Politics and Panama Hats, (Montecristi, Ecuador)

January 10, 2015

Montecristi, Ecuador.

Montecristi was founded as an inland and upland town close to Manta that was more protected than Manta from English sea dog pirates and privateers.  Today most tourists come to Montecristi to see how Panama Hats are made and to buy one.  That’s what was on my mind when we hopped a cab from Manta.  Hats from Montecristi became popular in Latin America in the early 20th century.  Someone stole Teddy Roosevelt JB Stetson when he visited Panama so he got three of these Ecuador hats to protect him from the sun.  When pictures of Teddy appeared in US papers waving his Ecuador hat they became popular in the US and branded “Panama hats” because folks associated them with the Canal and the President.

We went to both a hat factory, where I bought my hat, and a Panama hat interpretative center and got a pretty good idea how the palm leaves are soaked, boiled, and woven.  The weaving starts at the center of the crown, the leaves are woven around a form, some forms are flat topped, some round topped.   Women use their breasts as almost a third hand, pressing and holding the top of the hat to the wooden form while their hands work weaving the fronds in patterns around the form.  After weaving a white sulfur powder is pounded into the hats for color and preservation.  Hats are sized and blocked using flat irons heated on stoves and bands that fix the size.  When finished, a proper Panama can be rolled to fit into a small balsa wood box and then snapped back into shape.  The best hats, according to the interpreters at the center, can, when rolled, pass through a wedding ring.  Mine isn’t that good, or perhaps it’s because I have a large head.


While most people find the hats, or the church in Montecristi to be the highlights I found the political history fascinating.  The main museum has three parts, the making of Panama hats, where most of the tours take tourists, an archeological museum showing artifacts from pre-Inca people and a center dedicated to the Liberal revolution carried out by Eloy Alfardo who led an armed insurrection, served two separate terms as president, and was killed by a mob in 1912 led, according to a plague, by “a dogmatic sector of the clergy.”  During his revolution, which lasted from 1897 to 1911 he built railroads, stood up for women’s education and the rights of labor.  The center just outside Montechristi called Ciudad Alfardo, has his mausoleum, rail car and locomotive, and a documentation center.

The public art in Montechristi is very akin to Socialist Realism showing him with workers, peasants, gears and hammers, that’s the mosaic next to the church.  One mural has him with a hammer and sickle floating over him and an exhortation to Communist Youth.  A sign on that mural reads “no orinar aqui” which, unlike the sign on Isla Providencia, really says no urination (on the mural).  Even manhole covers feature picturing Alfardo.  I am not sure if this is a political statement.  I had never heard of Alfardo.  He is not in the index of the Penguin History of Latin America or the “History Atlas of South America” which we have with us, so I am not sure of his continental significance, but Ecuador is a small country and he may not have made it into the larger continental histories.  A plaque in Manta says “Eloy Alfardo became, forever the greatest Revolutionary in our History.”  With the leftist government in Ecuador perhaps he is being rediscovered, or re branded.  The Ciudad Alfardo complex is very new.  But a 50 cent Alfardo is “heads” on an Ecuadorian 50 cent piece minted in 2000.


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