The Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán de Ocampo, located in
central part of the Mexican Republic, occupies 59,864 square kilometers
(23,113 square miles) and is the sixteenth largest state in Mexico, taking up
3% of the national territory. With a population that was tallied at
3,985,667 in the 2000 census, Michoacán is divided into 113 municipios
and has a common border with Jalisco and Guanajuato (to the north),
Querétaro (on the northeast), the state of Mexico (on the east), Guerrero
(to the southeast), and Colima (to the west). In addition, Michoacán's
southeast border includes a 213-kilometer (132-mile) shoreline along the
Dominated by the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Michoacán
extends from the Pacific Ocean northeastward into the central plateau. The
climate and soil variations caused by this topography make Michoacán a
diverse agricultural state that produces both temperate and tropical cereals,
fruits, and vegetables. Mining is a leading industry in the state, with
significant production of gold, silver, zinc, and iron.
For more than a thousand years, Michoacán has been the home of the
Purhépecha Indians (more popularly known as the Tarascans). The
modern state of Michoacán preserves, to some extent, the territorial
integrity of the pre-Columbian Kingdom of the Purhépecha. This kingdom
was one of the most prosperous and extensive empires in the pre-Hispanic
Mesoamerican world. The name Michoacán derives from the Náhuatl
terms, michin (fish) and hua (those who have) and can (place) which
roughly translates into "place of the fisherman."
Because the Purhépecha culture lacks a written language, its origin and early
history are shrouded in mystery. Its stories, legends and customs pass from
one generation to the next through oral traditions. A Tarascan origin myth
relates the story of how Curicaueri, the fire god, and his brother gods
founded the settlements along Lake Pátzcuaro. The primary source of
information about the cultural and social history of the Purhépecha Indians
is Relación de Michoacán (published in English as The Chronicles of
Michoacán), which was dedicated as a gift to Don Antonio de Mendoza,
the first Viceroy of Nueva España (1535-1550). Professor Bernardino
Verástique's Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the
Evangeliztion of Western Mexico, frequently cites "The Chronicles" in
his recent publication and and is an excellent source of information about
the history of Michoacán in general.
The Tarascans of Michoacán have always called themselves Purhépecha.
However, early in the Sixteenth Century, the Spaniards gave the
Purhépecha a name from their own language. The name of these Indians,
Tarascos, was derived from the native word tarascué, meaning relatives
or brother-in-law. According to Fray (Friar) Martín Coruña, it was a term
the natives used mockingly for the Spaniards, who regularly violated their
women. But the Spaniards mistakenly took it up, and the Spanish word
Tarasco (and its English equivalent, Tarascan), is commonly used today to
describe the Indians who call themselves Purhépecha. Today both the
people and their language are known as Tarasca. But Professor Verástique
comments that the word Tarasco "carries pejorative connotations of
loathsomeness and disgust."
"The Purhépecha language,' writes Professor Verástique,
"is a hybrid
Mesoamerican language, the product of a wide-ranging process of linguistic
borrowing and fusion." Some prestigious researchers have suggested that it
is distantly related to Quecha, one of the man languages in the Andean zone
of South America. For this reason, it has been suggested that the
Purhépecha may have arrived in Mexico from Peru and may be distantly
related to the Incas. The Tarascan language also has some similarities to that
spoken by the Zuni Indians of New Mexico.
