By Lance Brashear
It is the misnomer of the hemisphere - a product whose origin, material, and continued production in one country have been attributed to an entirely different place for more than 150 years.
When the Forty Niners passed through the Isthmus of Panama headed to California for the gold rush in 1849 many of them picked one up, which stimulated sales and popularity for this now iconic headwear, but also confused entirely the Panama hat’s port of origin (Panama) with its point of origin (Ecuador) - something Ecuador has had to tolerate ever since.
The Panama hat would later help to finance Ecuador’s liberal revolution at the turn of the 20th century, led by Eloy Alfaro, the son of one of the first international entrepreneurs of the straw hat. The canal construction sustained the industry and got a boost when President Franklin Roosevelt became one of the first celebrities to don the world famous woven hat.
Alicia Ortega, daughter of one of the industry’s pioneers, Homero Ortega, and President of the company that bears his name, has a message to the world about the Panama Hat: “It is an emblematic product of our city, our country. It is the best ambassador…it is the only one in the world. The Panama Hat is not Panamanian. It is from Ecuador.”
The tradition of Panama Hats in the Ortega family did not begin with Homero, but rather his father, Aurelio Ortega, who would travel back and forth from Cuenca to Guayaquil – across the Andes Mountains – to sell hats to the merchants on their way to Panama.
His son Homero worked alongside him and eventually would form his own company. Homero Ortega and Sons, a family-owned and run company, was formally established in 1972. Ortega died in 1999 but three of his children – Alicia, Homero, and Gladys – operate the business today.
Take a walk through the Ortega factory, also home to the “Magic of the Sombrero Museum,” and you learn just how homegrown this industry is.
It is said that the Spanish encountered locals wearing hats made of a plant fiber when they arrived to present day Ecuador. The natural fiber is classified as “Carludovica palmate,” named after Charles the V, who reportedly promoted craft guilds, including a straw hat guild. The hats were called “toquillas” and since they were made from “paja,” or straw, they were commonly referred to as paja toquilla sombreros.
The plant used to make the hats of Homero Ortega originates not in the Andes, but the coast. Though the industry was born in the coastal towns like Montecristi and Jipijapa it was also brought across the western cordilleras to the Cuenca/Azogues region in the mid-19th century to help fill demand and stimulate a depressed economy. Today, the majority of hats produced and exported from Ecuador come from the Cuenca region, with Homero Ortega being one of the biggest and most important companies.
The walls of the Homero Ortega offices in northeast Cuenca are adorned with photos of celebrities wearing their emblematic hats, including Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, Danny Glover, Michael Schumacher, and numerous presidents and Nobel prize winners.
The floors of the Ortega offices and the museum are often strewn with hats, in the process of drying or classification, adding a bit of character to the production facility.
Though it is a factory, the Homero Ortega hats are not actually produced here. For all of the hundreds of thousands of hats that leave Ecuador each year, every one of them is still handmade. Thousands of weavers throughout Azuay Province weave, tighten, and give a bell shape to each one.
The hats are collected by “comisionados,” or middlemen, who bring them to the Homero Ortega facility where they are washed, bleached, or tinted. Using molds and presses, workers give form to the hats before sending them to the finishing room for the final touches – sewing bands and labels, or custom requested additions like bows or feathers.
Like every industry, this one has seen persistent challenges. With each new generation fewer people find the task of weaving worthwhile. The number of weavers is at an all-time low. It is estimated that the hat industry employed a quarter of a million persons in Ecuador at the end of World War II, the majority of who were undoubtedly the artisan workers. Today, though, Homero estimates that perhaps only 10,000 weavers can be found in the Azuay region.
“There has been so much emigration,” says his sister Alicia. “People receive money from outside and many persons…they say [to their family] do not weave, because if you weave I will not send more money,” generating a professional stigma for younger generations.
Additionally, imitation Panama Hats made of paper, from China, are impossible to compete with on the basis of cost. The Ortegas say they have to rely on quality and the heritage of the product, even though sales have drastically been reduced from what they were twenty years ago.
Homero says they sell around 12,000 hats a month today, whereas fifteen or twenty years ago they sold as many as 60,000-72,000 units. The future, he says, now depends on “finding markets that are more selective…[sell] less quantity, with added value.”
The demands and commitments of running the factory and museum in today’s economy are such that the Homero Ortega family believes it is important to open seven days a week with one of the family members always present. They admit they do not rest much, but it is by choice as they are not only a fixture in the hat business, but a required stop for most tourists visiting Cuenca.
“I think that the people who come with the idea to know Homero Ortega and use a Panama hat from Homero Ortega deserve that we serve them.”
The Homero Ortega factory and the Magic of the Sombrero Museum are located in Cuenca at Avenue Gil Ramirez Davalos 3-86. Call them at (07) 280-9000 or visit the website at www.homeroortega.com.