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A tip of the hat to cultural pride

Hats Alcala's Western Wear | Sun-Times files

Hats at Alcala's Western Wear | Sun-Times files

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Updated: December 18, 2013 6:39AM

While attending an event in Little Village recently, I noticed a man who had pulled up on a decked-out motorcycle aglow with dim lights.

Yet, the sleek Harley-Davidson belonging to Little Village activist Mario Martinez-Serrano didn’t impress me as much as his hat. It was a cowboy hat made of smooth black felt.

Thirty years ago I would have scoffed at such a hat. Actually, I’m pretty sure I did whenever my dad pulled his taupe-colored Western hat out of its box for special occasions.

I wanted him to dress like the fathers of my American friends. I recounted those old feelings to a few hat sellers last week.

“We grew up similarly,” said Eric Soto, 26, who helps his father run Durango Western Wear on 26th Street. “Kids don’t want to relate to Hispanic culture. They want to assimilate and fit in as quickly as possible.”

At some point respect for a culture and its traditions evolves.

And those Western hats are deeply steeped in Mexican tradition, Soto’s father, Andres, said. They are a staple in the northern half of Mexico just as they are for ranchers in the U.S.

The sales of these hats, whether they are called Tejanas, sombreros or cowboy hats, tell an interesting tale to Soto and Richard Alcala, whose family owns Alcala’s Western Wear.

Soto didn’t need census figures to know the population of Little Village has dropped drastically over the last decade. The community is made up largely of Mexican immigrants, but a decline in factory jobs and other low-wage work in Chicago has forced some to move to other states, Soto said. High rent has forced others to the suburbs; high gas prices keep them from traveling to the city.

Catalog sales for the store are rising; hats and boots are being shipped out of state as well as to the suburbs while walk-in sales decline.

Sales at Alcala’s store continue to be steady. He attributes this partly to the popularity of country music. “We’re talking about 18- to 25-year-olds in Chicago,” Alcala said. “Country music used to be their fathers’ music. Now it’s theirs. We’re happy. We’re starting to see younger kids coming in and buying hats and boots.”

Because his store isn’t far from downtown, Alcala gets many tourists. People from all over the world want a piece of America, he said. They find it in cowboy hats, Western shirts, as well as jeans and belts.

“They want something American, and they don’t want it from Michigan Avenue,” Alcala said. “This is not Coco Chanel.”

This is something more personal. For Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in Chicago, it’s like holding a branch from their ancestral tree. “It’s something that has to do with our roots and where we came from,” Alcala said.

It can be high-priced fashion. Hat prices start at around $16 and go up to $5,000 for a chinchilla Stetson with a diamond on the hat band. Drug dealers brought a bad rap to the hats when they started flaunting the pricey ones. “I didn’t bring it up,” Alcala said. “You did.”

As a kid I thought my dad’s hat was a Southern or Mexican thing, unaware it was really a North American thing.

“Go to the outskirts of the city, any city,” Martinez-Serrano said. “They have their hats. They never die out.”


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