The ancient Tarascan inhabitants were farmers and fishermen who
established themselves in present-day Michoacán by the Eleventh Century
A.D. But, in the late Twelfth Century, Chichimec tribes from the north
crossed the Lerma River into Michoacán and settled in the fertile valley
near the present-day town of Zacapu. "The entry of these nomadic hunters,
writes Professor Verástique, "was facilitated by the fall of the Toltec
garrisons at Tula and the political vacuum created in the region by the city's
fall." Once in Michoacán, the nomadic Chichimecs began to intermingle
with the Purhépecha, to create what Verástique calls "the
By 1324 A.D., they had become the dominant force in western Mexico,
with the founding of their first capital city Pátzcuaro, located 7,200 feet
(2,200 meters) above sea level along the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro (Mexico's
highest lake). The name, Pátzcuaro, meaning "Place of Stones," was named
for the foundations called "Petatzecua" by Indians who found them at the
sites of ruined temples of an earlier civilization. Eventually, however, the
Purhépecha transferred their capital to Tzintzuntzan ("Place of the
Hummingbirds"), which is about 15 kilometers north of Pátzcuaro, on the
northeastern shore of the lake. Tzintzuntzan would remain the Purhépecha
capital until the Spaniards arrived in 1522.
Tzintzuntzan, the home of about 25,000 to 30,000 Purhépecha, was the
site of the Tarascans' peculiar T-shaped pyramids that rose in terraces. The
Tarascans became skilled weavers and became known for their feathered
mosaics made from hummingbird plumage. With time, these gifted people
also became skilled craftsmen in metalworking, pottery, and lapidary work.
In the Michoacán of this pre-Hispanic period, gold, copper, salt, obsidian,
cotton, cinnabar, seashells, fine feathers, cacao, wax and honey became
highly prized products to the Tarascans. Neighboring regions that
possessed these commodities quickly became primary targets of Tarascan
military expansion. When a tribe was conquered by the Tarascans, the
subjects were expected to pay tributes of material goods to the Tarascan
During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, the Purhépechas grew
militarily strong and economically prosperous. An early Tarascan king
named Tariácuri initiated numerous wars of expansion. In addition to
occupying and establishing garrisons in the western frontier (now Jalisco),
he cut a wedge through the Sierra Madre into the tierra caliente (hot
country) of the present-day state of Guerrero. With this acquisition, he
incorporated Náhuatl people into his empire. However, the region was also
a primary source of certain precious objects that were used in the religious
cults of the time: copper, gold, silver, cotton, copal incense, cacao, beeswax,
and vegetable fats.
Eventually, the Purépecha Kingdom would control an area of at least
45,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers), including parts of the
present-day states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima, and Jalisco.
However, 240 miles to east, the Aztec Empire, centered in Tenochtitlán,
had begun its ascendancy in the Valley of Mexico. As the Aztecs expanded
their empire beyond the Valley, they came into conflict with the Tarascans.
More than once, the Aztecs tried to conquer the Tarascan lands. But, in all
of their major confrontations, the Tarascans were always victorious over
the Aztecs. The Aztecs called the Tarascans Cuaochpanme, which means
"the ones with a narrow strip on the head" (the shaven heads), and also
Michhuaque, meaning "the lords of the fishes".
During the reign of the Tarascan king Tzitzic Pandacuare, the Aztecs
launched a very determined offensive against their powerful neighbors in
the west. This offensive turned into a bloody and protracted conflict lasting
from 1469 to 1478. Finally, in 1478, the ruling Aztec lord, Tlatoani
Axayácatl, led a force of 32,000 Aztec warriors against an army of almost
50,000 Tarascans in the Battle of Taximaroa (today the city of Hidalgo).
After a daylong battle, Axayácatl decided to withdraw his surviving
warriors. It is believed that the Tarascans annihilated at least 20,000
warriors. In the art of war, the Purhépecha had one major advantage over
the Aztecs, in their use of copper for spear tips and shields.
In April 1519, a Spanish army, under the command of Hernán Cortés,
arrived on the east coast of Mexico near the present-day site of Veracruz.
