The Color Of Money

Back in 2015, a friend, who is a teacher in Iowa, asked me to do an online interview with her Spanish class describing what it is like living in México. Fortunately, it didn’t have to be in Spanish, because neither I nor her students were quite up to that yet.

I prepared a few poster boards with maps and other items to help me explain where I live, and things they might need to know if they ever visited México. On one of the posters, I taped the various denominations of Mexican currency. I included all the bills ranging from 20 pesos (roughly $1 U.S.) to 500 pesos (about $25 U.S.). Since most of the students had never traveled abroad, I thought they’d be impressed by how artistic and colorful Mexican money is. They probably didn’t realize that the currency of almost every other country in the world is more colorful and artistic than the U.S. greenback. Of course, when I mentioned that to the class, one smart aleck commented, “Yeah, but it’s the one everybody in the world wants.”

Continuing with my lecture, I described how each denomination was a different color. This makes it much easier to distinguish one from another. Then I pointed out that each denomination is a slightly different size. That makes it possible for even visually impaired people to tell the bills apart. Finally, I got down to whose pictures were on the banknotes.

I proudly pointed out that, in a country renowned for its machismo attitudes, México had two women on its currency. The 200-peso note featured a colonial-era feminist Catholic nun, Sister Juana de Asbaje. The 500-peso note featured the world-famous artist, Frida Kahlo.

This was at the time when the United States was still debating whether to replace Alexander Hamilton with a woman on the $10 bill. A black woman, Harriet Tubman, was the veritable shoo-in for the spot until a young hip-hop singer wrote a smash hit musical play lionizing Hamilton. Crowds are still lining up to get tickets. Of course Hamilton himself was not a racial minority. But at least his character in the musical was played by a Puerto Rican—the play’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda. That’s got to count for something.

Before that blockbuster play, all that most Americans knew about Hamilton was that he couldn’t shoot straight. But, think about it. If Hamilton had won that duel with Aaron Burr, he would have killed the nation’s sitting vice president. That would not have put him on the fast track to getting his image on Mt. Rushmore.

As for Harriet Tubman, hang in there, girl. Your time will come. There are plans to put you on the front of the $20 bill, displacing Andrew Jackson to the back. But, that could take a while. The latest estimate for release is 2030. Just hope that, in the meantime, nobody writes a hit musical about Jackson.

Getting back to my lecture, I pointed out that the highest denomination bill in general circulation (500 pesos) did not show the picture of a former president or military hero. Instead, it honored the two most famous Mexican artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Can you imagine the U.S. putting not one, but two card-carrying Socialist artists on one of our banknotes? Florida’s governor would probably require that all in-state financial transactions be conducted in Bitcoin.

Getting back to Mexican banknotes, two of them featured Indigenous people—former president Benito Juárez on the 20-peso note, and the pre-Hispanic Indian chief, Nezahualcoyotl, on the 100-peso note. So far, America hasn’t put any Native Americans on its paper currency. The closest we came was putting Sacajawea on one of the unpopular one-dollar coins that are piled up in government storage vaults. Everybody in the world might want the U.S. greenback, but you can hardly give away those damned one-dollar coins.

For a couple of years I kept that poster board in case I was asked to do another lecture. But in 2018, México began a multi-year effort to update its currency to be more durable and less susceptible to counterfeiting. Sad to say, during the transition, most of the virtues that I had praised about the old currency were no longer true.

The problems started when the new 500-peso note was introduced. Instead of retaining the existing orange color, the new bill was blue. In fact it was the same exact blue as the existing 20-peso note. Worse yet, the new bill had the same picture of Benito Juárez that was on the old 20-peso note. To this day, people are accidentally forking over a 500 thinking it is a 20. If nothing else, I suppose the new 500 may have reduced counterfeiting. Why bother printing fake 500s when people will think they are only worth 20 pesos?

And what happened to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo? Gone. I guess a couple of avant-garde Socialist artists were just a little too “woke” for the conservative bureaucrats at the Mexican treasury. And the other woman didn’t fare much better. When the new 200-peso note was introduced, the feminist nun had been demoted to the 100-peso note. In her place, there were now two men – Mexican Independence heroes Miguel Hidalgo and José Maria Morelos. Some feminists might complain that this confirmed that women are paid only half as much as men. But they can take some consolation in that it also shows it takes two men to do the work that was formerly done by one woman.

And what happened to that pre-Hispanic Indian chief who had been on the 100-peso note before the nun took his spot? Vanished. Not that anybody knew who he was. Every Mexican I’ve asked thought he was Montezuma until I showed them the microscopic print under his picture. Sorry, chief. Unless somebody writes a hit musical called “Nezahualcoyotl,” you’re history.

By the way, México’s new 20-peso note is finally circulating. To help reduce the confusion with the blue 500-peso note, the new 20 is now mostly pink. That means we can now confuse it with the old pink 50-peso note. Some people never learn. Incidentally, the most interesting thing about that new 20 is what they put on the back. Rumor has it, they considered using a picture of the government building where the Mexican Chamber of Deputies and Senate meet. But instead, they put a picture of a crocodile-infested swamp. Oh well—same difference.

Sadly, all the virtues of Mexican currency that I had praised back during my lecture are gone except one. They’ve kept the slight difference in size between the various denominations. So if you are considering doing a large cash transaction in México, you might want to bring along a visually impaired friend.

And as for Sacajawea, I think she deserves better than being stashed away in storage vaults with 857 million of the unpopular one-dollar coins. As the Native American who was instrumental in exploring the American West, I think she is entitled to be on a national monument. It should be in a spot that is considered sacred ground to Native Americans—like the Black Hills of South Dakota. Surely, they could squeeze her in somewhere on Mt. Rushmore. I know former president Donald Trump was scoping out a spot there for himself. But, personally, I think it would be more appropriate to save his image for the 3-dollar bill. Oh, and if they need a color suggestion for that bill, I’d say you couldn’t go wrong with orange.

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Larry Kolczak
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