What does the 500 Mexican Peso Currency tell us about Mexico?

We celebrated Thanksgiving in Mexico City. A combination of a cheap flight ticket, invitation from my wife’s friend to visit and a general curiosity to explore the world took us there. Among the few things I noticed was the abundant and never-ending cultural offerings that the city (and may I add, the country itself) has to offer. One fact that I want to focus on, and one which tells us a lot about the country is the currency note itself.

Frida-Diego

On the front end of the 500 Peso is a picture of Diego Rivera and on many of the same denominations is Frida Kahlo, perhaps the most recognizable artist in the world.  The couple continues to represent Mexico in more ways than one can imagine. As this BBC article argues,  they contribute millions of dollars to the economy. My wife contributed her bit by purchasing some items from the museum.

What does this obsession with these two artists tell us about Mexico? Quite a bit, actually. As I learnt in my Public Organizations and Management course, many years ago, what an organization or culture celebrates and rewards tells us a lot about them. The fact that Mexico has put this couple on the 500 peso currency shows that it takes its art and artists seriously. We saw this, at several places. Most museums we visited (including the Anthropology Museum) are free for students and professors. We had to pay here, since we were not Mexicans, but at the Chapultepec Castle, we managed to get discounted fares, showing our American student IDs – ok, we cheated – but that was just to test whether they would still honor our ‘student status’, and viola, they did! Mexican art is everywhere – in its downtown, in the suburban towns such as Puebla and Cholula and its coastline cities. The country exudes art and culture and is a testament to living handicrafts and murals; the likes of which I have not seen in many countries.

The couple is celebrated to date, for their art, as for their way of life. The Secretaria de Education Publica building in the heart of Mexico City has murals painted by Diego Rivera, who initially inspired and encouraged Frida to paint. The building’s murals depict peasant life, in all its glory. This is not a place for Marxist haters or hard-core capitalists. The couple is reported to have hosted Leon Trotsky, when he fled for his safety. Whether you agree with his political ideology or not, the murals are impressive – both in their breadth of work – as well as the impression they make on you. Just standing there, looking at the murals brought to my mind a sense of what Mexican peasant life was (and perhaps is) and the daily struggles of the peasant and commoner.

As I was finishing up this article, I came across a news article on my newsfeed that pointed to a campaign, in the U.S., for the inclusion of a photo of Harriet Tubmann, the 19th century abolitionist on the new $ 20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson. The campaign is run by Women on 20s, an organization that seeks to get recognition for women in America’s struggles. This may well be a first step before Congress considers and passes a bill. While the American people are figuring out who should be on a $20 bill, it looks like the Mexicans have already accomplished what Americans aspire to. A $500 Peso bill shows the direction in which the $20 USD bill should go!

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