Ever wondered who that gent is on the $1,000 peso bill or the bearded bard on $50,000? Their faces may slip through your fingers, but they are notes to remember.
The bill cabbies most appreciate is none other than the $1000, and on its face appears the charismatic leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1903- 1948). Based on a photograph taken of the Presidential candidate at the Hotel Nutibara in Medellín during the late 1940s, Gaitán led a popularist movement in this country.
The former Mayor of Bogotá had the support of blue-collar workers, and with great oratory skills challenged the country’s political elite when the oligarchs shared power. Gunned down in Bogotá on April 9th 1948, his death sparked the “Bogotazo” in which much of the city was destroyed by angry mobs.
The political divisions formed after Gaitán’s assassination led to nationwide violence between Liberals and Conservatives, known as La Violencia. On the bill, two of Gaitán’s most famous quotes are printed: “Yo no soy un hombre, soy un pueblo” (I am not a man, I am a people) and “El pueblo es superior a sus dirigentes” (The people are greater than their leaders).
$2000: General Santander
In the U.S. a $2 dollar bill is a rarity. It has been discontinued several times and now barely circulates. With less than one percent of all notes produced as $2 dollar bills, North Americans tend to save them rather than spend them.
Here in Colombia, the $2000 peso bill pops up everywhere and helps you out in a pinch when you need small change. Commonly counterfeited, vendors tend to look at it twice before accepting them. So it’s no coincidence that the face on this bill is Colombia’s “Man of Laws,” General Francisco José de Paula Santander (1792-1840).
Rising to prominence during the independence wars of the New Granada against Spanish rule, General Santander became Bolivar’s President of the new Colombian Republic in 1832. He is most commonly documented by historians as Simón Bolivar’s political rival, as the two men found themselves at odds over how to lead their new democracy.
While Santander believed in the sanctity of the new constitution, Bolívar sought greater executive powers. Things got so tense between the two that Santander was sentenced to death in 1828 following his suspected involvement in an assassination attempt against the ‘Liberator.’ Bolívar eventually pardoned Santander and ordered him into exile.
While some countries concentrate primarily on former presidents for the faces on their bills, José Asunción Silva (1865-1896) on the face of the $5000 peso note honors Colombian literature. As a poet in the late 1800s, Silva is considered one of the fathers of romantic literature.
Living a carefree life in a wealthy and cultured Bogotá family, he had plenty of inspiration to write his famous work “De Sobremesa.” From his pampered childhood, Silva was morbidly sensitive and led a tormented life, which inspired much of his poetry.
One misfortune was the death of his beloved sister, Elvira, in 1891 and it is believed that his famous poem ‘Nocturne’ was inspired by her death. Silva’s life ended at the age 29 when he shot himself in the heart. Many of his poems were released posthumously.
$10,000: La Pola
Policarpa Salavarrieta, better known as “La Pola” (1791-1817), could have been immortalized by Victor Hugo in Les Miserablés, had he sailed to south. As a seamstress during the uprisings of 1810, she spied for the Revolutionary Forces while Spain tried to gain back their territory of the New Granada.
Policarpa was not her legal name, as her birth certificate was never found. She actively participated in politics with her rough manners and rustic background. As a dissident of Granada’s rule, she was captured by her Spanish opponents and executed for treason in 1817.
As she walked to the gallows she is believed to have insulted her guards by saying: “Although I am a woman and a young one, I have enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more.” Today, her coy and attractive smile graces the 10,000 note.
In the world of famous astronomers, Italy had Galileo and the Greeks had Ptolemy. In Colombia it’s Julio Garavito Armero (1865-1920). Before having his face published on the $20,000 peso bill, he was an observatory astronomer in the late 1800s.
Garavito did significant research like calculating the latitude of Bogotá and performing studies on celestial bodies like Haley’s Comet, which passed by the Earth between 1901 and 1910.
A native of Bogotá, he grew up as a child prodigy of science and mathematics. In 1892, he worked as the director of the National Astronomical Observatory. His research was published in ‘The Annals of Engineering’ years before he became editor of the publication in 1897. Nowadays, many people compare Garavito with other scientists of the 19th century: botanist José Celestino Mutis and Francisco José de Caldas.
The privilege of appearing on big currency is reserved for novelist, poet and politician, Jorge Isaacs (1837-1895). Born in Cali, he grew up in a Christian home, the son of George Henry Isaacs, an English Jew from Jamaica who settled in the Cauca valley and later became a Catholic.
When the family fell on hard times, Jorge moved to Bogotá where he started his first literary efforts. With ‘La Maria’ (1867) Isaacs gained international stature, and the novel remains a Colombian classic. El Paraiso, the hacienda near Cali where Isaacs wrote ‘La María’ is a popular attraction for weekenders. Later in life, Isaacs dabbled in politics serving as a Congressman for the Cauca Valley. He died of malaria in 1895.
Isaacs’ immeasurable place in letters and history, along with the many other faces of this nation’s currency, make he and these other key figures assets to Colombia who shouldn’t be viewed as mere “pocket change.”