‘Sombrero-makers to the Popes’ prepare gift for Francis’ Mexican trip

In their hometown of San Francisco del Rincón, in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, the Salazar Yépez family is known as the “Sombrero-makers to the Popes.”

It is a well-deserved nickname. John Paul II, the first pope to visit Mexico, wore their hats, as did his successor Benedict XVI when he came to the country four years ago. Even Paul VI, who never visited the country, owned a Salazar Yépez sombrero the family sent to Rome in the care of friends.

And when Pope Francis arrives in Mexico this Friday, he too will be given a Salazar Yépez hat.

“It's a great honor for us to have the pope receive our sombrero,” 63-year old María de la Luz Yépez, who heads the family's workshop in San Francisco del Rincón, told Fox News Latino.

Soft-spoken and choosing her words carefully, there's nonetheless a touch of pride in her voice. “It's a recognition of a tradition that goes back generations. There's a picture of Pope Benedict smiling as he wore our hat back in 2012. It gave me a very special feeling, we were all very happy.”

The family's workshop was founded in 1956 by the late Gilberto Salazar. For six decades and spanning three generations, the family has dedicated itself to perfecting the art of hand-making sombreros – the wide-brimmed hats worn by Mexican charros and mariachi musicians and one of the most popular souvenirs among the millions of tourists that visit the country each year.

The sombrero that will be given to Pope Francis is nothing like the factory manufactured items sold to tourists for as little as $20. “It's an artisanal hat that takes a lot of time to make,” Yépez told FNL. “It took approximately 45 days to create and attach the design to the mold.”

The finished product will be worth around 15,000 pesos – about $800 – and was commissioned by a businessman who will present the sombrero to the pope.

Gregoria Salazar Uribe, a craftswoman at the workshop for years, came out of retirement temporarily to work on the hat.

The design is Mexican-Catholic through and through, with roses and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe against a white background. “Our family is very Catholic, and we're all guadalupanos,” Yépez said.

Apart from the obvious pride of having the leader of the Roman Catholic Church presented with its finest product, the publicity that comes along with another pontiff receiving their sombrero has boosted sales for the workshop, which employs 15.

“In recent years, sales have been up and down, but we've been successful recently as the media picked up on the news that we were again making a sombrero for a pope,” Yépez told FNL.

It's certainly welcome news for the family. With the industrialization of the sombrero industry, traditional hat-makers have struggled to compete with mass produced versions.

“Frankly, even with sales up due to Pope Francis, we're noticing how hard it has become to find people interested in making the hats,” Yépez says. “Our family has been in the business for three generations, but the next generation no longer wants to do the same thing.”

Yépez said the hats are now finished in surrounding communities, where people still work by hand.

“We bring them the product half-finished and have them give it the finishing touch,” she added. “There are approximately 150 people working for us that way.”

Beyond the everyday business concerns, the Salazars and Yepezes are proud Catholics. The country has been preparing for weeks for the pope's arrival Friday evening. 

John Paul II was immensely popular in Mexico, making a total of five trips to the country during his papacy. Benedict caused less of a stir in 2012 due to a perceived lack of interest in Mexico, which some found disappointing in comparison to the more simpático Polish pope.

To date, Francis appears to have struck a chord with Mexicans with his message of tolerance, warnings about inequality caring for those in need at a time when Mexico is increasingly pessimistic about social inequality, violent crime and government corruption.

“I like him a lot, like I did the popes before him,” Yépez told FNL. “Every pope has his own philosophy. John Paul II was beloved by Mexicans, but Benedict was a little more distant – even though he was still popular here. Francis seems very open, he's someone we Mexicans understand well.”

She added, “Personally, I hope Francis' visit will help bring a little more peace to the country.”

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen