Emilio Espejel and Ernesto Alvarez

MEXICO CITY — “We Accept Túmin,” reads a sign posted in an organic coffee shop in the trendy neighborhood of Colonia Roma. Shop owner Zyntya Ponce Nava says her decision to take payments in the alternative currency is not an act of rebellion against the Mexican peso, rather "a way to help the community.”

It's a sentiment that's echoed by others who have adopted the Mexican alternative tender, of which there's only some $15,400 worth circulating in the country on bills of 1, 5, 10, and 20.

Emilio Espejel and Ernesto Alvarez

Túmin is named after and partially inspired by ancient indigenous money practices. It was started as a university project in the eastern state of Veracruz in 2010 in an effort to promote local trade and protect small businesses from recurring recessions. Upon expanding beyond the walls of the Intercultural University of Veracruz campus, the currency began circulating in the indigenous municipality of Espinal.

Boosters say the túmin, which is far too small to be considered mainstream, is a way of helping impoverished communities and socially aware businesses focused on “economic solidarity and self management.”

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But critics of the initiative — including the Mexican government — view the alternative currency as a frontal challenge to official monetary policy. As soon as the túmin began circulating, Mexico's Central Bank, which claims the money is too easy to counterfeit, sued the currency's creators for printing money and trying to substitute the peso. Bank officials also pressured the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) to investigate.

The túmin currency is printed in paper bills depicting revolutionary heroes, indigenous symbols and muralist art by Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.

Emilio Espejel and Ernesto Alvarez

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The currency briefly captured the attention of journalists, researchers, and economists upon its release, but never gained enough support to challenge the peso. Today, the currency is used by only 500 people, according to official registers. But that hasn't stopped the túmin from gaining an almost cult-like following in towns across several states and making it’s way to the Mexican capital, where some local businesses and merchants accept it as a valid form of payment.

Túmin's creators say the aim is to complement the peso, not replace it. The alternative currency is meant to offer an additional cash injection into municipalities where most people lack money needed to purchase goods and services. One túmin is equal to one peso. Based on the ancient principle of the indigenous trueque, or “barter,” a person can pay 5 pesos and 5 tumin for something that costs 10 pesos. In effect, the túmin is intended to work more like a voucher than a stand-alone currency.

But for many early adopters, the tumin has become more than just alternative money.

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Mexico City researchers Marcela and Maria Jose Orraca say the túmin has become a “tool for setting into practice values other than profit during economic transactions.”

That's because using the new currency means joining a network of members affiliated with an alternative central bank called the “House of Túmin.” Upon joining, each new member is given 500 tumin as long as they offer a product or service and establish a preferential rate (normally a 10 percent discount) to others in the túmin network. That arrangement has fostered strong relationships and helped to level the economic playing field amongst adopters, the researchers found in a 2013 report.

It also encourages people to buy locally.

The first round of tumin bills.
via tumin.org.mx

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But the currency has a major limitation. It excludes “employees and the poorest people in the community” because they have no products or services to offer.

Then there's the trust issue. The túmin system is essentially built on people giving their word in a system of solidarity and cooperation, which can lead to suspicion among some people and ultimately stunt a more widespread acceptance of the currency in larger towns or areas where the community is not close-knit.

Although the túmin is far from gaining nationwide acceptance, it has won notoriety and inspired the creation of other alternative currencies, including the tlaloc, named after the Aztec god of rain, which began circulating back in 2011 in very limited quantities in rural communities in Mexico State.

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Despite the central bank's fretting, the alternative currency clearly does not pose a serious threat to the peso. But the idea behind the new money seems to be the real challenge to the current system; the túmin represents an invitation to return to the days of transactions based on trust, relationships and community solidarity above the interests of profit and gain.

But maybe that's an idea whose time is yet to come.

Ernesto Alvarez and Emilio Espejel contributed to this report.