Valuing the Past: Symbols of Identity and Nationalism

in Mexican and Central-American Currency

Joseph M. Galloy

Harvard University
Department of Anthropology


Modern nation-states have often used conceptions of "the past" for building or reinforcing national identities (see, for example, Blakey 1990; Fowler 1987; Olsen 1986). Unfortunately, the manipulation of material culture in constructing national identities has generally been ignored in most analyses. Material culture, being at least partly symbolic in nature, has the potential to transform societies through concepts and ideologies (Hodder 1982: 212). This is because material objects which serve utilitarian purposes may also function to communicate information. According to Barthes, such objects "have a substance of expression whose essence is not to signify; often, they are objects of everyday use, used by society in a derivative way, to signify something" (Barthes 1967: 41).

One kind of material culture that can be particularly effective in shaping ideas about the past, and therefore identity, is state produced currency. The commonly- held view in economics that money "merely serves to transfer economic energy between independent agents" ignores the fact that money also has "value function" (Dyer 1989: 504-5). However, it is argued here that the physical aspects of money also have sign value, and as objects that frequently pass from person to person, coins and bank notes can be potent vehicles for verbal and non-verbal communication. Commenting on the functions of money, Hart also noticed this communicative potential: "Look at a coin from your pocket. On one side is 'heads' — the symbol of the political authority which minted the coin . . . [This] reminds us that states underwrite currencies and that money is originally a relation between persons in society" (1986: 638). This paper explores the communicative aspects of money through a comparative analysis of state-produced currency from modern Mesoamerica and lower Central America, in which particular attention is given to the representation of the indigenous past and to the construction of national identities.


The principal physical attribute of currency analyzed here is design. Variation in design, such as the size and color of visual elements and the depiction of nature, personages, events, and artifacts, is taken to suggest variation in meaning. The physical space upon which design is laid also has the potential to transmit messages. For example, both paper money and coins have obverse and reverse sides, allowing for contrasts or comparisons to be made between the messages communicated by primary, or obverse, and secondary, or reverse designs. Surface area and material are also potentially significant; coins have smaller, more restricted surfaces (in both shape and size) than do bank notes, meaning that designs must be smaller, and there is often poorly defined detail on Central American specimens (Krause and Mishler 1981: 18). Conversely, for paper money "it is of benefit that due to its relatively large surface . . . it offers space for many motifs and frequently impresses by means of its accurate printing on high-grade paper" (Pick 1977: 19). It therefore follows that the designs on coins should differ from those on bank notes, and that the messages represented by those designs will depend upon which form the currency takes.

Finally, as durable objects, coins and bank notes have the capacity to communicate information over long periods of time and over great distances. While this may at first appear advantageous when compared with more ephemeral or "rapid-fading" signs conveyed by speech, sounds or gestures, the long communicative lives of durable objects means that the messages which they convey cannot be easily changed when desired (Harrison 1974: 147). Given the permanence of coins relative to that of paper money, it could be expected that the issuing authority would wish to ensure that the messages delivered by coins would be perdurable, appropriate for the foreseeable future and beyond. Conversely, it follows that the impermanence of paper allows for the communication of somewhat more timely yet perhaps socially or politically volatile information.

This study utilizes catalogs designed for paper money and coin collectors, namely the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money by Albert Pick (1990) and the Standard Catalog of 20th Century World Coins by Krause and Mishler (1992). These volumes catalog virtually all bank notes and coins issued by national governments. While photographs of the obverse sides of bank notes are always provided in these catalogs, the reverse sides are usually only described. The opposite is generally true for coins. As a consequence, direct visual access to some of the design motifs was not always available.


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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 1 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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