There was a time when all our coins, down to the near-worthless one-centavo coin, had the image of a historical figure engraved on them. One could then learn some Philippine history by looking at the face of the coins and about significant Philippine flora and fauna on the reverse.
Then as now, however, we see things but rarely notice them. I cannot remember when people started ignoring coins that were worth a fraction of a peso. In my youth there was a one-centavo coin with the image of Lapu-lapu on it; it was made of aluminum that was so light it was supposed to float on water, perhaps to simulate the fish named after the hero of Mactan. Some people found use for such coins by punching holes in them and making them into shirt buttons. Later, these mamera even came in the shape of a square. One version of the five-centavo coin had scalloped edges and resembled a small flower.
One day supermarket cashiers started giving away hard candies instead of coins; from then on fractional currency seemed to have lost its value and use in the eyes of the public. Today the three most useful coins come in denominations of P1 (with the image of Jose Rizal), P5 (with Emilio Aguinaldo), and P10 (with Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini). All other coins of smaller value do not carry images but numbers, which should teach people math that is often seen to be more useful than history.
Philippine coins minted during the American colonial period carried the work of Melecio Figueroa (1842-1903), sometimes referred to as the “Prince of Filipino Engravers.” Figueroa is not well-known today, and people are prone to ask: If he is the “Prince,” then who is the “King of Filipino Engravers”? Apart from a number of streets that bear his name, Figueroa has lapsed into history, forgotten even by Filipinos who lived during a time when they literally had his art at their fingertips.
If you browse in shops dealing in antiques and coins today, you will find 20th-century P1 coins that bear the image of a woman, an allegory of “Filipinas,” striking an anvil with a hammer. Filipinas’ sexy curves are emphasized by a flimsy, wind-blown dress. Mayon Volcano refuses to fade into the background, spewing smoke from its perfect peak that flies in the same direction as the woman’s hair and dress. This mass-produced masterpiece of engraving is the iconic work of the now unremembered Melecio Figueroa. Fractional currency also designed by Figueroa carry a seated shirtless hunk of a man who probably got toned from constant exercise with hammer and anvil. Mayon again serves as backdrop.
Figueroa’s designs were chosen for the first US-Philippine coins known as the “Conant coins,” which were minted in 1903 following the US Congress’ Act to Establish a Standard of Value and to Provide for a Coinage System in the Philippine Islands. Silver pesos were minted to replace Mexican silver pesos and Spanish silver pesos with the profile of Alfonso XIII that were used from 1897 until 1904, when they were demonetized. Smaller denominations of 50, 20, and 10 centavos were also minted in the United States for use in the Philippines, and these coins were around for a long time.
While Figueroa’s designs remained on the face of coins until the 1960s, there were marked changes in the texts and the backs of the coins over time. The early coins had the allegorical Filipinas on their face side, but the American Eagle and the Stars and Stripes remained on the back with the legend “United States of America.” During the Commonwealth the face of the coins remained the same, but the American Eagle was reduced to accommodate the Seal of the Philippine Commonwealth. After World War II paper currency was used, but it was not until 1958 that coins were minted anew, with Figueroa’s designs remaining on the face of coins, with the back proudly showing the seal of the Republic of the Philippines. The back of our coins reflected the political changes in the birth of our nation. By 1967, when Philippine nationalism dictated that texts on coins be in Filipino, Figueroa’s images were
replaced by the profiles of Filipino heroes.
Figueroa was orphaned early in life and grew up in Sorsogon in the care of a relative who earned a living selling cakes. He showed early signs of artistic talent by carving wooden boats and dolls that he gave away to friends. At 16 he was chosen by the Ayuntamiento of Manila as one of two Filipino artists sent to Spain on a scholarship endowed by Francisco Ages. He enrolled at the Escuela de Artes y Officios and later moved to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, all the while gaining various prizes and recognition for his engravings. When his benefactor died, Figueroa maintained himself in Madrid by repairing watches. Among his numerous works are the medals he engraved for the Exposicion de Filipinas in 1887.
In 1892 Figueroa returned to the Philippines to assume the post of professor of engraving at the
Escuela de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado in Manila. In 1893 he was appointed engraver at the Casa Moneda or colonial mint, although he continued to repair watches on the side and even opened a silversmith shop in Manila to supplement his income. He was a delegate to the Malolos Congress and taught at the Liceo de Manila until his death in 1903.
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