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


In summary, although Belize has a substantial number of Indians, the indigenous past has been only recently represented on commemorative issues aimed at investors and collectors, and these have little or no potential for general circulation. This situation is very much unlike Mexico, Guatemala, or even Honduras. The Belizean government chose a different set of symbols for their currency, perhaps because most Indians are recent immigrants from other areas, or perhaps because the rich ethnic diversity and the relative economic integration of ethnic groups which Belize enjoys did not necessitate assimilationist messages. However, symbolism of the authority of the British monarchy still pervades Belizean currency. The Indian past is only found where it does not question the message of sovereignty — on non- circulating collector's issues.

El Salvador

El Salvador is a nation of roughly 5.3 million people, most of whom are poor ladinos, although there are a small number of affluent, usually white, landed families. According to official estimates, Indians comprise roughly 9-12 percent of the population, although the actual proportion may be higher (Farje 1987). The greatest difficulty facing Salvadoran Indians — Maya, Nahua and Lenca — is land, which has been expropriated from them over the years by both legal and illegal means (Farje 1987; Montes 1988). El Salvador's recent civil war, during which a great number of Indians and ladino peasants were killed, was largely an issue of land reform and redistribution.

As an agrarian nation built on peasant labor, it is perhaps not surprising that Salvadoran money has depicted peasants engaged in agricultural activities. The obverse side of a 1 colon bank note [P 70] issued in 1938 depicted a ladino woman carrying a basket of fruit on her head. This was replaced in 1944 by a 1 colon note [P 72] portraying a boy plowing with oxen. These and other agricultural themes reappear at various times until the present. Other common themes include infrastructure development, as represented by an hydroelectric dam [P 87B, 106-7], and a view of Acajutla port [P 108], among others. The colonial past is represented by the frequent portrayal of Columbus — after whom the currency was named — on the reverse, and a colonial church at Panchimalco [P 91]. In 1974, the indigenous past is represented for the first time on a 100 colon note [P 112] that pictures an ancient Maya pyramid at Tazumal, Chalchuapa on the obverse side. This note was reprinted in 1980, and remains the highest denomination bank note.

Like many of the other coinages discussed in this paper, that of El Salvador is relatively unchanging over time with respect to design. The obverse sides of 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 centavo coins depicted General Francisco Morazan since the early 1920s. The Pope is shown on 25 and 50 centavo coins. Columbus is shown on the obverse of 1 colon coins, while the national seal predominates on 1 to 250 colon coins of high intrinsic value. This pattern suggests that the national seal is used only to differentiate El Salvador from other countries rather than to send messages regarding state sovereignty to its own citizens, as was the case for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. Also in contrast to these countries, the coins of El Salvador emphasize the nation's colonial, revolutionary and Catholic roots. The colonial social order persists in El Salvador today; its currency reinforces this order by orienting national identity towards the past, denying social justice for its poor ladino and Indian population.


Nicaragua is home to about 100-150,000 Indians, most of whom are Miskito, but there are significant numbers of Sumu, Rama and Garífuna, as well. Of the remaining 3.3 million people, 70 percent are mestizo, 15-20 percent are white, and roughly 9 percent are black.

Nicaraguan currency has never represented the indigenous past, although an Indian girl, with wholly Spanish features, was portrayed on the obverse side of a 1 cordoba note [P 76] that was printed from 1941 to 1960. This note was subsequently replaced by one depicting a bank building. The notes from 1979 to 1990 depict figures involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution, as well as the purported social benefits of the Revolution's aftermath.

Nicaraguan coins display no indigenous elements. Like El Salvador, Nicaraguan coins before the Revolution emphasized the nation's link to its colonial past, as represented by the frequent portrayal of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, the founder of one of Nicaragua's first settlements, on the obverse side. The reverse sides of these coins displayed a version of the national seal. During the 1980s, Sandino replaced Cordoba on the obverse sides of coins, and the reverse sides were dominated by numerals representing the denomination. Virtually all the recent precious metal commemoratives display the national seal on the obverse, and two of these [KM 64, 77] observe the "encounter of two worlds," Spanish and Indian.

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 7 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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