Monday, June 24, 2024

Give the guys a break: a case for even more women on Mexico’s currency

When I saw a new 200-peso bill begin to circulate without Sor Juana on it last year, I was crestfallen. Hidalgo and Morelos are cool and all; don’t get me wrong.

But after getting rid of the second-to-last woman on any Mexican bill — the artist Frida Kahlo had been featured on the back of the 500-peso bill, but that was changed in 2018 — they got rid of Sor Juana too? Not cool, Bank of México.

I decided to do some reading to find out what had happened, and discovered that Mexico had decided to move her to the 100-peso bill instead … but not until the following year.

“Well,” I thought, “at least she’s coming back.” Even so, I was nervous that the future plan would somehow get lost in the shuffle and we’d end up with an all-male cast on Mexican bills.

Fortunately, she has returned!

One thing I love about Sor Juana is that she’s such a respected figure in Mexican history that, as a woman, falls outside two of the most pervasive female archetypes in Mexican culture: she’s neither “la virgen,” the all-sacrificing and all-suffering perfect mother, nor “la malinche,” the ultimate disloyal woman who betrayed her people by fighting for the other side.

These are, of course, simplistic descriptions, but that’s just the nature of archetypes: they’re cultural shorthand.

No, Sor Juana was, quite simply, a badass. She was a writer, a philosopher, a feminist, a genius. I often wonder if she really wanted to be a nun or if she simply saw it as the safest option to pursue her intellectual interest without men who felt threatened by her accusing her of witchcraft. Actually, I don’t wonder; she made it very clear that she intended to be a nun so that she could study.

Might we work at creating another archetype for Mexican women in her likeness? I can think of five women right off the bat I know personally that would fit into that mold perfectly.

Anyway, back to women on bills.

All this is not to criticize. My own country, the United States, has had woefully few women featured on its own currency, and when they have appeared, it’s nearly always been on “commemorative coins” with the exception of Pocahontas on the back of $20 bills in 1865 and Martha Washington appearing briefly on $1 “silver certificates” in 1886. Harriet Tubman was supposed to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill by 2020, but that was postponed until 2030.

I don’t know about you all, but the last time I went to the U.S. I didn’t use cash for a single thing. By the time 2030 rolls around, I’m betting our neighbors to the north will have to explain to children what bills actually are. I still hope that Tubman makes it onto the $20 bill, but it feels a little like showing up to a party after nearly everyone has left.

But in Mexico, cash is still king, and plenty of places that I frequent don’t take cards at all. As a result, I see Mexicans bills quite a lot and love seeing the beautiful new designs when they come out. It just would be nice to see a few more women on there, that’s all.

Here’s a bright spot: the Revolution-era feminist Hermila Galindo and revolutionary Carmen Serdán will appear with Francisco I. Madero on the 1,000-peso bill sometime this year. This is great news! It would be even better news if I actually ever get to see a 1,000-peso bill; I’ve been here for almost 20 years and never have! But you take what you can get, am I right?

Another upcoming bill change I’m excited about that I will definitely get to see is an “all-nature” one: the new 50-peso bill will not feature any major figures but rather the famed axolotl (a salamander native to the lakes of Xochimilco).

I haven’t been able to find an image of what will go on the reverse side, but it’s said to commemorate the founding of Tenochtitlán, so I have my suspicions.

So I’m glad Sor Juana is back, but if a salamander can make it onto legal tender, how about some more women too? The only other woman who’s appeared on Mexican peso bills in recent history is Josefa Ortiz, a.k.a. “La Corregidora,” who hasn’t been seen since the 1990s. Why not bring her back? Heck, why not bring them both back and add some more?

As you may have guessed by now, I have some more suggestions for future bills. I was not asked for any, but I’ve got some anyway! Here they are:

Elena Poniatowska, one of the most important Mexican journalists and authors of the 20th century would be an excellent choice. True, she was born in France, but she worked and lived (still lives, actually) in Mexico throughout her adult life and is a Mexican citizen.

Or how about Tessy María López Goerne, nominee for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who has overcome health scares that would knock most of us out completely and keeps on being brilliant? Silvia Torres-Peimbert, the first Mexican woman to receive a doctorate in astronomy and former president of the International Astronomical Union would also be an excellent choice.

There are, of course, many other great choices, and I’d love to see Mexico take the lead worldwide on this one. Let’s give the guys a break.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website,

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