The Hat-Speak of Panama

Storm gathers over Santa Fe, photo courtesy  Paul Sigurdson, Coffee Mountain Inn

Rattan, acorn and pita are the fibres needed: I didn’t know. But there’s no point pretending a short visit will lead to any level of enlightenment: a few days or weeks in any country is barely a starting point for questions.

There’s a little town in Veraguas Province, in Panamá, called Santa Fe. To get there, turn inland from the Panamerican Highway at Santiago de Veraguas and follow the meandering road up into the hills.

The leaves of the chisna plant provide the colour: new to me. It’d seemed so obvious, while in Panamá, to buy one of those famous Panamá hats. Surely owning a Panamá hat could make a life marginally more complete. Santa Fe is a pretty place and tranquil, suitable not least for considering a minor life issue such as the lack of a Panamá hat.

And yet, when it comes to a people, their character, culture and endemic wisdom, it takes a long while to gather any of it. It’s not a simple matter of plucking leaves and stems and working them together, and even if all the fibres were available, there’d be no artisan how-to for the assembling. Nor can you simply buy it. To knowledge there aren’t any short cuts, there’s no voilà!

Which is why when it came to the hat buying, I had no idea.

Street scene in Santa Fe, photo courtesy Marnix van Suylekom, Hotel Anachoreo

And yet, from a short sojourn it might be possible to offer some cursory observations. Weave and weft, the fibres of a few weeks’ experience may be sufficient to make more out of Panamá than the of-course-impressive canal. One of the simplest observations, from the border but especially towards the heartland, was that the Panamanians were indeed a well-hatted public, especially the men in rural towns. It wasn’t unexpected. Hats are practical because of the sun.

It’s from the chisna leaves the dye comes, boiled together with the fibres to make the fashionable designs of dark stripes. It’s an old, well-known recipe, I believe. It’s a trick of the Panamanians, the ones that weave.

Santa Fe is surrounded by the green hillsides of a large national park. There are waterfalls, brightly spotted frogs and tropical looking butterflies in attendance, though it’s cooler in the hills. There are just a few small shops in the casual town centre; it’s not a commercial place, and the worn, modest houses of the town clearly hold for their owners the attachment of a much-loved pair of jeans. The churches in the area are cosy and from the football field the molar-shaped mountaintop, Cerro Tute, bites the sky.

Santa Fe also has a craft market. It was there that I negotiated for said hat, and managed to find one that fit nicely. It had that shitolpati cool feeling of woven fibre, the flexibility that’s always the secret to strength, and a soft brim so useful in shade provision. The mildly amusing thought of coming to Panamá to buy a hat made me smile; but it was a foolish smile.

Unfortunate fact: Panamá hats are not from Panamá. In equal measure, the hat-of-Panamá is not a Panamá hat.

The hills around Santa Fe, Panama, photo courtesy Celestino Montes, Coffee Mountain Inn

Wake up call: Panamá hats are from Ecuador, where their manufacture dates back to the seventeenth century. In the centuries that followed, the Panamanian isthmus grew to be a busy transit point, for both goods and passengers travelling the short distance overland between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, on the way between Asia and Europe, within the Americas too. Even to go from New York to California, a suitable option was to take a ship south to Panama and join a north going ship again on the Pacific side. It was before the construction of the canal.

Meanwhile, Ecuador was a much quieter place, so by tradition the locally produced hats were shipped up to Panamá where sales, with all the transit passengers, were understandably more brisk. They proved to be popular. The only downside to the trade for the Ecuadorians was that their beautiful hats, internationally, adopted the name of Panamá.

So what was it so many Panamanians were wearing? What did I actually buy? I mean, I still like the hat: it’s comfortable and stylish; and I’ve never had a hat patterned with chisna leaf dye before.

Wake up call: the hat-of-Panamá descended long ago from the square-edged, flat-round topped sombreros of Cordoba in Spain, and sombrero is not a reference to anything Mexican-shaped but means not more than “hat”. The hat-of-Panamá is properly called the sombrero pintado, or painted hat, and evolved under the weave of Panamanian culture and the weft of flora species found on the isthmus. The hats are not painted, but woven with design by the darker, chisna-dyed stems. Over the centuries, the sombrero pintado became a veritable cultural symbol of Panamá. So I had managed to collect a little artefact of the spirit of the people of the republic of the isthmus; and there are certainly worse things to do than that.

And yet, I remain greatly unenlightened about that hat. Wake up call: there are many kinds of sombrero pintado. In the central provinces they specialise in white; while Veraguan hats are generally cream; while the ñopito is completely white unless it features a little black design on one side; while the Guatemalan is fashioned by weaving black acorn among the white; while under the brim, there can be a black spotty design known as a mosquito brim. There is even a style endemic to Santa Fe, but whether or not my hat is of the classic Santafeño style I couldn’t say: because understanding cultures is not a simple matter of plucking leaves and stems, even if you knew which ones were worth plucking.

Wake up call: worse than that, the sombrero pintado sends social signals depending on how it’s worn. Should I be embarrassed now, in retrospect – did I wear it foolishly back in Panamá? Because, if you fold the brim up at front and back, it signifies success, masculine charm and skill in fighting; because, if the brim is folded up at the back only, the wearer is an intellectual; because, if the brim is folded only at the front, the wearer is a lady’s man ready for conquest! Tilt it forward on the head and the wearer is upset, disappointed or going through a duel. Meanwhile, if the brim is not turned up at all, the hat is being used to shade from the sun. So how exactly did I fashion it? What signal, what hat-talk did I push out into the Panamanian universe, to whom and when? Was there any chance I was hat-rude?

But perhaps the Panamanians know: the foreigner is hat-foolish, doesn’t have a hat-clue about his hat-speak – he hat-says he’s a fighter but maybe he’s not; he’s hat-telling he’s unhappy, so why is he smiling?

And that’s the warning: while in the weave of a Panamá hat might be a little of the modern engineering marvel of the Panamá Canal, and before that, the convenience to transport of the geography of the isthmus, it’s really all about Ecuador; while in the weave of a hat-of-Panamá is the spirit of the Panamanians, a culture that’s strong and flexible, a foldable-brim-form of expression, and just possibly a little of the verdant landscape of Santa Fe, and that hat can also, as a bonus, protect the humble head from the everyday harshness of a tropical sun.

Here’s the hat-lesson: the act of leaving doesn’t make attachment broken; it doesn’t make the Panamanian learning of one simple foreigner ended.

Church belltower, Santa Fe, Panama, photo courtesy Marnix van Suylekom, Hotel Anachoreo

With special thanks to for enlightening one foreigner on the sombrero pintado, and to the good people of Santa Fe and Panamá for sharing their photos, as this writer’s camera was sadly in its death throes when he was there.

Sombrero Pintado, photo courtesy Charlotte Summers @ Panama Prattle.

Ah, something else to read?

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Hat-Speak of Panama

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