An essential accessory in the traditional male clothing of the Yucatan Peninsula is the Panama hat. It is an elegant, discreet and practical piece to tolerate the peninsular sun. Some of its characteristics are a light color, bordering on white, it has a short crown, round shape and usually has two stones on the front. But perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of this hat is the smell coming from the jipi palm (Carludovica palmata) with which it is made.

This type of hat is also known as jipijapa, a name derived from the region of Ecuador where it comes from. The textile tradition of this hat dates back to the 17th century, so it has great value and was declared by UNESCO as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Ecuador in 2012.

In Mexico, the jipi palm was introduced in the mid-19th century along the route known as Camino Real de Mérida to Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, El Petén, Guatemala. Currently, there are three species of the Carludovica genus in the country, which are morphologically similar; however, they can be differentiated by the texture and coloration of the fibers obtained from each one of them.

The species Carludovica chiapensis matuda and Carludovica tabascanamatuda grow naturally in the jungles of the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, respectively, while Carludovica palmata Ruiz & Pavón is found in the north of Campeche, specifically in Mayan communities such as Tankuché, Santa Cruz Ex Hacienda, Becal, and Nunkiní, among others.

The jipi palm from Campeche has had a domestication process dating back to pre-Hispanic times, as has the guano palm, or sabal palm.

However, the jipi palm that stands out the most is the one from Campeche, since it has had a domestication process dating back to pre-Hispanic times, as well as the guano palm, or sabal palm, which has contributed to the quality of the weaving. Tomás González Estrada, PhD in plant biotechnology from the University of Guelph, and retired researcher from the Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán, tells about the location of the traditional jipi palm crops in Campeche.

"We are in an area where the Puc mountain range pours its water towards the coast, which is the Petén area. We are almost at the limits of the Petén Reserve, which corresponds to Campeche, and which borders the Celestún Reserve (which includes Mérida and Campeche). And it is in a small strip between the Petén and the area of the Sierra Puc where this crop can be grown."

Woven jipi palm hat.
Woven jipi palm hat. Image: SIC

During the viceregal era, Santa Cruz Ex Hacienda became one of the main towns for growing and working the jipi palm, which, thanks to its malleability, offered greater ease for fine weavings. Jorge Chem continues with the tradition of the jipi palm in his plot since he has cultivated and worked it for more than 20 years in the town of Santa Cruz Ex Hacienda (Calkiní, Campeche).

"The palm is in the lower part of the (cropping) system. In the middle part, there are fruit trees such as banana, coconut, guanabana, and citrus. And in the highest part we can find sapotes, mamey and ramón trees," says Tomás González. Jorge Chem, explains that the reason for maintaining the polyculture "is because when it is dry season, this type of tree helps us so that the soil does not dry out too much because the jipi bush requires a lot of water".

Jorge sells the buds in Santa Cruz to artisans in Tankuché and Bécal for 5 to 8 Mexican pesos, depending on the season, to make hats. Generally, the plant is grown by men, while the weaving is mainly done by women. Magali Chem, Jorge's aunt, learned to weave from the age of 9. "I was taught by my mom and dad. I wanted to go to school, but since there was no money, they put me to learn how to weave."

The bud, the part of the plant that is spun for weaving, is collected by farmers who cultivate the jipi palm in the plots of their homes.

Magali receives the cogollo, the part of the plant that is spun for weaving, from farmers like Jorge, who cultivate the jipi palm in the plots of their homes. The bud must be cut while it is still closed. Weavers like Magali are in charge of opening it and spinning it with a needle. A good-sized bud can yield up to 10 strands, or threads, per spear. Once spun, it goes through a bleaching process with sulfur to obtain the light tone characteristic of the hat.

Depending on the number of batches (how fine the yarns are spun), it is possible to weave a very good quality hat or a regular one. When there is not enough jipi bud in Campeche, the artisans of Bécal buy it from intermediaries in Tabasco. They admit that the quality of the straw is not the same, so they have to give it a better treatment so that it works and looks the same.

Magali explained that it takes her 2 to 3 days to warp a hat from one batch and she sells it for up to 150 Mexican pesos. It is still a hat that requires the work of ironers from Bécal, they are in charge of giving the final shape to the piece. The weaving of the hat requires a certain level of humidity in the environment so that it maintains its elasticity and is easier to weave, in addition to the material maintaining its quality.

Since pre-Hispanic times, caves have been built to weave hats, where the weavers go during the winter to make them.

A custom adopted from pre-Hispanic times is the construction of caves where hats are woven. It is common to see in the houses of the weavers a 2×2 meter cave where they go during the winter to make the hats. In Calkiní, it is possible to find a cooperative that promotes the safeguarding of the weaving tradition of the jipi palm through the revaluation of community caves.

"At that time (this cave) was like Facebook," jokes Maribel Martínez Lo, liaison of the Coordination of Handicrafts of this municipality. "Here all the people would gather around, to sit and weave. It was a community cave. But since people could not leave their homes for long, they began to make caves in their homes and this began to be lost." However, Maribel has promoted the preservation of this textile tradition by facilitating workshops for weavers to pass on their knowledge of hat weaving to children.

The textile tradition of the jipijapa is kept vibrant with the participation in the care of the intangible cultural heritage from children to elders. In this way, it is observed that in Calkiní a kind of route is drawn from Santa Cruz Exhacienda to Bécal, where the textile tradition of the jipijapa is kept vibrant; with the participation in the care of the intangible cultural heritage, from children to elders.

The farmers, artisans, and local traders have formed the value chain of the jipi hat, from the cultivation of the plant to its direct sale to the consumer, thus keeping this textile tradition alive, seeking to strengthen the creation of economic ties of solidarity through the creation of artisan trade corridors.

In this sense, Mercedes and her group of weavers from Bécal are exploring the possibilities of organizing a corridor to sell directly to tourists, and the families obtain direct benefits. In this way, perhaps tourism can boost the creative industries and, at the same time, support the safeguarding of cultural heritage.

With information from United Nations Mexico