The P’urhépechas were one of the only indigenous groups in Mexico the Aztecs failed to conquer – but despite that feat, they were nearly lost to history.
“This is the legacy of our people,” my uncle said as we gazed at the pyramids. We were not in Egypt, but rather in the town of Tzintzuntzan, in Mexico’s south-western state of Michoacán. The pyramids, or yácatas, looming in front of us were uniquely round and made of volcanic stone – perhaps the most intact relics of the P’urhépechas, a pre-Hispanic indigenous group that once reigned here, but that most people have never heard of. In fact, I’d never heard of them either until a few months ago, when I found out that I was a direct descendant.
Born and raised in California, I grew up unaware of this part of my heritage as it was lost in my family after my grandfather passed away in 1978. My grandmother was left with five kids and no income, but after saving up, she brought my dad and his siblings to the United States in 1983. Under pressure to assimilate, my father disconnected from our P’urhépecha culture, and it was only recently, when I began to be curious about my identity, that I started questioning him about our past. So in 2021, at the age of 31, he brought me to Michoacán for the first time. That’s when I met my uncle Israel, and he revealed that not only were we P’urhépecha, but that my great-grandmother, Juana, was still alive and living in the small pueblo of Urén nearby.
People automatically think of the Aztecs when they think of Mexico before Hernán Cortéz, but what they don’t realise is that the P’urhépecha existed at the same time – and they were such a powerful kingdom that they were one of the only indigenous groups in Mexico that the Aztecs failed to conquer.
According to Fernando Pérez Montesinos, assistant professor of indigenous environmental history at the University of California, Los Angeles, that is the most common thing people in Mexico know about them. “That’s a very common [way] of referring to the P’urhépechas and their history,” he said, explaining that the P’urhépechas were as powerful as the Aztecs.
My P’urhépecha great-grandmother, who stands tall and strong at 4ft 10in (about 1.4m), is a community elder who lives in a weathered building made of cement walls and humble commodities. She is fluent in the endangered language, which is becoming increasingly rare in a country where Spanish is the official language. (Of Mexico’s estimated population of 128.9 million, 124.8 million are native Spanish speakers, whereas only 175,000 speak P’urhépecha, all of whom live in Michoacán.)
I took in everything I could while talking in Juana’s kitchen: how she cooks without electricity or a stove; her rows of barro (red terracotta clay) dishes; and the deep stone pit in the middle of the room where she was preparing a huge pot. Corn kernels that have been specially processed to make tortillas de maz. Excited about my newfound ancestry, I asked her where I could go to learn more about my P’urhépecha ancestors. She stirred the food and gave my uncle an authoritative look as she said in Spanish, “Take her to Pátzcuaro.”
A day later, we were in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin – me, my uncle, aunts and cousins, staring in awe at these monuments that our ancestors had built to honour deities like their sun god, Curicaueri.
Between the 14th and early 16th Centuries, the P’urhépechas dominated western Mexico with an estimated population of more than one million; Tzintzuntzan was their capital, where the irecha, or ruler, lived. (The Aztecs, meanwhile, ruled in Central Mexico, and the P’urhépecha empire prevented them from amassing territory to the north and west.)
According to Jahzeel Aguilera Lara, a geographer and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, “The yácatas of Tzintzuntzan – the ‘place of hummingbirds’ – are the best-preserved pyramidal structures in the region. In addition to learning about the P’urhépecha public architecture, [visitors] will also learn about the way in which the P’urhépecha understood the world and the importance that Lake Pátzcuaro had for them.”
The empire chose this area for a reason: the basin is home to a colossal lake with several habitable islands, plentiful fish and a surrounding landscape lush with mountains blanketed in pine trees. The area is so spectacular that the P’urhépechas believed the lake was a gateway to heaven.
“This is a very important region for the emergence of the P’urhépecha in the pre-Hispanic state of our history,” said Sandra Gutiérrez De Jesus, an indigenous P’urhépecha and professor of Latin American Studies and Chicano/a studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “It was a scenario for gastronomical, cultural and linguistic encounters and exchanges.”
But when the Spanish arrived at the Lake Pátzcuaro basin between 1521 and 1522, they captured the P’urhépecha ruler and forced the empire to relinquish its power. Still, as Pérez Montesinos explained, historians consider this transition more peaceful than the siege of the Aztecs. The P’urhépecha people were given more autonomy than their Aztec counterparts, and P’urhépecha elites continued to have influence and authority over the region.
“Nothing could be done without the permission or allowance of P’urhépecha elites,” Pérez Montesinos said. “The traditional way to see things is that the Spaniards came and did as they pleased, but what we know now is that the Spaniards always had to ask and negotiate with P’urhépecha elites in order to remain themselves on top.”
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