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


What is most interesting about the Nicaraguan case is how the messages conveyed by currency changed over time. During the middle of the century, Indian identity was perhaps used on money to create a sense of Nicaraguan distinctiveness, or perhaps to serve as a reminder of Spanish (i.e., ladino) power and the conquest of the Indians. These alternatives are difficult to assess because this representation of an Indian on Nicaraguan currency is a unique occurrence.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a unique Central American country in that 80% of its 2.8 million people are white. The rest of the population is generally mestizo, and there is a small number of blacks. There are only about 15,000 Indians in Costa Rica, which the state treats with a typically contradictory policy of indigenismo: the goals are to elevate the economic, social and cultural status of Indians through their integration into national life, while simultaneously recognizing the value of their "autochthonous" culture (Dobles-Ulloa and Guevara 1988).

Costa Rica has produced a small number of bank notes that represent the indigenous past. Bank notes issued under the authority of the Banco Internacional, from 1918 until the inception of the Banco Nacional in the early 1940s, portrayed modern Costa Rican peasants, such as horsemen, coffee pickers, sugar cane cutters, and women carrying fruit. Notes issued by the Banco Nacional during the 1940s include a 2 colon note [P 201] which depicts natives and de Coronado on the obverse, a 10 colon note [P 205] with a personage labeled cacique ("Indian chief") on the obverse, and a 100 colon note [P 208] that depicts a pre-Columbian polychrome vessel at the center of the obverse side and a ceremonial altar on the reverse. The obverse sides of many of the other notes depict historical personages such as Columbus and de Coronado. Since the 1940s, Costa Rican notes issued by the Banco Central are conservative in comparison, depicting both historical and contemporary white men. The importance of development is implied by the portrayal of modern buildings, although an emphasis on traditional agricultural themes continues.

Unlike paper money, coins exhibit continuity in design from the early 1900s up to the present. Coins of all denominations depict the national seal of Costa Rica on the obverse side, a design which highlights discovery and colonization through its depiction of a tall ship sailing along a rugged coast. The reverse sides of 2 colon coins and below simply denote value, the only exceptions being a few of turn of the century gold coins that portray Columbus. Nevertheless, Costa Rican coins draw attention to the nation's colonial roots. Higher denomination coins from the 1970s, some of which have high intrinsic value, commemorate development, human rights, animals, and conservation. One 100 colon commemorative gold coin minted in 1970 [KM 196] portrays pre-Columbian gold art, as does one coin issued in 1983 [KM 218].

Costa Rican currency is similar to that of El Salvador, in that its earlier notes emphasize the nation's agrarian foundation. This theme is supplanted by images of the past, including the Indian past, around the mid-century. This was in turn replaced by very conservative, authority-evoking images of white men. The reverse sides of these bank notes simultaneously secure images of development and peasant-labor based agriculture. As already mentioned, coins are very stable in design over time, with the exception of precious metal commemoratives, which are highly variable on their reverse sides. All coins emphasize the sovereignty of the nation by bearing the national seal on the obverse side. The indigenous past has only been portrayed recently on a few commemorative coins of high intrinsic value. The theme of development is much less obvious here than on the currencies of other nations, although it is an important issue in Costa Rica today, especially with regard to oil (Dobles-Ulloa and Guevara 1988).

In general, the symbolism of Costa Rican currency has less to do with ethnic oppression, by ignoring the native past, than it has to do with reinforcing notions concerning exploitive class relations. This makes the currency of Costa Rica similar to that of Honduras, Nicaragua before the Sandanistas, and particularly El Salvador.

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 8 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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