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


Compared to Mexican money, Guatemalan currency over the years has shown a greater degree of integration of indigenous and Hispanic elements. The mid- century bank notes were the first to include the indigenous past and present, and unlike Mexico, some of the them actually exhibited this on their obverse sides along with other motifs. Guatemalan coins also introduced indigenous subject matters during the Revolution, and these designs have essentially remained the same. As with Mexico, both the Indian past (the monolith from Quirigua) and the Indian present (the Maya woman in traje) are subaltern to the modern nation-state of Guatemala, which is represented by the national seal.

The timing of the first appearance of Indian motifs on Guatemalan currency is significant. In 1945, the newly formed Instituto Indigenista was charged with assimilating Indians into the "national culture" during a time when an Indian revolt was greatly feared. One expression of Guatemala's indigenismo policy were the misiones ambulantes de cultura, or roving bands of cultural emissaries who sought to bring Guatemalan nationalism to rural areas (Handy 1988: 701-2). The symbolic incorporation of Indians and past Indian culture on state-produced currency may have been another strategy, possibly an unconscious one, for transmitting Guatemalan nationalism to hard to reach Indian communities that at least partially relied on wage- labor for subsistence.

The culmination of this strategy can be seen on the Banco de Guatemala's third and subsequent issues of bank notes, which showed a further consolidation of Indian and Hispanic motifs. However, the Indian is symbolically subordinated by the smaller size of "indigenous" design elements, the use of Indian art as border motifs, and the use of Maya glyphs and artwork as backgrounds for the portraits of white Hispanic men. The bank note of lowest value, one-half quetzal, bears the likeness of Tecún Umán, who like Mexico's Cuauhtémoc, was a rebellious native who fought and was defeated by the Spanish. The representation of Tecún Umán on a low value bill not only expresses the official national identity — Hispanic culture with appropriated, folklorized elements of Indian culture — but it also serves as a reminder of defeat and subjugation for Guatemala's large, poor Indian population, who would likely handle the bill more often than those of higher denominations.

Like Mexico, with its symbolic subordination of Indian culture and history to that of the Spanish, Guatemalan currency emphasizes the presumed link between "Indian-ness" and the past. Similarly, Hendrickson (1991: 295) notes that Guatemalan tourist literature emphasizes the supposed bonds between modern Mayas and the past, thereby highlighting the gap between Indians and ladinos. While in one sense, the Guatemalan state desires that all of its population be "Guatemalan" (i.e., ladino), it is willing to exploit the image of the Indian for nationalistic purposes (Hendrickson 1991). The Guatemalan Indian, as depicted on currency, is a symbol of national identity, that gives a distinctive cultural flavor to the country and thus differentiates it from Mexico, other Central American countries, and the rest of the world.


Honduras' population of 3,319,200 (as of 1974) is about 5 percent Indian — Lenca, Chortí, Jicaque, Garífuna, Miskito, Paya and Sumu — and roughly 90 percent mestizo (Cruz Sandoval 1988). Like Guatemala, Honduras instituted monetary reform in the mid-1920s, when the Honduran peso was renamed the "lempira" in honor of the Lenca leader who mustered a force of some thirty thousand warriors from over two hundred villages to oppose the Spanish (Newson 1986). In 1932, bank notes [P 34-41] of 1 to 100 lempiras were issued. These notes portrayed Lempira at the left of the obverse side in a pose reminiscent of "cigar store Indian" statues, with feathers in his hair and a partially drawn bow and arrow in his hands. The national emblem is to the right, and a bank is on the back. The representation of Lempira on bills of 5, 10, and 20 lempiras was supplanted in 1941 by those portraying Hispanic men, such as Morazan, Santos Soto, and Agurcia. In 1951, the 1 lempira note [P 44] portrayed Lempira's profile with a feather in his headband on the obverse, and an ancient Maya stela from Copán on the reverse. The reverse side design has changed three times since then, first in 1961 to a representation of Classic Maya artifacts and a maize deity [P 45], and then in 1968 to a view of the ball court at Copán [P 46]. In 1974 the feather was removed from the headband and Lempira's face was rendered to appear more "Indian," but in a less stereotypical fashion than was previously the case [P 46A]. The reverse side of this note portrayed the ancient Maya ruins of Copán. In 1980, the design of the 1 lempira bill changed slightly, with Lempira's head becoming somewhat larger [P 47A].

Page - 1     Page + 1

AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 5 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

E-mail to the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction