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


Interestingly, none of the bank notes greater than 1 lempira depict the indigenous past at all. In 1976, a 2 lempira note [P 47B] was printed that depicted Aurelio Soto on the obverse side with an unobtrusive "Mayan" squiggle at the center of the bill; a mountain appears on the back. Similar squiggle motifs can be found at the center of higher denomination bills as well. These folklorized indigenous elements are the only ones on these bills. These higher denominations all have portraits of Hispanic men on the obverse. Designs on the obverse sides include the battle of Trinidad, a city university, the Port of Cortés, the National Development Bank, and a forestry school, in ascending order of value.

Since the early 1930s, Honduran coins have displayed the national seal on the obverse side. At this time, coins of 20 [KM 73] and 50 [KM 74] centavos and 1 lempira [KM 75] depict Lempira with feathers in his hair. The 1 lempira coin was not minted after 1937. The bust of Lempira on 20 and 50 centavo coins underwent a metamorphosis similar to that on the bills in 1978 [KM 83-4], and remains the same today.

The depiction of the indigenous past on Honduran money is less pervasive than in the Mexican or Guatemalan cases, in spite of the currency being named after an Indian. Significantly, the 1 lempira note is the only one which depicts the Indian past, and it is very similar to Guatemala's one-half quetzal note. On their obverse sides, both depict Indian leaders who brought tens of thousands of warriors against the Spanish, and both show an ancient Maya ruin on the reverse. Like Tecún Umán, Lempira was defeated; his face and the name of the currency itself serve as reminders of the Hispanic power structure, as do the depictions of white men on higher denomination notes that the poor of the country rarely ever touch. The dominant message on coins is the sovereignty of the Honduran nation; the representation of Lempira on the reverse sides of two coins subtly asserts the messages of conquest, subjugation, and subordination.

Because most of the nation is poor, and non-mestizo ethnic groups constitute a very small minority, Honduran money primarily appears to be an instrument of class oppression rather than ethnic oppression. The poor of this country are excluded from the power structure that is represented by the higher denominations, and are left with a conquered Indian and fallen ruins as their models.


The small country of Belize (formerly British Honduras), has an ethnically diverse population of about 160,000. English-speaking creoles make up roughly 40 percent of the population (Davidson 1987), which is comprised of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including East Indians, Germans, and French (Robinson 1988). About 33 percent of the population is ladino, and there is a small (17 percent) yet highly visible Indian population, including Kekchi, Mopán and Yucatec Maya, and Arawak-speaking Garífuna (Black Caribs), all of whom are relatively recent immigrants to Belize (Davidson 1987). Indian participation in national political life lags behind that of other ethnic groups (Adams 1991: 202; Davidson 1987).

The currency of Belize stands in complete contrast to that of the nations previously discussed. As a colony, the paper money of British Honduras (1884-1981) depicted the ruling monarch or the national seal on the obverse sides of all denominations beginning with the government's third issue in 1939. The authority of the British empire was also represented on coins from the mid-1880s until the early 1970s, with the depiction of busts of British monarchs on the obverse side. After the country's name changed to Belize in 1973, and especially after its independence and entrance into the Commonwealth of Nations in 1981, the national seal replaced the queen's portrait on the obverse sides of most coins. The queen's portrait remained prominent on paper money, however.

Since Belize's name change in 1973, nature (especially birds) has been the dominant commemorative theme on both bank notes and coins. There are, however, three high intrinsic value commemorative coins from the middle to late 1970s that depict elements of Belize's pre-contact past: Maya gods [KM 53, 55] and glyphs [KM 52]. In addition, an unusual collection of paper-bonded gold foil bank notes were issued in 1984 that range from $1 to $100. All of these depict the queen and a Maya ruin on the obverse side [P CS1]. Although these notes were redeemable for a short time, redemption may not now be possible (Pick 1990).

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 6 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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