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Mexican Banknotes: Two Mexican Women – a lady with a reputation and a beauty queen

By Peter Symes with permission on CoinWeek.com ……..

For many years, two of the lowest denomination notes circulating in Mexico were adorned with portraits of women. The 10-peso note carried a young woman in a peculiar and ornate headdress, while the 5-peso note bore the head of a lady garlanded with jewellery. Both women appear on banknotes issued by the Banco de Mexico, but one of them is not Mexican; both women have been the subject of debate, but for entirely different reasons; and both women have been identified, but, for the identity of one, a legend continues to supplant the truth.

The first of these two women to be immortalized appeared on the 5-peso notes of the Banco de Mexico, issued from its foundation in 1925 until 1972. Immediately following the issue of the banknotes, rumour spread as to the identity of the woman portrayed in the vignette, although initially she was referred to as the gitana, or ‘gypsy’. While the identity of the ‘gypsy’ was never officially disclosed, it was not long before the lady was determined to be Gloria Faure.

mex_5_peso_note

Gloria Faure and her sister Laura were two Catalonian ‘artistes’ who were performing in Mexico around 1925. The ladies were reported to have shared their favours with a number of influential men in Mexico and Gloria was said to be the mistress of Alberto J. Pani, the Minister of Finance in the Mexican Government. Pani was known for his philandering and speculation asserted that it was his mistress who had posed for the portrait of the gypsy.

Pani’s philandering had followed him to New York in 1925, where he was negotiating a financial deal with the Americans on behalf of the Mexican Government. While in New York he was accused of keeping women in conditions that were contrary to the ‘Mann Act’, or the ‘White Slavery’ act. His hotel was searched but no charges laid. However, the scandal had broken and the woman who was supposedly accompanying Pani was Gloria Faure. Pani offered to resign, but President Plutarco Elías Calles refused his resignation, having told his Deputies that he did not want a Cabinet of eunuchs.

President Calles’ support for Pani was possibly due to his similar penchant for the fairer sex. Indeed, Calles was suspected of having accepted favours from Gloria Faure himself. This brought accusations that the appearance of Gloria Faure’s portrait on the banknotes had been orchestrated through the efforts of the President himself and not through the intervention of the Finance Minister. However, no matter who was responsible, it became certain that Gloria Faure had posed as the ‘gypsy’.

Truth, of course, is not nearly so exciting as fiction. In 1976 the head of the Numismatic Museum at the Banco de Mexico, Professor Guadelupe Monroy, wrote to the American Banknote Company, asking for details on the portrait that appeared on the Mexican 5-peso notes. The reply indicated that the original engraving was created by Mr. Robert Savage as a stock vignette and was titled ‘The Ideal Head of an Algerian Girl’. More importantly, the portrait was engraved in 1910, fifteen years before the 5-peso notes were issued and long before the era of Gloria Faure’s great popularity. Despite the efforts of Professor Monroy in seeking the truth, the legend of Gloria Faure lives on, with many dealers’ lists and catalogues continuing to identify the portrait as that of the Catalonian artiste.

The second woman to be immortalized is Maria Estela Ruiz Velázquez, sometimes known as La Tehuana. Miss Estela Ruiz appears on the 10-peso notes issued by the Banco de Mexico from 22 September 1937 to 10 May 1967, a period of forty years. During this time she became one of the most recognizable faces in Mexico, but how did she come to appear on the banknotes?

mex_10peso_note

In an age when people of fame and national significance are placed on the banknotes of many countries, it may come as a surprise to learn that Estela Ruiz appeared on the banknotes of the Banco de Mexico because she won a beauty contest! What would the pageant organizers of ‘Miss World’ or ‘Miss Universe’ give to be able to offer such a prize today.

It appears that the decision to run a contest was taken by officials of the recently elected government of General Lázaro Cárdenas, who had been elected President of Mexico in 1936, succeeding President Calles. The contest was specifically orchestrated to select a woman to appear on the 10-peso banknote, with the contestants dressed in the traditional costume of the ‘Tehuana’. A Tehuana is a woman from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca and they are well known for their traditional dress. The costume pageant was won by Maria Estela Ruiz Velázquez and when the winning photograph was shown to General Cárdenas, he was reported to have been enchanted with the image.

The photograph of Estela Ruiz in the winning costume was provided to the American Banknote Company, who then reproduced it on the 10-peso note. The ornate, traditional dress worn by Estela Ruiz is made of black velvet with embroidered flowers in various colours. Sometimes the flowers on these traditional dresses are enhanced with threads of pure gold. The underskirt is made of lace and, as can be seen in the portrait on the banknote, so is the elaborate headdress worn by the Tehuana.

Although Maria Estela Ruiz Velázquez won the costume pageant in 1936, and the right to adorn the 10-peso note, there is little else known about the beauty queen. Despite winning the beauty contest, she never married and worked for years as a schoolteacher in Mexico City. She spent many years living with her sister Delia, a dancer, and her father. She died penniless in April 2004, at 92 years of age. Estela Ruiz was never paid for having her portrait on the notes, of for winning the beauty contest. However, Estela Ruiz expressed a sense of humour when acknowledging the wide circulation of her portrait, as she was reported as having said “No woman has been in the hands of so many horsemen as I”.

Needless to say, not everyone in Mexico was in favour of placing the portrait of a beauty queen on the country’s banknotes and the move caused discussion and debate amongst the public. However, despite some dissent, the portrait of the pageant winner remained on the 10-peso notes for the next forty years.

The two low-denomination notes issued by the Banco de Mexico, of 5 pesos and 10 pesos, are classic banknotes produced by the American Banknote Company. In the modern era, when banknote designs are frequently refreshed, it is worth pondering a time when individual designs could be issued unchanged for forty to fifty years. Was it just the era, that kept these two notes in circulation for such a long time? Perhaps the subjects of the notes – a lady with a reputation and a beauty queen – helped to stem any thought of change!

© Peter Symes

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