An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán de Ocampo, located in the west 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 Pacific Ocean.

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 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 Purhépecha-Chichimec Synthesis."

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 authorities.

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 tribes. 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 the King.

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 Indian nations. 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 livestock.

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 Cortés' 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." Guzmán 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 the Indians.

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 culture.

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.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


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. 2001. http://www.sil.org/americas/mexico/tarasca/familia-tarasca.htm. August 14, 2001.

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, 2000.

J. Benedict Warren, The Conquest of Michoacán: The Spanish Domination of the Tarascan Kingdom in Western Mexico, 1521-1530. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."