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Inside the humid caves of Becal, men and women spend their lives weaving the famous Jipijapa hats.

By Jonathan Harrington / Photos by Johan Willems

Guadalupe Balam Cuy wakes in the pre-dawn hours, long before the sun has risen. She lives with her husband and children in a modest stucco home with a palm-thatched roof on Calle 29 in Becal, Campeche, Mexico. Behind her house, Guadalupe enters a small opening in the ground, and descends a makeshift ladder fifteen feet into a cave, no larger than the average North American living room, where she joins four other women and two men who are busy weaving Panama hats by the light of a gas lantern.

    The weavers include two of Guadalupe's cousins, Pablo Gongaora Cuy and Irma Merea Balam Cuy, as well as Margarita Baron, Jose Artemio Cahum Balam, and Rosalia Balam-all Maya. All are natives who speak the Maya language first and speak Spanish as a second language. Their heads are bent over their work, their fingers nimbly weaving the palm fibers into hats.

    Behind nearly all of the houses in Becal are natural limestone caves where Maya men and women hand-weave from palm the fine hats that have made Becal famous.

    As many as 2,000 caves in the town of Becal serve as workshops for weavers of the Panama hat, or jipijapa, as it is called. The extreme heat of the Yucatan Peninsula causes the palm fibers, from which the hats are made, to become brittle, so the weavers must work in these damp and humid caves to keep the palm fibers pliant. By keeping the palm moist as they work, the weavers are able to weave the fibers more tightly to make the highest quality hats.

    Most tourists to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula will never see the finest of these Panama hats. The extra-fine jipijapas are sold to true aficionados from as far away as New York, Paris and Tokyo, who are well aware of the time-consuming process by which the fibers of the palm are transformed into elegant and durable hats.

    Ironically, it is Ecuador, not Panama, which is credited with originating the Panama hat. Jipijapa is the name of a small town in Ecuador where many believe the hat was originally made. The jipijapa is called the Panama hat because it was worn by workers building the Panama Canal.

    Becal, Mexico also produces fine jipijapas. Becal is located in the state of Campeche on Highway 180, about halfway between Merida and the city of Campeche. The three concrete Panama hats in the center of the main plaza attest to the importance of jipijapas to Becal.

    A Catholic priest, Father Ignacio Barzuna, is credited with introducing a variety of Guatemalan palm with strong, flexible fibers to Becal, in 1859. Later, the Garcia family of Becal began making jipijapa hats from this newly introduced palm.

    As Guadalupe Balam Cuy explains, the fibers are harvested and brought to Becal by dealers who sell them to the artisans. The best fibers come from the center of the palm. In Becal, the fibers are sorted by grade, washed and bleached.

    One of the weavers, Margarita Baron, picks up two bundles of fibers and holds one aloft. "This palm," she says, indicating the bundle, "And this is jipi."

    The palm fibers are broader and courser than the jipi. The palm is used to make lower grades of hats that are frequently seen in the marketplace and are purchased inexpensively by workers or tourists to ward off the fierce Yucatecan sun.

    The highest-grade fibers have been hand selected for their pliability and smoothness and set aside to weave the classic jipijapa with its pear-colored glow and its supple texture.

    On the floor of the cave, there are eight or nine rounded blocks of wood. These, margarita Baron explains, are molds made of cedar shaped in the sizes of different heads. The weavers use these as guides for weaving the hats to the appropriate size. The cedar molds are about two feet tall and each one of them is rounded on top to the size of the head for which the hat is intended.

    To begin, the very center of the crown of the hat is woven. Pablo Cuy holds up a hat he has just begun. So far, he has woven a circle of straw about the size of a quarter from which hang long strands of fiber. He will painstakingly enlarge the circle using the mold as a guide. Rosalia Balam, an articulate, good-natured Maya with quick smile, demonstrates how she makes the palm hat she is weaving more pliant and soft. As she works, she lays the half-finished hat on a wooden board and with a conch shell, she rubs the hat until the fiber is smooth and flexible.

    In addition to hats, artisans also weave other craft items from palm, such as baskets, fans and dolls. Just as each of these items has its own mold, each town in Campeche has its own specialty. However, as Rosalia proudly explains, "We here in Becal make jipijapas!" -as if any other occupation is unthinkable.

    The weavers spend all day long in the caves, as much as twelve hours or more. "There is no rest," Rosalia says, "because if you rest you go hungry."

    When asked how long it takes to weave a jipijapa, she says, "Well, it depends on the quality. Some take two or three days. But the super-fine hats may take two or three months."