As his small force made its way westward from the Gulf coast, Cortés
started meeting with the leaders of the various Indian tribes they found
along the way. Soon he would begin to understand the complex relationship
between the Aztec masters and their subject tribes. Human sacrifice played
an integral role in the culture of the Aztecs. However, the Aztecs rarely
sacrificed their own. In their search for sacrificial victims to pacify their
gods, the Aztecs extracted men and women from their subject tribes as
tribute. Cortés, understanding the fear and hatred that many of the Indian
tribes held for their Aztec rulers, started to build alliances with some of the
Eventually, he would align himself with the Totonacs, the
Tlaxcalans, the Otomí, and Cholulans. Finally, on November 8, 1519, when
Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán (the Aztec capital), he was accompanied
by an army of at least 6,000
Aware that a dangerous coalition was in the making, the Aztec Emperor
Moctezuma II quickly dispatched ten emissaries to Tzintzuntzan to meet
with the Tarascan King, Zuangua. The Aztec messengers arrived in October
1519 and relayed their monarch's plea for assistance. But Zuangua, after
consulting with his sages and gods, came to believe that the "new men from
the east" would triumph over the Aztecs. Unfortunately, the Aztec
emissaries brought more than a cry for help. Apparently, one of them
carried the disease smallpox into the capital city and into the presence of
With this initial exposure to the dreaded disease, King Zuangua became ill
and died. In a matter of days, a deadly plague of smallpox ravaged through
the whole kingdom. Horrified by this bad omen, the Tarascans threw the
Aztec representatives in prison and sacrificed them to their gods. Shortly
thereafter, as Tenochtitlán was locked in a life-and-death struggle for
survival against a massive attacking force, the Purhépechas in Tzintzuntzan
choose as their new monarch, the oldest son of Zuangua, Tangoxoán II.
On August 13, 1521, after a bloody 75-day siege, Tenochtitlán finally fell
to a force of 900 Spaniards and a hundred thousand Indian warriors. Almost
immediately, Hernán Cortés started to take an interest in the surrounding
Once in control of Tenochtitlán, Cortés sent messengers off
to Tzintzuntzan. These messengers returned with Tangoxoán's emissaries,
who were greeted by Cortés and taken on a canoe tour of the battle-torn
city. The famous conquistador made a point of demonstrating his cavalry in
action. In concluding his guided tour, Cortés assured Tangoxoán's
representatives that, if they subjected themselves to the King of Spain,
they would be well treated. They soon returned to Tzintzuntzan to report
to their king.
Convinced that the Spaniards would allow him to continue ruling and
fearing a terrible fate if he challenged them, Tangaxoan allowed the Spanish
soldiers to enter Tzintzuntzan unopposed. The only precaution the
Purhépechas took was to sacrifice eight hundred slaves who they feared
would join the Spanish if a fight did occur. In July 1522, when the
conquistador Cristobal de Olíd, with a force of 300 Spaniards and 5,000
Amerindian allies (mainly Tlaxcalans) arrived in the capital city of
Tzintzuntzan, they found a city of 40,000 inhabitants.
Horrified by the sight of the temples and pyramids awash with the blood of
recent human sacrifices, The Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers looted and
destroyed the temples of the Purhépecha high priests. The occupying
army, writes Professor Verástique, "required an enormous exertion of
human labor and the preparation of vast quantities of food." During the
four months that the occupying army stayed in Michoacán, it soon became
apparent that the Spaniards were interested in finding gold and silver in
Tangoxoán's mountainous kingdom. The discovery of gold in western
Michoacán near Motín in 1527 brought more of the invaders. However,
several of the Náhuatl tribes in the region resisted the intrusion vigorously.
With the influx of adventurers and treasure seekers, more of the Tarascans
were expected to help labor in the mines or help feed the mineworkers and
On a visit to Mexico City, in 1524, King Tangoxoán II was baptized with
the Christian name of Francisco. It was Tangoxoán II himself, on another
visit to Mexico City, who asked the bishop to send Catholic priests to
Michoacán. In 1525, six Franciscan missionaries, led by Fray Martín de
Jesus de la Coruña, arrived in Tzintzuntzan in 1525. The next year, they
built a large Franciscan monastery and a convent. They saved a great deal of
labor by tearing down much of the Purhépecha temples and platforms,
using the quarried stones for their own buildings. Augustinian missionaries
would arrive in Michoacán during 1533.
