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Who’s in your wallet?

17 November 2006

You go through a gringo’s wallet (um… preferably not one you “found”… hanging out of some distracted backpacker’s hip pocket on the Mexico City Metro during rush hour perchance?) and who do you find? Mostly dead presidents, and generals, at that — Washingon on the one; Jackson on the 20; and Grant on the 50-dollar bill. There’s the first Secretary of the treasury on the ten and Lincoln (another president) on the five, but not until you get to the 100, do you find someone known for something other than warfare and politics. And Benjamin Franklin os better remembered for his witty reworkings of commonplace sayings, or home-improvement inventions than for any philospophical or artistic breakthoughs.

Mexico, too has their “dead presidents” (well, PRESIDENT … but you can’t get around Benito Juarez) and military heros (Morelos on the 50-peso note. But then, Morelos was the very model of a modern guerilla leader — Che Guevara as country priest. Padre Hidalgo, another cura/revolutionary is on the 1000, but you seldom see a grand), but they also have:

Nezahuacoatl on the 100. Where are our poet-statesmen? Not that I can think of any (Lincoln’s rhetoric, good as it is, doesn’t rise to the level of poetry). But with Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz — poet, philosopher, educational reformer and scientist — on the 200, Mexico is saying something about THEIR values that we’re not.

With the currency changes in Mexico, the worthies are getting a make-over. Mexican bills, like the U.S. bills are modernizing, and coming out with new safety features. There’s some grumbling, but the one professional miliary man on Mexican currency — Ignacio Zaragoza (who was born near Matagorda Bay, Texas, by the way) is retreating before another cultural hero. Zaragoza won the Battle of Puebla, the glorious Cinco de Mayo, and he’s a genuine hero. But… what does Mexico want to say about itself? That it once beat the French against all odds? Nah… they want to say “we’re a nation of high culture and great artists”.

PRESENTING … the NEW 500-peso note!

Alas, Diego Rivera was an ugly man (and Zaragosa, while he looked more like a grad student in literature than a general, looks conventionally heroic) and the reverse includes Rivera’s over-rated wife, Frida Kahlo. And, there has been a lot of criticism that the Banco de Mexico is turning its back on a worthy hero in favor of “political correctness.” So be it. But, it’s what we like about Mexico. The slight irony of a country with the National Bank controlled by foreign capitalists putting two Communists on their currency is wonderful.

Even better, it says to the world — no, we’re not a military power, and we do have money to spend… but we know what’s really important… poetry, science, art. So, when do we put Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson on our bills?

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