THE PANAMA HAT TRAIL: A Journey from South America by Tom Miller

THE PANAMA HAT TRAIL: A Journey from South America

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One would never imagine that a hat, even a Panama (which is really made in Ecuador), would provide such a fascinating insight into the lives of weavers and of those who have grown rich on their work. This book is like a detective story in which one clue leads to another until the complex fabric of a society slowly reveals itself. The Panama hat is a result of a handicraft now up against competition from ersatz Japanese knockoffs, style changes, primitive business techniques and a growing shortage of weavers. Paid pennies for hats that may sell for hundreds of dollars, the weavers are cynically and deftly manipulated by a class of exploiters who have inherited the conquistadors' empire. Some of the petty functionaries are called perros, Spanish for dogs. How apt! Ecuador is one South American country little in the news, where the idea of a coup d'État is pure Marx--Groucho, not Karl. Manana is the only philosophy worth having in a country where people do whatever drudgery they can to eke out a bare subsistence. From this, the author draws a picture of a culture in which those who are the guardians of art and beauty are the most oppressed. Aguardiente and chichi offer alcoholic oblivion and escape for Indians, mestizos and cholos. The lucky ones are those who manage to sneak into the US illegally. Comic opera, waste and despair are Miller's themes as he tracks the Panama hat through time and up the ladder of the multinational process. (At one point, Levi-Strauss is at the top of the pyramid of squalor.) It is not a banana republic he gives us, but rather a Panama-hat oligarchy. If what he relates here is accurate (and it certainly appears to be), quiet Ecuador is a powder keg aborning.

Pub Date: July 25th, 1986
Publisher: Morrow