Contrary to popular perception, the Aztec (Mexica) Empire was not the only major political entity in Central Mexico at the time the Spanish arrived. Northwest of the Mexica's territory lay the lands occupied by their chief rivals, a powerful society who called themselves Purépecha but whom the Spanish dubbed the Tarascans. Although they attempted it numerous times, the Mexica were never able to conquer them. The heartland of the Purépecha is the State of Michoacan, but their empire reached into some of the valleys of Jalisco and Guanajuato, and even the eastern part of Lake Chapala, near where I live. A few decades before the Conquest, the Purépecha Emperor Tangaxuan II attempted to seize the salt flats around the dry lakes in the long valley leading south from present-day Guadalajara toward Colima. Salt was an extremely important commodity for preserving food and the Purépecha had few deposits in their area. The Salitre (Salt) War began in 1480 AD and eventually ended in 1510 AD with the defeat of the Purépecha by King Coliman (from whom Colima got its name). Tangaxuan II's forces finally withdrew back across the mountains toward their Michoacan heartland. Evidence of the extent of their empire's reach can be found in Purépecha place names across Central Western Mexico.
Beauties and Beasts
Purépecha music and dances are specific to a place and conducted at specific occasions or celebrations. The Festival of the Purépecha Race, held annually in Zacán, Michoacan, showcases the various music dance traditions. These traditions are so unique that they have been designated an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO.
Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men). In it, young men wear masks portraying them as white Spaniards, and clothing that make them appear to be elderly. They totter around through their dance steps supporting themselves with canes. Although they imitate elderly people, the dance is really quite athletic and charming. The origins of the dance are disputed, but one account holds that it was intended to mock the Purépecha's Spanish overlords after the Conquest. The Spanish did no physical work, but only sat on their horses watching their indigenous laborers. Due to lack of exercise, the Spaniards' bodies deteriorated and they aged quickly. The Danza de los Viejitos is said to mock the weak foreigners and their many infirmities, one of the few ways a subjugated people could get back at their oppressors.
Olmecs made jaguar masks to use in their ceremonies. The Purépecha of Michoacan developed their own style long before the Spanish arrived, and continue to this day to make wonderfully bizarre masks like the one above. Interestingly, two of the most famous Purépecha dances use masks modeled not on on their own faces but on those of Caucasians and Africans. In addition to the Danza de los Viejitos mentioned above, the indigenous people of Michoacan perform the Danza de los Negritos (Dance of the Little Blacks). The origins of this dance and its black masks appears to be the appearance of large numbers of Africans in Nueva España. By the end of the 17th Century, as much as 90% of the indigenous population had died off in some areas due to disease and harsh working conditions. Because of its remoteness, Michoacan lost only about 30%, but that was devastating enough. The labor shortage caused the Spanish to import as many as 250,000 black slaves to Nueva España, some of whom ended up in Michoacan and became the models for the Danza de los Negritos.
Bishop Vasco Quiroga as a way to entice the indigenous people back down from the mountains. They had fled there to escape the atrocities of Conquistador Nuño de Guzman, 16th Century Spain's version of Heinrich Himmler. Quiroga's Danza de los Toritos was a success, and has been performed in local villages ever since.
Ceramic Plates and dishes from Tzintzuntzan
Catrinas, and originated with Jose Guadalupe Posada, a 19th Century political cartoonist. Posada liked to mock the pretensions of the Mexican upper classes by portraying them as skeletons dressed in fine clothes.The mermaid platter came from the Michoacan town of Tzintzuntzan ("Place of the Hummingbirds"). It was the capital of the Purépecha Empire when the Spanish arrived in 1519 AD. Tzintzuntzan was the most important of three cities along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. The Lake, at 1,920 m (6300 ft) is Mexico's highest. In 1400 AD, the Purépecha Emperor Tariácuri divided his realm into three parts, each headed by of one of his sons. Tanganxoán received Tzintzuntzan, Patzcuaro went to Irepan, and his third son Hiquingare got Ihuatzio. Eventually Tanganxoán managed to reunify the Empire and restore Tzintzuntzan as the chief city. He accomplished this just in time, because the Mexica were on the rise. Between 1450 and 1521, the Purépecha fought an intermittent war with them, ending only when the Mexica Empire was destroyed by the Spanish.
coyotes (in Nahautl: coyotl) have been viewed as special creatures by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the western US. Seen as a trickster, shape-shifter, and a bit of a clown, he is thought to have a direct link to the Spirit World. The coyote is intelligent, adaptable, and very cunning, with capabilities superior to his cousin, the wolf. In fact, wolves have become an endangered species, while coyotes have actually increased in population in the face of advancing civilization and have even been found roaming the streets of major US cities.
dugout canoes and huge nets that look like butterfly wings to catch carp, trout, charal, and whitefish. They also catch a local species of salamander for both human consumption and medicinal purposes.
Catrinas & Critters
Sir Thomas More had published his thoughts on the ideal society in a book called Utopia. Quiroga had read Moore's work and was a big fan. He decided to put More's ideas into practice in Michoacan. His strategy was to build upon the Purépecha's existing high levels of craftsmanship by teaching them European methods. Quiroga introduced the potter's wheel, Spanish-style looms and metallurgical techniques, and leather working, among other things. To ensure that every community could support itself, he persuaded each village to specialize in a different craft. After 500 years, this pattern of specialization still exists in the various towns around Lake Patzcuaro.
"free-standing" loom gets its name from the fact that its support comes from the frame of the device itself, as opposed to a back-strap or other kind of loom which is supported by being attached to a wall or tree or other solid support. While the Purépecha had a long history of weaving, it was with vegetable fibres and they never had access to wool until the Spanish arrived. The first sheep came to the Americas with Columbus, as a walking food supply. They bred well in the West Indies, and the descendants of Colombus' sheep accompanied Cortés to the mainland of Mexico in 1519 AD.
Pots & Basketry
The technique used by the villagers of Cocucho comes from Africa and was taught to their ancestors by the artisans brought in by Bishop Quiroga. The pots are formed by hand and the potters use local river rocks to burnish them. Charcoal is used to fire the pots and then the corn meal is splashed onto the surface. No potter's wheel or other mechanical device is used to create these fine wares. The potters are all women who were taught by their mothers and grandmothers. The men play no role in making the pottery.
typical materials used by Michoacan basket makers are tule, reeds, and bullrushes gathered from the lakesides. Willow twigs were another widely available natural material. Wheat straw wasn't used until the Spanish introduced that grain.
This completes my posting on the Purépecha Fair. I hope you have enjoyed it. I always encourage comments and corrections. If you would like to leave a comment, either use the Comments section below, or email me directly.
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Hasta luego, Jim