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Looking Back
Coins, paper bills, and heroes

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:07:00 07/16/2008

Filed Under: history, Personalities, Human Interest

One of the most challenging exam questions I used to torment my students with required completing a table listing down all the coins and paper bills currently in use, from the one-centavo coin to the P1,000 bill. Worse, they had to list down the heroes commemorated in each without opening their wallets.

We go on through life and see many things daily but we rarely notice. Coins and bills are exchanged every day, yet we hardly take the trouble to read the text on them or reflect on their design. I would like to think that by placing historical figures in our currency, the central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), is teaching us some form of history. Whether this is effective is another story.

There is something about official commemoration that fossilizes history. I used to wonder how the design of Philippine currency came about, and how the faces on various denominations were arrived at. Jose Rizal, the National Hero, is on the P1 coin not because he is less worthy than Sergio Osmeńa, who is on the higher denomination P50 bill, or Ninoy Aquino who is on the P500 bill. Rizal is on the P1 coin because it is the basic unit of Philippine currency.

Poor Lapu-lapu used to be on the one-centavo coin. He was last seen on the coin with his earrings and head gear when the BSP made one-centavo coins in aluminum. It was so light it could float on water. This coin was even used by enterprising tailors as buttons, until the BSP reminded the public that it is unlawful to tinker with our currency.

Then the heroes rightfully disappeared from the depreciating small-denomination coins that began to shrink. To save on metal these coins were even made lighter by a hole. How could we, in conscience, puncture a hole through Lapu-lapu, Balagtas, or Melchora Aquino? Few people realize that these coins though in use are rarely in circulation because the actual cost of making these lower-denomination coins is much higher than its face value!

Metal prices being what they are today, the BSP has often caught people smuggling out our coins to be melted and re-used in other countries. The BSP periodically has a campaign to get coins out of piggy banks and into circulation again so that there will be no need to mint new ones.

One would think that currency is a quiet business, until you get petitions from various groups asking for changes in design. For example, the people of Bulacan province want Barasoain Church reinstated on our paper bills. Then there was the ?Pangitiin si Ninoy Movement,? a lobby group that wrote the BSP governor requesting a change in the present P500 bill. They argued that Benigno Aquino Jr. doesn?t smile. Worse, his pensive mood with a hand on his chin was not good for design or for feng shui.

If we are to go by the records of the old Central Bank of the Philippines, the P500 bill was first issued during the post-Marcos or Cory Aquino administration, hence the predominant color yellow. The photograph of Ninoy was a personal favorite of the then president. My question was, why make Ninoy smile? Look at the other bills, and note that nobody smiles, except Josefa Llanes Escoda on the P1,000. The more important question should be, who gets into bank notes, coins and stamps and why?

More than a historiographical issue is that of aesthetics and personal taste. There was a recent move to change the present P20 bill into a P20 coin. It was argued that coins last longer than paper. The historical figure on this denomination, Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon, would remain, but when consulted as a courtesy, the family of the late president wanted the image changed. They preferred an older, wiser looking Quezon. We were shown a photograph of Quezon and I gasped because he looked tubercular in the picture. What is wrong with the young Quezon on the present P20 bill? Why replace this with a tired, old Quezon?

With due respect to the family, I argued: Shouldn?t historical figures be better remembered at the height of their lives rather than in their twilight? Vain as he was, I?m sure Quezon would have wanted to look good for posterity.

Here we have a question not of history but of popular memory, aesthetics, and our wish to be elevated by history.

Even without going to school, Filipinos learn of historical personages by handling coins and bank notes. They also learn about historical places and landmark buildings by looking at the reverse of bank notes. In a sense, here is history in use, but whose history is being promoted? Who is the target audience? What is the intended result of this informal, some would say subliminal, historical lesson? Who are the historical persons, events and places that never get into Philippine currency and why?

Take the trouble to notice and reflect, and you get more questions than answers.

* * *

This Saturday, July 19, I will deliver a lecture on Juan Luna at the Ayala Museum in Makati City. The lecture is part of an ongoing exhibition of Luna paintings from the Bank of the Philippine Islands Collection. The public is invited and reminded that the lecture is free with the museum admission. The lecture will be delivered twice: at 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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