The Mexican peso has been up and down like a see-saw this year, but the country is still relatively inexpensive for North American or European travelers. As cheerful and brightly-colored as the Mexican bills are, they still don’t shape up against the dollar, pound or euro. Yet while the six peso bills currently in circulation are not the world’s most highly-valued tender, the various notes depict some very influential national treasures. These larger than life characters are a source of great pride to many, so it’s worth getting to know them. Here is the Culture Trip guide to the famous faces on Mexican money.
The smallest denomination of Mexican currency but the most commonly used, the 20 peso bill features the great statesman Benito Juárez, Mexico’s only indigenous president. Born into rural poverty in the southern state of Oaxaca, Juárez overcame a great many obstacles in his youth, including being orphaned at age three. As a young man, he moved to Oaxaca City to study for the priesthood but left to study law, before moving into local politics.
A shrewd, liberal-leaning politician, Juárez rose quickly through the political ranks, and was named president by default in 1858. He won numerous elections and held office for the next five terms, guiding Mexico through a French invasion and a chaotic period of reform.
In Mexico, he is regarded as an equivalent to Abraham Lincoln, an extraordinary figure whose achievements have echoed through history.
As a security measure, the bill contains a famous Benito Juarez quote written in microscopic letters that can only be read through a magnifying glass:
“May the people and the government respect the rights of all. Between individuals, as between nations, peace means respect for the rights of others.”
The 50 peso bill depicts José María Morelos, a Catholic priest and revolutionary rebel who fought in Mexico’s War of Independence. He joined the campaign launched by his fellow priest Miguel Hidalgo and quickly proved to be a capable military strategist, gathering weapons and fighters for the independence cause. In his first nine months, he won more than 20 victories against the Spanish. He also penned “Sentiments of the Nation,” a political document that outlined his vision for the country. After a series of defeats by royalist forces, Morelos was captured, tried and executed for treason in 1815, six years before Mexico consolidated independence. He is still celebrated for his key role in the struggle and his home city of Valladolid was renamed Morelia in his honor.
The 50 peso bill features a microscopic quote extracted from Morelos’ “Sentiments of the Nation”:
“Slavery shall be forever forbidden, as shall caste distinctions, leaving everyone equal. One American shall be distinguished from another only by his vices and virtues.”
The 100 peso bill features Netzahualcoyotl, a ruler from the pre-Hispanic period who was a noted philosopher, poet, warrior and architect. The king of the city state of Texcoco, in the modern day State of Mexico, Netzahualcoyotl had mystical leanings and wouldn’t allow human or animal sacrifice in his favorite temple. He was also a renowned engineer and is thought to have personally designed a dike to separate the fresh and salty waters of Lake Texcoco, a mechanism that was still in use a century after his death.
The 100 peso bill features one of his poems in microscopic print:
“I love the song of the mockingbird,
Bird of four hundred voices,
I love the color of the jadestone,
And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man.”
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is the star of the 200 peso bill. A nun who lived during Mexico’s colonial period, Sor Juana produced poetry, essays, letters and religious plays. A champion of women’s rights to education, she is still celebrated as a feminist icon. Sor Juana eloquently tackled topics such as romantic love, jealousy and death in her work. Since her writings and poetry rose from the ashes of religious condemnation, she is known today as the “Mexican Phoenix.”
One of Sor Juana’s most famous poems appears in tiny print on the face of the 200 peso note:
“Foolish men, who accuse,
Women without reason,
Without seeing that you create,
The very faults that you identify.”
The 500 peso bill is unique in that it contains two portraits, one on each side. The duo are the bohemian couple, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two of the country’s most celebrated artists and personalities. Rivera was the most famous of the Mexican muralists who were active from the 1920s, and his huge frescoes conveyed powerful social and political messages. Kahlo specialized in intimate portraits that depicted her personal physical and emotional pain. Twice married, the couple had an incredibly rocky relationship marked by infidelity and betrayal, but also extraordinary passion.
The 500 peso bill was released to mark the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and contains the Diego Rivera quote written in tiny script:
“It has been said that the revolution does not need art, but that art needs the revolution. That is not true. The revolution needs revolutionary art.”
You probably won’t see many 1000 peso bills during a short stay in Mexico. There are not many in circulation and some stores won’t even accept them. Fittingly, the rarest and most valuable bill depicts Mexico’s most celebrated historical figure, Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence. A Catholic priest, Hidalgo launched the country’s independence movement by ringing the bells of his church and delivering the grito de independencia (cry for independence) in 1810. For the next year, he led a vast insurgent army that swept through Mexico reclaiming it from Spanish Royalist forces. He was captured and executed in 1811, a decade before independence was finally achieved.
The 1000 peso note features a line from Hidalgo’s famous grito: “Without our homeland and freedom we will always be a long way from true happiness.”