El sombrero de paja toquilla

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana


This blog was originally written in 2012 by Frank Justice, Vice President of Meridian’s Center for Diplomatic Engagement.

The hat stood out. As the group of indigenous and minority rights leaders from Central and South America made their way into the majestic Meridian House drawing room for the opening of their international exchange visit, an unexpected assortment of colors filled the space. Yes, the skin colors varied, but it was the array of their Native dress, each distinct and unique, mixed in with the suits and contemporary business attire sported by fellow international participants that brightened the room and caught the program organizers off-guard. There was the stunning indigo blue dress, likely handmade. Green and yellow tribal wear featured next to an outfit that was completely black from head to toe. A selection of accessories and headwear that would have made any clothing store owner proud. Yet, one particular hat stood out. Perched on the head of a rather tall and striking advisor to the Ecuadoran National Assembly, the hat was equally large and unmistakably elegant. It immediately struck the eye of Meridian Program Officer and locally-known hat aficionado David Paulson. David reveled at the refined and chic nature of the white (cream?) cap. “You know a quality hat when light is unable to shine through the material,” he beamed.

Its owner, Mr. Ramsses Torres, later revealed that the hat was a gift from his father and one of heavy personal significance. Referred to as el sombrero de paja toquilla in Spanish, the Panama hat is a traditional brimmed cap made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant. Ramsses was quick to point out that it originated in Ecuador and is an art form in his nation. Like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, the hats were shipped first to Panama before sailing off to their final destinations. The Ecuadorian president and emblematic figure Eloy Alfaro helped finance his liberal revolution of the country through the export of the good.

Throughout the course of the next three days, the hat was a constant and prominent fixture. Ramsses politely placed it on the table during professional appointments with public and private sector officials. Still, the object was so big and obtrusive that it must have been on the minds of the speakers who no doubt sensed its importance to the Ecuadorian. Then Ramsses and his fellow International Visitors met the Honorable John Lewis.

John Lewis is many things: a thirteen-term Congressman, a civil rights leader, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the only individual still alive who spoke to the same enormous crowd on the same glorious day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic I Have a Dream Speech. Mr. Lewis is also a citizen diplomat. Over the course of one full hour, he revealed the trials and tribulations that he and other African Americans faced as they fought for equality and against segregation during the civil rights movement. He showed enlarged photos of significant moments in the struggle, including the beating he received on “Bloody Sunday” as well as his post directly behind the March on Washington pulpit. Congressman Lewis also listened. He listened to the shared challenges and setbacks that the international leaders faced in their fight for indigenous and minority rights. Maintaining a non-violent message, the recipient of the President Medal of Freedom responded by imploring the group not to be hostile, but to remain committed, to remain hopeful, to remain positive.

To call this Congressional figure a citizen diplomat is not an oxymoron. To be a citizen diplomat one must have the urge to interact with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial manner on a personal level. After all, citizen diplomacy is the engagement in people to people exchange. By simultaneously connecting with every international participant on a personal level, Mr. Lewis epitomized the spirit and character of a citizen diplomat. As a disability rights leader from Paraguay explained, “I can identify with his struggle so well because I see the same things going on in my country. It is painful, but at the same time gives meaning to my fight and makes me confident that progress can be made.”

The experience inspired fervor from a Peruvian, while triggering large, rapid tears from a Venezuelan. It left the State Department program officer nearly speechless and caused the best of interpreters to lose their train of thought. Slowly, Ramsses stood up and walked towards his new friend. “I never imagined that I would have the desire to give someone something so important and personal to me, but your struggle and your story have compelled me in ways I cannot explain.” With those words, the tall and imposing advisor to the Ecuadoran National Assembly removed the magnificently woven toquilla hat from its perch and placed it on the head of Mr. Lewis. Much like the colors that filled the drawing room during the opening session, an array of emotions spilled out from everyone in the room towards the end of the session. Still, one image remains ahead of the rest. The hat stood out.