Mateo’s Coins

I was fourteen years old when I first heard the story of my great grandfather Mateo Espinosa. My mother was cleaning out some old photos from a large white box in her closet. There were embarrassing photos of my siblings and I in the nude and even pictures of our deceased pets. While she was searching through these piles of old pictures, she suddenly stopped to admire an old, yellow wrinkled flyer. Looking at this faded paper brought a smile to her face. It was a missing person flyer from 1966 that contained the photo of my great grandfather Mateo Espinosa. In addition to a photo of Mateo, it included information regarding his disappearance, a description of the clothes he was wearing that unfortunate date (a white long sleeve shirt, brown shoes, and light blue pants), and my family’s contact information. By narrating his story and most prized possessions I hope to reflect on the circumstances of his disappearance.

I learned from my grandmother that Mateo was born around 1905 in Ahuacatlan, Nayarit and was the son of German and Catarina Espinosa. The Espinosa family traces its roots to Zacatecas, a state that famous for gold and silver production. It was here in the town of Mesquital Del Oro that Mateo’s grandfather Silvestre Carrillo worked as a gold miner. Mateo, a tall, light-skinned man with light brown eyes, inherited Silvestre’s  love for God, family, and work. Incredibly social, he was loved and respected by townsfolk and helped many who were in need. During the Cristero Wars, a conflict between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, Mateo managed good relationships with both the Cristeros (the people who opposed Calles’s religious persecution) and local Federal troops. An incredibly hard worker, he made his life by engaging growing sugarcane, beans, and rice and engaging in commerce . With his five workers, he brought merchandise from Guadalajara and sold it in markets in the the town of Ahuacatlan and Tepic, the capital of Nayarit. Instead of placing his hard-earned cash in a bank, Mateo simply buried coins out in the hills and valleys.  Throughout his life, Mateo buried money. He was also known for carrying valuable coins with him wherever he went, some of which he acquired from his relatives.

In December 1966, my grandmother Dolores Espinosa gave birth to her second child, my aunt Margarita, in Guadalajara, a city in the coastal state of Jalisco. Since the family was too poor to afford a car, they used special buses called Ollas that would drive them out of their home of Ahuacatlan, Nayarit, which was situated two hours away from the capital of Jalisco. On December 20, Mateo Espinosa was on his way back to Ahuacatlan following my aunt’s birth— with him a small amount of money, a bag of groceries from Guadalajara, and the most valuable possession he carried, a bag of old vintage coins.

By the 1960s, gold and silver had ceased to be utilized in Mexican coins, making Mateo’s very valuable. Only a few people in his town knew about his savings and vintage coins, and his family members knew how important they were to him. My grandma explains that he used to tell her jokingly that there was a big treasure somewhere up in the llanos (the fields), and that someday the treasure would be hers. My grandma never got the treasure and has yet to find it. On December 20, 1966, Mateo got onto his bus around noon and was never seen again.

The history of Mexico and its currency dates back to colonial times, but the majority of Mateo’s coins belong to the Porfiriato, Mexico’s thirty year “dictatorship” which ended with ten years of bloody civil war in the early twentieth century.  During the late nineneeth century Porfirio Diaz’s regime took control of coin-making factories and reformed the monetary system. This system added the phrase “Republica Mexicana” to all coins, introduced gold as the metal choice for five and ten peso pieces, and included the image of a historical figure, Miguel Hidalgo, for the first time.

The most common coin that Mateo carried was a round, either silver or gold, coin from the Porfirian era. Mexican coins have a round edge with an obverse side (the heads side) and a reverse side (the tails side). The reverse side has a phrase that reads “Republica Mexicana” and on the obverse side we have the Aguila, the eagle represented on the Mexican flag, along with the year the coin was manufactured (the year of manufacturing is found on either side depending on what year the coin was manufactured). Among Mateo’s coins were centenarios, coins that were produced in 1921 to commemorate one-hundred years of Mexico’s independence from Spain. According to my grandparents these are the coins that Mateo prized the most. The centenario was first produced in 1921 as currency, but in 1931 it ceased only to be reproduced in 1943 after heavy demand for gold coins. The centenario has on the obverse the coat of arms of Mexico and in the upper part is surrounded by the Mexican national eagle and the caption “Mexican United States. The lower part is a branch of laurel and another of encino that are held by a knot. The reverse side has the monument of the angel of independence and on the sides the subtitle of 50 pesos and a caption that reads 37.5 g pure gold. On the lower position the figures of two volcanoes, Popocateplet and Iztaccihuatl, and right next to them the year 1821.

Since his disappearance my family has tried to create a coherent narrative. While there are a number of possibilities,  my relatives tend to agree that he was taken out of the bus, robbed, and murdered for his coins. The coins were significant not because their monetary value, but the years of dedication and hard work they represented years for Mateo, many of them having been passed down from his ancestors. In the end, the coins may have been the cause of his disappearance, but sadly we may never know.

Carlos Alexandro Gutierrez de Espinosa is originally from Mar Vista, California. He is an undergraduate History major at Fresno State and wants to become a high school teacher or counselor. This piece is part of our Unofficial Archives series.