The Many Faces and Places of Mexican Money

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 11.11.01 PMBy Julie Etra

I have often wondered who the historical figures portrayed on Mexico’s paper currency are and why they were significant, as well as what the landscapes and images pictured on the opposite side were.  

Starting with the lowest denomination, the 20-peso bill, the figure on one side is Benito Juárez, the beloved first president of the Republic of Mexico (his term ran from1859 until 1872); he represents the state of Oaxaca, where he was born (in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao de Juárez).  I am assuming readers of The Eye are familiar with his story and position in Mexican history but if not, read up on this most important and dynamic indigenous leader. On the same side of the bill a scale represents the people and justice, overlain on the new laws of the Republic. On the reverse side is Monte Alban, located just outside Oaxaca City and the ancient Zapotec “capital” for close to a thousand years.

José María Teclo Morelos Pérez y Pavón is portrayed in magenta on the 50-peso bill, which has been in circulation since May 2013. Morelos, as he is commonly known, was a Mexican Roman Catholic priest and revolutionary rebel leader and hero who led the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21) movement, assuming its leadership after the execution of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1811.   Morelos also tried to politically interpret the concepts of justice and equality through the Congress of Chilpancingo (1813), which became the basis for the declaration of independence, and laid the foundations for a liberal and democratic constitution that was passed in 1814. During his life he was also an arriero (muleteer).  He was born September 30, 1765, in what is now known as Morelia (Michoacán), formerly Valladolid and renamed in his honor, and died December 22, 1815, in Ecatepec de Morelos.  His remains are buried at the Angel of Independence in Mexico City. He is a fascinating and inspiring leader and I encourage you to read more about him.

The 100-peso bill has two versions. On one side of the older 100-peso bill is Nezahualcóyotl. I found him to be the most fascinating of all the historical figures to grace Mexican currency, perhaps in part due to his prominence in pre-Columbian history. He is known as the poet king of Lake Texcoco, one of the five lakes in the Basin of central Mexico and adjacent to Lago de Mexico on which Tenochtitlan, the future capital of the ‘Aztec’ or Mexica empire was, built. His name in Nahuatl means “coyote who fasts.” His people, the Acolhua, however, were not Mexican per se, as they did not speak Nahuatl. They arrived the Valley of Mexico and settled on the east side of Lake Texcoco around 1200 B.C. The Acolhua were a sister culture to the Mexica, as well as the Tepanec, Chalca, and Xochimilca, among others. Aside from his military victories and several exiles, he oversaw the rise of the Aztec Triple Alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, and hence the start of the Aztec empire. 

Nezahualcóyotl, considered the wisest ruler of the Anahuac Valley – as it was known in that era – was finally crowned Tlatoani (leader) of Texcoco in 1431. Nezahualcóyotl established the rule of law, basing it on a council system to manage finance, justice, war, and culture (designated with term “music”).  Unfortunately, the government systems, engineering (he designed aqueducts, scholarship and arts cultivated by Nezahualcóyotl—sophisticated markers of pre-Columbian civilization—were destroyed by the Spanish.

On the same side of the bill, next to Nezahualcóyotl’a image, is some text believed to be from of his most famous poem, with a mockingbird (centzontle). Beneath the mockingbird is a scene of two men sitting around a table supporting a flower. On the back there is a representation of an aqueduct of the Templo Mayor of the central square of Tenochtitlán.

The new 100-peso note (January 2016) commemorates the centennial of the 1917 Constitution of the United States of Mexico written during the Mexican Revolution (1910-±1920), featuring Venustiano Carranza and Luis Manuel Rojas. The color of the Constitution changes from green to gold with the angle of the bill under the light. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 restricted the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico and established the basis for a free, mandatory, and secular education. Luis Manuel Rojas was a politician, journalist and legislator from Ahuacatlán, Jalisco. He presided over the Constituent Congress that drafted the Constitution of 1917 and was a vocal opponent of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. The reverse side shows the representatives or deputies swearing to approve and protect the Constitution of the United Mexican States, which took place in the Hall of Sessions, Querétaro.

On the 200-peso bill appears Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, better known as Sor Juana (sister Jane or Joan Agnes of the Cross, in English), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in full. She was a remarkable intellect and enlightened woman who chose to study and live in a convent rather than follow the limited roles acceptable for women during that era. She was born on November 12, 1648, and died on April 17, 1695, at the age of 47. She was a self-taught scholar, scientist, and student of science, philosopher, composer, and poet, fluent in Nahuatl and Latin at a young age. 

After joining the nunnery in 1667, she began writing poetry and prose, including controversial topics for a woman, which included love, feminism, religion, misogyny and the hypocrisy of men. The later topics led to her condemnation by the Bishop of Puebla, and in 1694 she was forced to sell her collection of books and focus on charity towards the poor. She died the next year from the plague, caught while treating her fellow nuns. You can read about her in more detail in The Eye Archives (https://theeyehuatulco.com/2013/03/01/the-first-feminist-of-the-americas/). 

The reverse side of the bill features the Hacienda de Panoaya. This is where Sor Juana lived between the ages of 3 and 8, and where she learned Latin as she immersed herself in her grandfather’s library. Currently the property is open to the public. In part of the original estate the Sor Juana Museum offers details of her life.  But yikes, the rest of the 60-hectare property is now an amusement/theme park (http://www.haciendapanoaya.com/precios.html). 

The 500-peso bill is the most used, and therefore has had the most attempted counterfeits (47 percent of all attempts), so Mexico has had several different versions.  The first was first issued in 1994 and featured an image of army general Ignacio Zaragoza. The next version of the 500-peso bill, issued August 30, 2010, portrayed the painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera on the opposing sides. 

The newest 500-peso bill appeared in August of 2018.  One side portrays Benito Juárez accompanied by an image of his triumphal arrival at Mexico City on July 15, 1867, to take up the presidency after the French and their efforts at empire were driven out.  The time of Benito Juárez’ leadership is known as “The Reform of the North,” which included redistributing church lands to the poor, the separation of church and state, and the basic principle of equality before the law.

Future changes in Mexican money.  Mexican paper currency typically commemorates prominent historical figures or some aspect of Mexican culture, while the reverse features landscapes, flora, or fauna.  

In 2019 the 200 peso bill will depict Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos y Pavón in commemoration of Mexico’s Independence, while on the back will be an image of the Sonoran Desert, specifically the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. 

In 2020 the 1,000 peso bill will be renewed in honor of the Mexican Revolution, with Francisco I. Madero, Carmen Serdán and Hermila Galindo as protagonists. On the reverse side will appear the tropical wetland ecosystem of the Calakmul Reserve in Campeche. 

In 2021 a new 100 peso bill will commemorate La Colonia (temperate forests) and features a portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz on one side, and the Reserva de la Biósfera Santuario Mariposa Monarca (monarch butterfly reserve) in Michoacán, with pines and oaks on the reverse side. 

In 2022 a new 50 peso bill will feature a representation of Tenochtitlan, and on the back, Xochimilco, the axolotl (a salamander endemic to the Xochilmilco lake complex), and corn. A new $2,000 bill will show Octavio Paz and Rosario Castellanos, important 20th-century Mexican poets, authors, and diplomats, on one side; the reverse side will portray the dry tropical jungle (selva seca) of Mexico, with agave landscapes, old tequila manufacturing facilities, bats, and maguey and agave plants on the reverse.  

And the 20 peso bill will gradually be removed from circulation and replaced by a coin, as cost-benefit studies determined that its production was no longer cost-effective. 

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