In the meantime, however, Cortés, seeking to reward his officers for their
services, awarded many encomienda grants in Michoacán to the inner core
of his army. The tribute-receiving soldier, known as an encomendero
received a grant in the form of land, municipios or Indian labor. He was also
obliged to provide military protection and a Christian education for the
Indians under his command. However, "the encomienda grant," comments
Professor Verástique, "was also fertile ground for bribery and corruption."
Continuing with this line of thought, the Professor writes that "forced
labor, especially in the silver mines, and the severe tribute system of the
conquistadors" soon inflicted "extreme pressures on Purhépecha society."
Concerns for the impending devastation of the indigenous people of Mexico
soon reached the Spanish government. The Crown decided to set up the
First Audiencia (Governing Committee) in Mexico in order to replace
Cortez' rule in Mexico City and reestablish their own authority. On
November 13, 1528, the Spanish lawyer, Nuño Guzmán de Beltran, was
named by the Spanish King Carlos V to head this new government and end
the anarchy that was growing in Nueva España.
Unfortunately, writes Professor Verástique, "the government of Spain had
no idea of the character of the man whom they had appointed as president
of the Audiencia." Eventually it became apparent that the "law and order
personality" of Guzmán would be replaced with "ruthlessness and
obstinancy." As soon as Guzmán took over, "he sold Amerindians into
slavery, ransacked their temples searching for treasure, exacted heavy
tribute payments from the caciques, and kidnapped women." Guzman was
"equally spiteful with his own countrymen," confiscating the encomiendas
that Cortés had awarded his cronies.
Almost immediately, the Bishop-elect of Mexico City, the Franciscan Juan
de Zumárraga came into conflict with Guzmán. Appointed as the
"Protector of the Indians" and inquisitor of Nueva España, Zumárraga
initiated court proceedings to hear Amerindian complaints about Spanish
injustice and atrocities. By 1529, Guzmán was excommunicated from the
church for his defiance of the church and his abuse of the Indian population.
Anticipating loss of his position as well, Guzmán set off for Michoacán at
the end of 1529.
Accompanied by 350 Spanish cavalrymen and foot soldiers, and some
10,000 Indian warriors, Guzmán arrived in Michoacán and demanded King
Tangoxoán to turn over all his gold. However, unable to deliver the precious
metal, on February 14, 1530, the King was tortured, dragged behind a horse
and finally burned at the stake. Guzmán's cruelty stunned and horrified the
Tarascan people who had made their best efforts to accommodate the
Spaniards and Tlaxcalans. Fearing for their lives, many of Purhépecha
population either died or fled far into the mountains to hide. Guzmán's
forces plundered the once-grand and powerful Purhépecha nation. Temples,
houses, and fields were devastated while the demoralized people fled to the
mountains of Michoacán.
Guzmán now declared himself "King of the Tarascan Empire" and prepared
to leave Michoacán. However, before moving on to plunder Jalisco,
Guzmán drafted 8,000 Purhépecha men to serve as soldiers in his army.
News of Guzmán's blatant atrocities rippled through the countryside and
reached the ears of church authorities. While Guzmán moved on in an
attempt to elude the authorities in Mexico City, Bishops Bartolomé de Las
Casas and Zumárraga prepared a case against Guzmán. Eventually he would
return to the capital, where he was arrested and shipped to Spain for trial.
Guzmán's cruelty had destroyed the relationship between the Spanish and
the Tarascans. In a short time, the grand and powerful Purhépecha nation
had been completely devastated. Had it not been for the effort of one man
whose ideals, good judgment and ability to put into practice the morals that
he preached, it is possible that the Purhépechas would not have survived
this catastrophe. This man was Don Vasco de Quiroga, who at the age of
60, arrived in Mexico in January 1531, with a mandate to repair both the
moral and material damage that had been inflicted upon Michoacán by
Guzmán. A Spanish aristocrat born in Galicia, Don Vasco de Quiróga was
trained in the law but would play an important role in the evangelization of
the Purhépecha people.
