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


In this analysis, catalog numbers are provided in square brackets, with the prefix "P" designating bank notes catalogued in Pick (1990). The other prefix, "KM," refers to the numbering system for coins in Krause and Mishler (1992). In this study, the "present" is considered to be the respective dates of publication for each of these volumes.



Following the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910-20), the increasingly centralized Mexican state sought to end long-standing and divisive ethnic conflicts by stepping in as a powerful adjudicator (Adams 1991: 182). More importantly, Mexico instituted an aggressive indigenismo policy with the goal of erasing cultural differences among its various Indian, mestizo, and white groups (Adams 1991; Urban and Sherzer 1991).

Accompanying Mexico's indigenismo policy has been the state-supported concept of la raza, or mestizaje. This concept maintains that Mexicans are a unique, "cosmic" race derived from the fusion of Indians and Spaniards into the mestizo. This ideology is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Mexico City's Plaza of the Three Cultures at Tlatelolco, the site of the Aztec last stand. In this square, which is dominated by an Aztec pyramid, a colonial church, and a modern government building (Friedlander 1975: xiii), a plaque dedicated by the Mexican president in 1964 reads: "On 13 August, 1521, Tlatelolco, heroically defended by Cuahtémoc, fell into the power of Hernan Cortés. It was neither a triumph nor a defeat, but the painful birth of the mestizo people that is Mexico today" (Fowler 1987: 234).

The ideology of a synthetic, mestizo identity is today expressed in a variety of ways: through song, dance, literature, plastic arts, murals on public buildings, the excavation and restoration of pre-contact archaeological sites, and the display of pre-contact artifacts and sculptures in museums (Bonfil Batalla 1990: 89-91). It is also represented on Mexican paper money and coins.

The representation of Indians on Mexican currency began near the end of the Revolution. In 1920, a 2 peso note [P 698] was printed, but never issued, that depicts a native woman, wearing traditional costume, standing before the Aztec calendar stone. Other notes from this issue depict personified attributes of the nation, such as "The Law" and "Maritime Commerce." The succeeding issue (1936-42) replaced these personified national attributes with portraits of actual people, such as Zaragoza and Madero.

The third issue (1935-78) continued the depiction of important historical figures, including de Allende, Hidalgo, and Morelos y Pavon. Appearing during a time of greater post-revolutionary social stability (Knight 1992), this issue incorporated two bills with indigenous themes. The first to appear was a 1 peso note [P 709-12] that displays the Aztec calendar stone at the center of the obverse side; this note remained in print from 1935 until 1970. A 1000 peso note [P 721], in print from 1936- 77, depicts both Aztec and Maya pasts: the obverse portrays Cuauhtémoc, the conquered Aztec emperor, and the reverse illustrates the stepped pyramid known as El Castillo from the Post-classic period Maya site of Chichén Itzá.

The fourth general issue of notes, printed from 1969 until 1980, ranges in value from 5 to 5000 pesos [P 725-30]. Design changed significantly with this issue: the moderate value notes, from 20 to 500 pesos, have predominantly Aztec or Maya pre-contact artifacts and monuments depicted on their reverse sides, with Hispanic themes and individuals, such as Hidalgo and Madero, on the obverse sides. The fifth issue (1981-present) follows a similar pattern, with the 10,000 peso note [P 736] exhibiting the newly discovered Coyolxauhqui stone (an Aztec sculpture) on the back. The obverse of this note portrays Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico (1934-40), who instituted mestizaje as an official policy (Mallon 1992). A 20,000 peso note [P 740] depicts an ancient Maya sculpture and a painting on the reverse, and Quintana Roo on the obverse. In 1986, a 50,000 peso note [P 743], the highest denomination of its time, commemorated Cuauhtémoc on the obverse, and an Aztec warrior and Spanish conquistador locked in battle on the reverse. This note evokes the image of a unitary Mexico formed by past struggles between Spanish conqueror and Indian conquered.

Mexican coins have also been used to represent the indigenous past. Both before and since the Revolution, the national seal usually has been the only design on the obverse side of Mexican coins. The national seal, an eagle with a snake in its beak perched atop a cactus, is derived from an Aztec symbol for the city of Tenochtitlán, which the Spanish destroyed when they built Mexico City. The reverse sides portray many of the same people that were used on bank notes, such as Ortiz de Dominguez, Hildalgo, and Morelos y Pavon.

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 2 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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