Joseph M. Galloy: "Symbols of Identity and Nationalism in Mexican and Central-American Currency"


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National sovereignty is represented by the national seals on the obverse sides of coins, and is involved in both processes of assimilation and differentiation. With respect to the former, sovereignty denies claims of autonomy for groups within the confines of the state. For nations with large indigenous groups, such as Mexico and Guatemala, the national seal, as depicted on the obverse side of coins, is superordinate to Indians or the Indian past. All the other nations regularly depict the national seal on the obverse sides of coins, except for El Salvador and Nicaragua, which only do so for high denomination coins. This demonstrates that even though other symbols, such as the "colonial order" (El Salvador, early Nicaragua) or the Nicaraguan Revolution, may be chosen in place of national sovereignty for "domestic" coins, the national seal is still important to differentiate these nations from others on precious metal commemorative coins.

Another facet of external differentiation is related to tourism. Nations such as Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras possess spectacular, accessible pre-Columbian sites and artifacts. In addition, Mexico and Guatemala are also home to millions of Indians who attract tourists. The portrayal of Indians — and by extension the nations in which they reside — as "exotic" is one strategy of external differentiation that promotes tourism (Hendrickson 1991; Urban and Sherzer 1991). It therefore makes sense that Indians and the Indian past are appropriated as national symbols, and are represented on currency which tourists would also handle.

One final question with regard to the depiction of the native past on these currencies is, What is the significance of the timing of its appearance? The answer appears to be linked in part to the development of large-scale cash economies, particularly those based on coffee, in many of these countries around the turn of the century. This development led to an increasingly greater need for economic and political integration within these societies. In nations like Guatemala, Indians were integrated through policies that diminished their capabilities for self-sufficiency, forcing them to participate in a national cash economy (Warren 1989: 6-13). For such a system to work, it was important to make sure that Indians were incorporated into society in a low position, as has been the case in both Guatemala and Mexico. This low position was made official using currency in Mexico in the mid-1930s, when land reform was less of a burning issue, and in the mid- 1940s during the Revolution in Guatemala. Indians were also first represented around this time in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The appearance of indigenous motifs and design elements at around the time of the second world war may also reflect an increased need for ideology to assist the process of nation-building, when, as Anderson observes, "the nation-state tide reached full flood" (Anderson 1983: 104). At this time, the need for internal cohesion was a leading priority for states during a climate of international turmoil (Berlin 1980).

In conclusion, this study has shown that currency often has been used as a vehicle for the transmission of nationalist symbolism and the construction of national identities. Often, these messages are subtle and are not immediately apprehended. Therein lies their power. As Barthes states, "What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined, even if this goes back quite a while, by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality" (Barthes 1972: 142). Therefore, the symbolism found on the currencies of Mexico and Central America explains to its audiences, in apparently factual terms, the relationship between their past and present situations.


















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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 10 / 11


© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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2000.04.24