According to Bernardino Verástique, the primary task assigned to Quiroga
was to assume "the pastoral role of protector, spiritual father, judge and
confessional physician" to the Purhépecha. On December 5, 1535, Vasco
Quiroga was endorsed by Zumárraga as Bishop-elect of Michoacán. The
nomination was approved on December 9, 1536, and in 1538, he was
formally ordained by Bishop Zumárraga in Mexico City. Quiroga, upon
arriving in Michoacán, very quickly came to the conclusion that
Christianizing the Purhépecha depended upon preserving their language and
understanding their worldview. Over time, Quiroga would embrace the
Tarascan people and succeed in implanting himself in the minds and hearts
of the natives as "Tata", or "Daddy" Vasco, the benefactor and protector of
To attract the Indians to come down from their mountain hideouts and hear
the Word of God, Don Vasco staged performances of a dance called "Los
Toritos", a dance that is still performed today in the streets of local villages
during certain festivities. All the dancers wear colorful costumes and masks,
one of which is a great bull's head. The bull prances to the music of guitars
and trumpets as the others try to capture him with capes and ropes.
Little by little, small groups of natives came down from the hills to
investigate this strange phenomenon and Don Vasco befriended them with
gifts. He treated the Indians with "enlightened compassion" and soon many
families came down from the hills to settle near the monastery, as much for
protection as to embrace the new faith. Don Vasco stood at odds with the
cruel treatment the Spanish soldiers meted out to the Indians, and with his
influence and personal power, he was able to put an end to the crippling
tribute system the Spaniards had inherited from the Purhépecha kings.
Don Vasco ensured that the old boundaries of the Purhépecha Kingdom
would be maintained. He began construction of the Cathedral of Santa Ana
in 1540. He also established the Colegio de San Nicolas Obispo. As a Judge
(oidor) and Bishop, Quiroga was driven by a profound respect for Spanish
jurisprudence and his desire to convert the Purhépecha to a purified form of
Christianity free of the corruption of European Catholicism. He strove to
establish "New World Edens" in Michoacán by congregating the
Purhépecha into repúblicas de indios, or congregaciones (congregations)
modeled after Thomas More's Utopia. Guided spiritually by the friars, the
natives of these communities became self-governing. Under this system,
Augustinian and Franciscan friars could more easily instruct the natives in
the fundamental beliefs of Christianity as well as the values of Spanish
Quiroga's efforts to raise the standard of living for the Tarascans gradually
took hold. Labor in the communal fields or on the cattle ranches was
performed on a rotating basis to permit the people to become
self-supporting and to allow them free time for instruction, both spiritual
and practical, and to work in specialized industries. Gathering the dispirited
Purhépechas into new villages made possible the development of a
particular industrial skill for each community. Soon one town became adept
at making saddles, another produced painted woodenware, and another
baskets, etc. In time, the villages developed commerce between one another,
thus gaining economic strength. Don Vasco de Quiroga finally died on
March 20, 1565 in Pátzcuaro.
On February 28, 1534, King Carlos issued a royal edict, awarding
Tzintzuntzan the title of City of Michoacán, and in 1536 it became the seat
of a newly created Bishopric. However, Tzintzuntzan lost its importance
when the Spaniards changed their administrative center to Pátzcuaro in
1540. Then, in 1541 the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza issued an order to
raise a city called Valladolid, 185 miles northwest of Mexico City. This
town - originally known as Guayangareo by the indigenous people - was
elevated to the status of a city in 1545, with the approval of the King of
Spain. Almost three centuries later, in 1828, Valladolid, the birthplace of
Jose Maria Morelos was renamed Morelia in honor of the revolutionary
patriot who served in the War of Independence. Although Tzintzuntzan
remained the headquarters of the Franciscans, it soon dwindled in size and
significance as the royal title of City of Michoacán passed to Pátzcuaro.
