Maleni Cruz Uc
Panama Hats from Bécal, Campeche
My family arrived in Bécal, Campeche on a Monday afternoon during Easter. We wanted to meet the artisans that weave the famous Panama hats, and were a bit concerned with the hour; the “siesta” is still common in these little villages during the early hot hours of the afternoons. But we were soon to discover that there were other activities that took the place of the siesta: weaving in a fresh environment in the company of family, friends and neighbors, for the entire afternoon.
We encountered an old lady who spoke some Spanish (many of the elderly still talk amongst them in Mayan languages), and she escorted us to the patio of a little house and pointed to the center, to what appeared to be a hole in the floor. We approached and discovered six pairs of knees, on which six pairs of hands quickly worked with palm fibers, weaving the famous hats.
Out of the hole in the earth, which is a cave carved in the soft limestone typical to the Yucatán peninsula, emerged the laughter and voices of women, the sounds that were made by the hands against the fibers when tightening the weaving at the edge for finishing similar to the sounds made when grinding teeth, and a nice fresh breeze with a soft smell of humid palm. It was definitely the place to be in the afternoon!
They invited us to enter the cave, one-by-one as there is not much space, and showed us how they wove the hats. There were huano hats and jipi hats, some were done really fast in a few hours. Others of very fine stripes of jipi might take up to three weeks to finish.
Once they are woven, they are taken to get “ironed” in a hat press. The press has a hat form that is heated up to 120 Celsius, and the hats are pressed for a few minutes to get their final shape.
Huano and jipi palms are the raw materials used for weaving the hats. Before the palm stalks open, they are cut and sliced in stripes, two, three or four, depending upon the weaving intended, very fine or not. Then they are dehydrated and treated with sulfur, to bleach the fibers, bunched together and eventually dyed with natural dyes or anilins. During the dry season, the bunches are left at least for a day in the cave so that the humidity permits the weaving without breaking the fibers. Weavers are then ready to start making the hats in the cave.
We visited several artisans until we finally found Maleni Cruz Uc, who we were looking for. She is the granddaughter of the famous master Andres Uc Dzul, who passed away in 2004. His Panama hats were very famous since they had a really fine weave. He was featured in the book, "Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art."
Maleni learned from her grandfather and has become one of the best weavers in the region. She weaves hats, bags, little birds, lamps and other ornaments that she refers to as “curiosities”.