WHEAT: THE STORY OF AN “IMMIGRANT” THAT CAME TO BE A KEY PART OF CHILE’S IDENTITY
The conquistadors brought wheat to the Americas by way of Europe, and the crop adapted well to central Chile’s Mediterranean climate. Indeed, wheat seedlings produced three times as much in Chile as they did in other parts of the Americas, and Chile has been mass-producing it since long before it gained its independence.
In the three centuries since the first crops were planted there, Chilean wheat has developed closely alongside the nation itself. Handicrafts made out of wheat fiber soon began to appear, particularly the chupallas, traditional hats worn by Chilean huasos, or cowboys. These sombreros, made out of tightly woven strands of wheat straw, have become iconic markers of Chilean national identity.
Chilean Wheat: A History
The production of wheat in the Itata Valley, where the chupallas are made, dates back to the beginning of the 17th century. One hundred years later, production had grown exponentially in order to meet increasing demand from Lima, the capital of the colonial region in the area we now know as Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. A major earthquake that devastated Peru in 1687, coupled with a fungal disease that destroyed wheat production near Lima, diminished the agricultural capacity in the region surrounding the colonial capital. This opened up the door for increased production of wheat from further south.
Once Chile won independence from Spain, it quickly became an exporter of wheat, responding to demand around the world. Chilean wheat was shipped not only to Peru, but also to feed miners at the peak of the “Gold Rushes” of California (1849-53) and Australia (1854-6 and 1864-6).
The stately San Agustín de Puñual Hacienda in Ninhue was built in 1780 with wealth generated by wheat production. Moreover, it has the distinction of being the birthplace of one of Chile’s most illustrious war heroes: Arturo Prat Chacón, whose grandparents were the owners of the hacienda.
By 1938, more than 100 varieties of wheat, including Flourence, Chaucho, Vilmorin 23, Oregon, Linseed, Chufquén, and Milquinientos, were being cultivated throughout Chile.
Thanks to new genetic techniques adopted in the 1960s, Chilean wheat was bred to reduce its height, in an attempt to improve grain production. This led to local wheat varieties being displaced by more modern breeds.
In Ninhue, however—as well as in the neighboring communities of Quirihue, Trehuaco, Portezuelo and San Nicolás—local varieties of wheat are still being cultivated and woven into handicrafts. From an industrial perspective, these varieties are less “efficient,” since they produce less food-quality grains—but they are hardy and drought-resistant, requiring very little water.
The wheat varieties that local artisans use to produce cuelchas—the local word used to describe braids of wheat, tightly woven out of anywhere from three to sixteen strands of straw—include Oregon, Colorado, Milquinientos, Carrera, Italiano, Milufen, Furfuya and Cebolla. These supposedly less “modern” local wheat varieties may not produce large quantities of food, but they’re great for weaving because of their length and diameter.
In 1970, the artist Baltazar Hernández wrote about Ninhue, as well as Quirihue, as the principal areas where chupallas were made. He wrote about several hat varieties, including the rounded crown chupalla, the bell-crown chupalla often worn by women, small-brimmed sombreros, and fine chupallas for huasos, trimmed with ribbons in the national colors of red, white, and blue. Hernández added that these products filled the markets of Chillán during the summer, alongside baskets and bags woven from cuelchas.
The word chupalla comes from Quechua, the language of the Incas. Its origins lie in the word achupalla, a native plant in the bromeliad family whose leaves were woven into hats in Inca times.
Straw hats were commonly used throughout Chile in the 19th century, with different designs connoting social differences. The huaso, for example, typically wears a hat that has clear Spanish influences, with a low crown and a wide brim like the hats of Castillian and Andalusian estancieros (ranchers). Meanwhile, campesinos wore hats with a smaller brim, affectionately known as a “Maule bonnet,” named for the region in which Ninhue and Chillán are located. These hats all appear in the engravings of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858) and Claude Gay (1800-1873).
The Artisans of the Itata Valley
By the beginning of the 20th century, local women were making chupallas and cuelchas by hand, using a number of different techniques.
But change was on the horizon: sewing machines came to be used in the mid-1900s for the weaving. Most of these machines were Grossmans (model Anita), imported from Germany. Once the artisans of Ninhue began using them, chupalla production increased dramatically. From then on, the manufacture and sale of chupallas came to be done primarily by men.
In the 1980s, the artisans who made the chupallas—known as chupalleros—began to specialize primarily in hats made with cuelchas that were finely woven from four strands of wheat straw. These are the chupallas most commonly seen in stores today.
The fine strands that make these chupallas come from small-caliber wheat grass, of the sort that comes from less fertile soil that retains water. This is precisely the kind of soil that can be found in the areas where chupallas are primarily produced.