The weavers in Becal sell their hats unformed and untrimmed to agents who come from the nearby cities of Merida and Campeche. These agents bring the hats to retail outlets like the Casa Jipijapa on Calle 56, #526 in Merida where the hats are further refined and shaped into specific styles.

    At the Casa Jipijapa, just inside the central market of Merida, three Maya women stand at the entrance of the shop surrounded by piles of jipijapa hats of various shapes, sizes and styles. In the rear of the shop, two men are running a large pressing machine.

    "This is a hydraulic machine that is used to refine the hats that come to us from Becal. Here we finish them and smooth them out. We use the machine to give the hats definition."

    Various metal forms in the shape of the different styles of Panama hats are heated in a stove, and then fitted into the press. The press makes a high-pitched squealing sound as the man pulls down on an arm that presses the form into the hat, giving the hat the exact style that the client wants.

    There are many styles of jipijapas. Among the most popular are the Sevillana, the Veracruzana, the Yucateca, the Cubana, and the Tejana. Other styles are named for famous and infamous persons like "the Truman" and "the Capone."

    Removing the four-cornered Veracruz style hat from the press, the worker sews a sweatband into the inside of the hat so that it fits snugly on the head and will not be stained by the person wearing it. Finally, a hatband is fitted to the outside of the hat. Usually the hatband is black for the classic jipijapa. Nevertheless, as the worker explains, it is entirely up to the client.

    Finishing the exterior trim, he holds up the four-cornered Veracruz style hat and exclaims. "Now it is ready!"

    The finished jipijapa is beautiful.

    "We make many Yucatecan hats for musicians and dancers," he adds. Our hats at the Casa Jipijapa sell for twenty-five to eighty dollars. However, some jipijapas sell for much more.

    These are the very finest, most pliant, most tightly woven hats. Many of these are exported."

    Among aficionados, there is an almost cult-like devotion to the quest for the finest jipijapa. The quality of the fiber, the tightness of the weave, the skill with which it has been molded and shaped, the time it took to make, and its legendary durability all lend value to the jipijapa.

    Across the street from the market on Calle 65, Victor Manuel Orlando López Gonzalez sits on a stool in the entrance of Sombrereria El Becaleño. In his left hand is an unfinished jipijapa. The rim of the hat is encircled by a halo of fine hair-like filaments. In his right hand, he holds a pair of silver shears with which he trims the hat. On the floor around him is a fine dust of clipped palm fibers.

    Inside the shop, he proudly displays postcards and thank you notes from clients around the world, including one for the Sheriff of Arlington County, Virginia.

    In the rear of the shop, he points to his finest hat. He gently lifts the featherweight jipijapa from its stand as if it were a crystal vase. The hat is pearl-colored and luminous in the soft light of the interior of the shop. He carries it reverently to the open door, and as the rays of the midday sun strike it, the hat glows as if a light bulb has been turned on inside it. He explains that the quality of the hat is gauged by the tightness of its weave; judged by the pulgada. In his book, Panama: A Legendary Hat, French writer Martin Buchet defines the pulgada as: "an imaginary 1-inch square within which one counts the number of fibers woven in a given direction. The first degree corresponds to hats of modest quality, with thirteen fibers to the square; where as the finest...have at least twenty-five."

    The hat that Victor Manuel Orlando Lopez Gonzalez holds gently in his hands is clearly of the highest quality. In a shop in London or Paris, a hat of this superior caliber might bring as much as $1,500. A call to Worth & Worth hat shop in New York City reveals a Panama hat from Ecuador selling for five thousand dollars.

    Victor strokes the supple exterior of the hat, its ivory-colored filaments perfectly woven by the skilled hands of a nameless artisan in the caves of Becal. He runs his fingernail along the finely woven fibers that look more like threads than strips of palm leave.

    Suddenly, without warning, Victor crushes the hat with both hands, folds it in half, rolls it into a cone, puts it into his back pocket and smiles as if what he has just done is not at all unusual.

    Moments later, he removes the hat, unfolds it and fluffs it out. Miraculously, the hat returns to its original shape without even the slightest wrinkle appearing on its ivory-colored exterior.

    This is the true test of the classic jipijapa. In addition to its elegance, the hat is durable enough to maintain its shape no matter how it is mistreated. Supple, exquisite, delicate as fine china yet durable as leather, this is the classic jipijapa. Woven in the humid semi-darkness of Campeche caves, it is worn with pride throughout the world by connoisseurs of the quality of its fibers, the tightness of its weave, and the skilled artistry of the weavers of Becal.

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