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



Unlike Mexico, Guatemala has never had a state ideology comparable to mestizaje. However, it has made repeated attempts to eradicate cultural differences among its population of about 6 million, which is roughly half Indian. The official policy of indigenismo is advocated in the belief that Guatemala can never truly achieve modern nationhood without dismantling the "non-Guatemalan" identity of Indians (Smith 1990). To help further this policy, the state has frequently attempted to create a "national hegemonic culture" as a means of control (Smith 1990). As in the Mexican case, a national identity that co-opts folklorized elements of Indian culture is part of this culture. The most notable example of this is the popular and official veneration of Tecún Umán, the Quiché Maya leader who brought some ninety thousand warriors against the Spanish, and who was slain in hand-to-hand combat by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado (Moore 1967). In 1980 the Guatemalan newspaper El Grafico regarded Tecún Umán as the symbol "of the mixture . . . produced by the encounter and fusion of . . . the Guatemalan Indian and the Spaniard. In him we venerate our indigenous ancestor . . . who yielded before . . . a more technically and scientifically developed continent but not without presenting heroic resistance" (Hendrickson 1991: 291). As Hendrickson (1991: 291) observes, this ironic passage alludes to conquest and the subsequent subordination of Indian culture by the more "advanced" Spanish. By this rhetoric, the modern Maya are defeated and subordinated, and their power and right to self-determination are placed firmly in the past.

These themes of ethnic and temporal hierarchy run throughout Guatemala's currency. Before the Guatemalan Revolution (1944-54), designs on bank notes were dominated by two motifs: a portrait of General José Maria Orellana, president of Guatemala (1921-8), and a quetzal bird perched atop a column. The quetzal, or resplendent trogon, is the national bird of Guatemala, and its feathers were highly valued by pre-contact Mesoamerican peoples. The quetzal has also been the name of Guatemala's currency since the mid-1920s, when a sudden increase in coffee prices allowed Guatemala to set up its own national bank (LaFeber 1984).

The first time the pre-contact past was explicitly portrayed on Guatemalan currency was in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, a brief period of revolution and liberal reform in Guatemalan history. A series of notes printed during and after the Revolution depicted a variety of indigenous motifs: Maya Indians in traje, or indigenous dress, on the back of the half quetzal note [P 91], a pre-contact, Classic period Maya vase on the obverse of a 5 quetzal note [93, 99], with a Maya-Spanish conflict depicted on the reverse, a 10 quetzal note [P 94, 100] picturing a Classic period carved stone slab from the site of Tikal, and a portrait of a male Indian in indigenous dress on the obverse of a 100 quetzal note [P 96, 102]. These notes remained in print into the early 1970s.

The Banco de Guatemala's second issue of the 1970s can be characterized by a blending of historical and indigenous design elements on bills of all values. The obverses portray Maria Orellana and other white men, while the reverses picture schools, crop workers, and the National Assembly. Indigenous motifs are incorporated into the designs of these bank notes in two manners: 1) they function as margins for other designs, and 2) they are relatively unobtrusive elements that are smaller in scale and/or impressed or shaded more lightly than non-indigenous designs. The note [P 110] with the least value, one-half of a quetzal, is an interesting exception. The back shows a temple from Tikal, while the front portrays a stylized bust of Tecún Umán.

The bank's third issue (1983-9) is essentially the same as the second, but exhibits a more thorough integration of indigenous and historical elements. The "Maya" designs are more complex and darker in color, yet remain small or in the borders. The head portraits of white men are now backgrounded by a stylized pyramid reminiscent of those at ancient Tikal, while the backs continue to display historical scenes. The fourth issue (1989-present) shows the same trend of integration, with lightly impressed Maya glyphs forming much of the background for the obverse sides of several notes.

The first coins to depict Guatemala's Maya heritage were minted during the middle years of the Revolution, when all coins underwent a change in design. Interestingly, just before the Revolution (in 1943) coins were struck that exhibited a more stylized, "Maya-like" quetzal [KM 251-2]. In 1949, a 10 centavo piece [KM 256] depicted an ancient Maya stela from Quirigua on the reverse side. In 1950, the bust of an Indian woman in traje appears on the reverse of a 25 centavo coin [KM 258]. Both designs are still minted and remain basically the same. The Indian woman's features have changed subtly: the nose is now smaller, and she looks less "Indian." On all Guatemalan coins minted since 1925, when the quetzal became the monetary unit, the obverse sides depict the national seal.

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 4 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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