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


The first depiction of the Indian past on coins was on a 20 peso gold piece [KM 478] minted during the late 1910s and early 1920s. This coin illustrates the Aztec calendar stone on the reverse side. Analogous to the hiatus in indigenous motifs that occurred after the printing of the never-circulated 2 peso note, indigenous themes did not reappear until 1943, with a 20 centavo coin [KM 439-41] which portrays the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán. In 1947, Cuauhtémoc first appeared on the reverse of a silver 5 peso coin [KM 465], and shortly thereafter on 50 centavo pieces [KM 449-52]. More recent coins have depicted an ancient Maya ruler of Palenque [KM 492], who replaced Cuauhtémoc on the 50 centavo piece, a Maya and an Aztec ballplayer on 20 and 25 peso coins, respectively [KM 486, 479], a feathered serpent head from Teotihuacán on a 5 peso coin [KM 485], and an Olmec colossal stone head on a 20 centavo coin [KM 491].

In summary, Mexican currency witnessed a short-lived period (ca. 1917-21) when past native cultures were first represented. On both bank notes and coins, this took the form of the Aztec calendar stone. Significantly, the bank note never circulated, and the coins were of extremely high intrinsic value. It was not until the late 1930s and early 1940s that the Indian past reappeared on currency intended for general circulation. However, on all of the Mexican coins and bank notes since then — save for the 50,000 peso note [P 743] — the indigenous past has been secondary or subordinate to other design elements. On bank notes, Indian artifacts or personages are placed in secondary positions on the reverse side, while white Hispanic individuals are portrayed on the obverse, or primary, side. On coins, indigenous elements are also placed on the reverse side, subordinate to the national seal. Contrary to the official ideology of mestizaje, the Hispanic and indigenous are not conflated. Instead, they are symbolically opposed and the indigenous subordinated; in the case of bank notes this subordination is to the Hispanic past, and on coins it is to the sovereignty of the nation.

Another dimension of this subordination is that of time: Hispanic Mexico is in the present, while native Mexico lies in the past. The frequent appearance of Cuauhtémoc on coins and on a bank note which emphasizes conflict (indeed, conquest) is a reminder that the age of the Indian is gone. Another material example of this ideology can be found in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. While the museum has some of the specific characteristics of ancient Mesoamerican cites, its overall layout gives the impression of a Christian church: "The architectural conception, in all of its details, reflects the ideology of the exaltation of the pre-colonial past, and simultaneously and contradictorily, its break with the present" (Bonfil Batalla 1990: 90, translation mine). This ideology draws attention to the existence of a dead world: "a singular, extraordinary world in many of its achievements, but dead" (Bonfil Batalla 1990: 91, translation mine).

Significantly, it is only a very small proportion of this dead world — the Aztecs in particular, as well as the Teotihuacanos, Maya, and Olmec — that is used to represent all of native Mexico. The 8 to 10 million Indians of Mexico today — 10 to 12.5 percent of the population — are represented by 56 different languages (Bonfil Batalla 1990: 49), but are subsumed on currency by only a few pre-Hispanic cultures. Indeed, Del Val (1987) has observed that the Aztecs were selected to represent all Indians by Mexican nationalists not merely because they were modern Mexico's cultural predecessors, but because they were Mexico's institutional forbears: rulers of a centralized, hegemonic state. Only more recently, as reflected on paper and hard currency, has Mexico recognized that other Indian groups (such as the Maya), are part of the nation.

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 3 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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