10 February 2009

El Sombrero Nuevo

Not long ago when I visited the little community of Valtierrilla for the Nopal Festival I saw a man wearing a very nice Texas style sombrero. It was made out of finely woven material and it was obviously hand crafted. I had the following conversation with him:

Buenas tardes señor. Disculpe la molestia. Veo que usted lleva puesto un sombreo muy bueno. ¿Donde compró este sombrero?. Quiero comprar uno igual.
Good afternoon sir. Excuse the bother. I see that you are wearing a very good hat. Where did you buy that hat? I want to buy one just like it.

Sí, este sombreo es muy bueno y me gusta mucho. Fue hecho de mi amigo Señor Olivero González.
Yes, this is a very good hat and I like it very much. It was made by my good friend Mr. Olivero González.

¿Donde se encuentra el Señor González por favor?
Where can Mr. González be found please?

Se encuentra allá en aquel puesto donde él en este momento está vendiendo sombreros.
He can be found over there in that booth where at this very moment he is selling hats.

Ah, ¡Qué bueno! Muchas gracias señor.
Ah, very good! Thank you very much sir.

I then went to the place that the man had pointed out to me and I found Señor Olivero González Ramírez selling his beautiful sombreros. I asked him if he had one for me and he looked at me and studied my head for a moment and said “No!”. I asked him why and he told me that my head is too big. Well, he was right about that. I do have a big head both literally and figuratively. I then asked him if he would make a hat that would fit me. He said he could but that it would take a week or so because he was very busy. I told him that would be fine and I asked him how much the hat would cost and he told me three hundred and twenty pesos and he said he wanted two hundred pesos up front. I reluctantly parted with the two hundred pesos and I gave him a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to write a receipt and also write down where he lives. He said that he never learned to write but he told me he lived at Calle Cinco de Ferbrero Número 136 and that I would just have to trust him if I wanted a sombrero and that I should come back “en ocho dias” or “in eight days” meaning one week. In Mexico you don't say “Regresa en una semana” (Come back in one week) you say “Regresa en ocho dias” (Come back in eight days). The Mexican people always give themselves an extra day. I think it is part of the “mañana” thing.

I waited the appointed “ocho dias” and then I went back to Vatierrilla to look up Señor Gonzalez and see if I would get my sombrero or perhaps forfeit my two hundred pesos. I needn't have worried. I found him without much trouble and he was just finishing up my sombrero and it is a very beautiful sombrero indeed. We began to chat a bit an get acquainted and I must warn you ahead of time that Señor González really likes to chat. We spent well over an hour just chatting. I asked him how he got started making hats and since he started making hats about fifty years ago it took quite a bit of time to bring me up to speed. He told me that his family was dirt poor and that he never went to school. He and his wife got married at fifteen years of age after only one week of engagement because both families needed them to move out on their own and make room for the siblings who followed them. There just wasn't enough food to go around. Señor González became a father at a very early age and was working at hard physical labor from sunup until sundown six days a week for the princely sum of seven pesos a day. Many times he went hungry so that his family could eat.

When he was about twenty he was so desperate that he decided he must do something or die. He had an uncle who had taught him to weave baskets when he was a small boy but there just didn't seem to be a market for baskets because most women wove their own. He did see a potential market for hats, however, and he decided to teach himself how to weave hats because after all a hat is nothing more than a basket turned upside down. As it turned out it just wasn't that easy. Every night after work and on Sundays he put his total effort into trying to make a decent hat. He had plenty of material that he got from the “sauce” (willow) trees that grow along the Lerma River. After much trial and error, many long hours into the night, and about three months of frustration he finally made a decent hat. He began to make hats and sell them in his local community. At first he kept his day job until he was sure that he could make a living making hats. After that life started getting better. His hats got better and better too until he finally became recognized by the governor of the state and not long ago by Presidente Vicente Fox himself.

Señor González can make you any kind of sombrero that you want although he specializes in Texas style which he calls “estilo tejano” (eh-STEE-loh tay-HAHN-oh). The hat that he wears on his own head he calls “estilo alcaponey” after the mobster Al Capone's fedora hat. It takes him about sixteen hours to make a hat out of the willow fibers that he still collects down by the river. At the current exchange rate of around fourteen pesos to the dollar a hat comes to about twenty three U.S dollars which means he makes a bit less than a buck fifty an hour. Not much for sixteen hours of work but it sure beats seven pesos per day. Even so, Señor González still works sunup to sundown six days per week. It has been enough to build a nice house for his family and he doesn't mind doing it. He still can't read and write but he thanks God for making him useful. I asked him if he is teaching any of his children or grandchildren to make hats and he gave me an emphatic “NO!”. He made sure that all of his children went to school and have good careers and he wants his grandchildren to learn how to make computers and space ships but not hats. If they want to get into the hat business he said they can invent a machine that makes hats better and cheaper than he can but he says he is not worried about that. He says that will be awhile yet.


Unknown said...

It is the story of so many people in Mexico. Por asares del destino, some people end up as bakers, some as ladrilleros, some as campesinos, some as cooks and some just let themselves float as a little cork on the sea. We all need education in order to get a bit ahead. The hat is beautiful! Are we going to have the opportunity to see you wearing it? Love your post. Very meaningful and deep.

Steve Cotton said...

Bob -- Great story. You caught the bittersweet tone of a true craftsman-philosopher. I am always amused that we middle class Americans are far more sentimental about the passing of crafts -- when many of the craftsmen would be just as happy with a modern machine.

Tancho said...

And when are we going to see this beautiful head with the hat? Sadly much of the products are now made in China sans any regional handwork and tradition.
I tip my sombrero to you for supporting hand made local products, no matter how big your head may be.....

YayaOrchid said...

AWW...that is such a sweet post. I was hoping you'd posted a picture of you wearing it.

Maybe some day you can also do a post about the shoe cobbler industry there. Any type of leatherwork, belts, purses, with a western theme would be of great interest to me. Not to burden you, it's just that I find your blog so chock full of info, I just know you'll never run out of things to write about amigo!

YayaOrchid said...

P.S. I should also add that my late Grandmother used to tell stories of when SHE learned to make hats out of palm fronds to earn some extra money there in Guanajuato. This was probably around the time of the Revolution.

Calypso said...

OMG I want one! Really a great hat hombre.

Bob Mrotek said...

Thank you to everyone for the kind words and positive feedback. The reason that you don't see a picture of me wearing the hat is because I was afraid that if a picture of me popped up suddenly on your computer screen it might startle you or worse yet, break your computer. I just couldn't handle that responsibility :)

Unknown said...

awesome post....especially the photos of the craftsman. thanks for the interviewing him and giving us the details of his life and times.

houston, texas

GlorV1 said...

I love that hat. My dad wore hats like that. In fact I have two of them. I think you'd look pretty good in one and you wouldn't scare anyone. Take care.

Frankly Ronda said...

Like Calypso - I want one!

Wonderful, wonderful post.

Billie Mercer said...

I think it is wonderful that he has such wonderful dreams for his children and grandchildren. Sometimes in the campo, the expectation for children isn't very high. He is a wise man but I wish there was a way to preserve his knowledge.

Babs said...

Bob, there are so many positive things I would like to say about this post and the artisan...suffice to say that it is, as usual, a touching post.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.