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



A small number of relatively isolated Indian groups inhabit Panamá, numbering about 94,000 people, or 4.8 percent of the population. The most numerous of these are the Guaymí and San Blas Kuna. There is no representation of the Indian past on paper money in Panamá; although Panamá issued bank notes in 1941 [P 22-5], these circulated only very briefly. The American dollar now circulates freely in Panamá (Pick 1990: 855).

However, Panamá has issued coins in its national currency, the balboa, since the mid-1900s. Balboa is a predominant theme on the obverse sides of most of the earlier coins, with the national seal and/or value amount on the obverse, although Balboa and the national seal are sometimes reversed. The 1 centesimo coin has always depicted Urraca on the reverse side. Nearly all recent coins display the national seal on the obverse. Indigenous themes appear on a few recent commemorative precious metal coins, including one depicting a Guaymí ball player [KM 64], one showing Balboa and an Indian guide [KM 98], and a series [KM 60, 66, 74, 83, 95, 100] that illustrates indigenous art objects and designs on the reverse sides.

A unique aspect of Panamanian currency is that one coin actually depicts a modern Indian belonging to a specific named group, the Guaymí. However, this and the other indigenous themes only appear on high intrinsic value commemorative coins. Unlike many of the other nations discussed, one motif dominates the commemoratives: Balboa and his discovery of the Pacific. The continuing importance of the colonial past, as represented by Balboa, and the sovereignty of the modern nation of Panamá are virtually the only messages on coins intended for general circulation.


The differences in the symbolic expression of nationalism and identity on currency can be partly accounted for by demography. Mexico and Guatemala have large, potentially threatening indigenous populations and accordingly strong indigenismo policies. These nations go to great lengths to represent the indigenous past on currency, which both reflects and transmits assimilationist ideology and official national identity. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panamá have much smaller Indian populations. Exploitive class relations overshadow ethnic problems in these countries, and this relationship is represented on currency. Honduran currency exhibits attributes of both of these situations: problems of class are more important than those of ethnicity, but Indians are incorporated in a subordinate position into the national identity. These observations correspond well with those of Adams (1991) regarding the different strategies employed by the states of Mesoamerica and lower Central America to deal with their native populations. The former "ladinocratic" countries have generally exercised force to control Indians, while the latter countries have smaller, more isolated indigenous populations which are less subject to direct repression (Adams 1991: 201).

Not all of the nationalist symbolism on these currencies is related to assimilation or the maintenance of social hierarchy. Urban and Sherzer (1991: 7-11) note that Latin American states involve indigenous peoples in two processes: assimilation, or the elimination of contrasts, and differentiation, or the highlighting of contrasts. The former process is an internal one of pulling together, or nation-building, and the latter is an external one which creates unique identities or characters for whole nations (Urban and Sherzer 1991: 7-11).

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AS/SA Nº 9, Article 1 : Page 9 / 11

© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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