During the colonial years, thanks to Quiroga's efforts, Michoacán flourished
and came to occupy an important position in regard to its artistic, economic
and social development. The prosperity that flourished in Michoacán has
been explored in a number of specialized works. Professor Verástique has
suggested that "Vasco de Quiroga's ideals of humanitarianism and Christian
charity had a critical influence on the conversion process."
Unfortunately, the repercussions of Guzmán's cruelty also had long-range
effects on Michoacán's population. Professor Verástique writes that "three
factors contributed to the loss of life in Michoacán: warfare, ecological
collapse, and the loss of life resulting from forced labor in the encomienda
system." Between 1520 and 1565, the population of Michoacán had
declined by about thirty percent, with a loss of some 600,000 people. For
the rest of the colonial period - the better part of three centuries -
Michoacán would retain its predominantly agrarian economy.
Michoacán - known as the Intendancy of Valladolid during the Spanish
period - saw a significant increase in its population from the 1790 census
(322,951) to the 1895 census (896,495). The 1900 census tallied 935,808
individuals, of whom only 17,381 admitted to speaking indigenous
languages. It is likely, however, that during the long reign of Porfirio Díaz,
many indigenous-speaking individuals were afraid to admit their Indian
identity to census-takers.
In the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, one in eight Mexican citizens lost
their lives. The armies and battlegrounds of this civil war shifted from one
part of Mexico to another during this decade. Michoacán was not the site of
major active revolutionary participation, but Jennie Purnell, the author of
Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The
Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán, writes that Michoacán endured
"attacks by rebel bands, wide-spread banditry, prolonged drought, and
devastating epidemics." As a result, the population of Michoacán in 1910
(991,880) dropped to 939,849 in the 1921 census.
The 1921 census was unique among Mexican tallies because it asked people
questions about their racial identity. Out of a total population of 939,849
people in Michoacán, 196,726 persons claimed to be of "indígena pura"
(pure indigenous) descent, representing 20.9% of the total population. The
vast majority of Michoacán residents - 663,391 in all - identified
themselves as "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with
white, or mestizo), representing 70.6% of the total state population. Only
64,886 individuals referred to themselves as "blanca" (white).
According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and
more who spoke indigenous languages in the state of Michoacán totaled
121,849 individuals. The most common indigenous languages in Michoacán
are: Purépecha (109,361), Náhuatl (4,706), Mazahua (4,338), Otomí (732),
Mixteco (720), and Zapoteco (365).
In all, 121,409 persons who spoke Purépecha were tallied in Mexico's 2000
census, with the vast majority of them living in Michoacán. It is
noteworthy that the vast majority of these Purépecha-speaking persons -
103,161, or 85% - also spoke the Spanish language, indicating a significant
level of assimilation. In recent decades, the people of Michoacán have
developed a new appreciation of their Purépecha roots and culture. Today,
the people of Michoacán can look back with pride on several hundred years
of evolution: from an indigenous kingdom to a Spanish colony to a free and
sovereign state of the Republic of Mexico.
Access Mexico Connect. "The Tarasco Culture and Empire." Mexico
Connect, 1996-2003. Online:
http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tarasco.html. April 20, 2003.
Eugene R. Craine and Reginald C. Reindorp, The Chronicles of
Michoacán. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Departamento de la Estadística Nación, Annuario de 1930. Tacubaya,
Distrito Federal, 1932.
Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C., Familia Tarasca : Tarascan Family.
http://www.sil.org/americas/mexico/tarasca/familia-tarasca.htm . August 14,
Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI).
Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de
Población y Vivienda, 2000. (Mexico, 2001).
Jennie Purnell, Popular Movements and State Formation in
Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán.
Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Bernardino Verástique, Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the
Evangelization of Western Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press,
J. Benedict Warren, The Conquest of Michoacán: The Spanish
Domination of the Tarascan Kingdom in Western Mexico, 1521-1530.
Norman, Oklahoma: Un of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
Compiled by: Glenn Welker
This site has been accessed 10,000,000 times since February 8, 1996.