History Lesson: Who’s On the Five?

By Robin Friday

After one of my Guatemalan friends said to me, “Almost nobody knows the history of the people on our currency,” I became curious about this rainbow colored cast of characters.

And like early presidents in the States, did they have stories about owning slaves or growing hemp? Since I touch them every day, I decided to find the dirt on these guys beneath the surface of soft and crumpled bills.

Dr Mariano Gálvez, on the 20, was never president but held 2 terms in congress (1831-38). He’s credited with bringing modern medicine to Guatemala.

Miguel García Granados on the 10 note was president from 1871-73 and leader of a revolution to modernize Guatemala. Yet, Granados was not even a true Guatemalan! He was born in Spain and schooled in London – an example of those born into privilege. Bush anyone?

President Justo Rufino Barrios (1873-85), on the 5, is the proverbial Abraham Lincoln who made great strides to unite the country. But his vision was to make Guatemala the worlds #1 coffee exporter. Thus, he confiscated land from Mayans and gave it to his rich farming buddies. For years angry dissenters cut off the head of Barrios from various busts in his honor. But Barrios goes down in history as a bad-ass because he died in battle with El Salvador trying to get them to join the Central American Union.

President José María Orellana (1921-26), on the 1 note, is cited as the one who made the Quetzal as the unit of currency. But before 1925, what was used instead? “Cuantos frijoles por los zapatos?”

Carlos Zachrisson was the Minster of Finance for 3 years (wow, how little do you have to do to land your face on a 50 note?). Zachrisson was good buddies with his boyz in the states, and tied the Quetzal to the US dollar. All hail the dollar!

Lastly, the 100 note gives a shout out to Francisco Marroquin, the first bishop of Guatemala.

After finding the scoop on these swashbuckling heroes of Guatemala, I realized I couldn’t even proport the particular highlights of all the fellows on the bills in the U.S. (i.e. Alexander Hamilton on the 10… wasn´t even president). At least now, next time you are waiting to get change for that 100 note, you can impress your friends with the knowledge of who’s who on the notes here in Guatemala. Oooooh!

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