightless in my hands. They may be light as a cloud, but they do not float down from heaven. Kleyder explains that these hats are handmade by artisans who may work three months on one finely woven hat and sometimes up to six months--or even a year--on a single superfino hat, one of the finest and most sought-after hats in the world. And the work is painstaking, not pretty, and definitely not comfortable.
Mosquitoes and Spiders and Mud—Oh, My!
It all starts in the mosquito-ridden, muddy equatorial rainforest not far from Montecristi. This small micro-climate square of jungle hosts not only insects that can kill you, but all the special Panama hat palms called toquilla. According to Kleyder’s Hawaiian business partner and friend, Brent Black, who journeyed with his camera into the jungle with one of the most famous weavers in the world, the process is no picnic. In his highly entertaining story about the experience, Black says that the Master Weaver Simon Espinal does not send someone else to fight the mosquitoes and mud and spiders. Simon goes himself—he has to, because only a master weaver can spot the right shoot, the cogollo, which has to be just the right age and plumpness. It’s a labor of love--not for the faint of heart--to find the raw materials for a Panama hat.
A Very Touchy Subject
Now, about the name. It’s a very touchy subject down here. Really. My Ecuadorian friends bristle at the name “Panama” hats, insisting on calling them Montecristi hats or sombreros pajas de toquilla (straw hats of toquilla.) However unfair and egregious this misnomer, the name “Panama” hat sticks. How do we account for such a travesty? History is a funny thing. As it turns out, the California Gold Rush is to thank for this faux pas. Back in the early 1800s, if you got gold rush fever in New York or anywhere on the east coast, the most efficient way to get to California was to take a ship down to Panama, take a donkey ride (or whatever) across the narrow isthmus, and hop aboard another ship to take you to up to California. During your donkey ride (or whatever) across the isthmus of Panama, you would encounter dozens of smiling vendors, all peddling straw hats sent up from Ecuador. Seeing as you’re half-dead with heat exhaustion due to a blazing sun, you snap up that straw hat--and besides, you will need it when you get to sunny California.
So, while the California ‘49ers were standing knee deep in the American River swapping wild-west stories over their sieves, Ecuadorian vendors were sending more hats up to Panama to be peddled to more adventurers crossing the isthmus on the way to get rich in California. Brilliant! Except that when your fellow gold-panner asked, “Where’d you get that hat?” you’d say, “Panama.” And later, with the construction of the Panama Canal—most especially that dapper photo of Teddy Roosevelt donning a straw hat—well, there you go. Thank you, Mr. President. “Panama hat” it is and will always be until the end of time.
Planetary Lessons from a Panama Hat
Once giving shade and style to gold-panning and get-rich-quick schemes and canals for Captains of Industry, today the Panama hat offers a broad-rimmed smile when it tells the other side of its story, the story of its home, its real home in the artisan community of Monetcristi: a humble village that totally missed out on the industrial revolution and modernity and pollution and the raping of our natural resources (except for its part up there in Panama). Yes, the straw hat may have aided others on their way to “a better way of life,” but its hometown totally missed the boat. While everyone up there in California was having a party as they filled their pockets with gold, the village of Montecristi remained the same, weaving one hat at a time—and sending them up to Panama. How could a hat be so backwards? What was it thinking?
It wasn’t thinking much, except how happy it was. It was at home on the balmy coast of Ecuador surrounded by good families who made the artistry of hat their pride and joy. For as long as recorded history, someone in the village of Montecristi, Ecuador, was busy weaving a hat. The biggest thing that happened in the life of the Panama hat was in the sixteenth century when the Spanish Conquistadors came to town bossing everyone around, influencing the shape of the hat—formerly more of headdress or helmet-looking contraption—into a more European-style hat.
And now it seems that the rest of the world--having barely survived the ravages of modern industrialism, unfettered capitalism, Ayn Rand novels, and globalization--has come around full circle. The humble, organic, sustainable way of life built around a village of hat weaving artisans, seems super-cool—because it is super-cool. Suddenly, the old ways become a wave of the future, a “better way of life”— ironic, in the best sense. The Montecristi artisans represent an organic, sustainable art form which highlights a culture, a heritage, a way of life—something that can inspire people around the world as they seek sustainable communities of their own, communities that have personality and art and flair and a sense of purpose in the world.
Montecristi is now a coastal hub of tourism, which is another thing Ecuador is doing right. Ecuador, the first nation to give constitutional rights to nature, is intentionally weaning itself away from a petroleum-based economy and turning its dollars toward tourism and eco-tourism, which means more focus on artisan communities like this one.
The Soulful Angle of a Stylish Hat
In terms of process theology, the Montecristi way of life can inspire us toward new paradigms or “fresh proposals” that prefer quality of life rather than quantity of things, a way of life that promotes simplicity and beauty and pluri-cultural centers within a larger whole. Process philosophy believes in Beauty (with a capital B): the beauty of diversity, the richness of experience, the value of craft, of art, and tramping through muddy rain forests to find just the right shoot for creating something both beautiful and useful.
That one, slender green shoot quivers in the mottled light of the rainforest, catching the eye of the master weaver, the one who can envision this unremarkable shoot as the raw material for a thing of beauty. We process theologians believe that God is like this, like the master weaver who, with divine imagination, goes deep into the world to find just the right possibility to offer the next moment of creation. This divine presence, the Soul of the world, does not reside in a cushy supernatural existence, bossing people around from on high, but nestles in the shoots and stalks and butterflies and spiders and people and monkeys, and even in the sweltering, muddy, jungle-like parts of life.
This poet-like God of Beauty is wise to the ripe, plump, tender possibilities for transformation within all things, even as we plow right over them in blundering stupidity. But we can stop and look and learn from the Master Weaver how to spot these fresh shoots of possibility and co-create something beautiful in the world. The verdant shoot may be the “lure of God” for a new becoming, a new way of thinking about ourselves on this planet. We need this, don’t we? No matter what our theology or spiritual path, most of us can agree that in these discouraging days of global warming, we are in need of something protective, something beautiful, something woven out of the earth itself.
I hope you will remember this story the next time you see a Panama hat—or better yet, come visit Montecristi and try one on.
Did I mention the Italian restaurant?
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NOTE: Montecristi was the chosen site for the signing of the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, which was the first constitution in history to give rights to nature. For more about Ecuador and ecology, see my essay, Postcard from Ecuador: Spacious, Gracious Simplicity.
Patricia Adams Farmer (www.patriciaadamsfarmer.com) is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the north central coast of Ecuador. Other JJB articles by this author include: Theology in 5/4 Time: Brubeck and Creative Transformation, The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, The Beauty of Imperfection, Replanting Yourself in Beauty (with Chinese translation), The Whole World in a Single Note: Lang Lang (with Chinese translation), Van Gogh's God (with Chinese translation), The Numinosity of Rocks, Novel Theology: Confessions of a Whiteheadian Novelist, Fat Soul Philosophy.