Saturday, December 29, 2012

Purépecha Fiesta at the Ajijic Plaza

A Purépecha woman dances gaily in the Ajijic Plaza. For several days before Christmas, a group of crafts people from the State of Michoacan set up booths in the Ajijic Plaza. They not only displayed their beautiful hand-crafted wares, but they put on free performances of dances traditional to their Purépecha ethnic group. The woman above wears a hand-embroidered huipil (blouse) and her hair is decorated with brightly-colored ribbons woven into her braids. In this posting, we'll first look at the dances and costumes of the participants, and then examine some of the wide variety of traditional crafts they created. All of these have a history that goes back centuries.

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

A ceramics vendor danced with  mask-maker clothed in some of his own creations. Along with her huipil, the woman wears an ankle-length skirt and, over it, an embroidered apron. The designs of the huipil and apron embroidery identify the village where she lives. In the rural areas of Michoacan, nearly all the women wear traditional clothing, while the men have largely adopted blue jeans and cowboy boots and broad-brimmed hats. Most 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.

A Gringo gets into the act. The dancers were not content to keep the fun among themselves, but drew various of the onlookers into the performance. The foreigners could not dance as beautifully as the Purépecha, but they gave it their best. The man above tips his hat in a courtly fashion as he joins his partner. His head is covered with the confetti that typically accompanies fiestas. One of the most famous Purépecha dances, which unfortunately was not performed that day, is the 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.

The event's sense of good-natured fun can be seen on the faces of these women. In addition to the rest of their beautiful outfits, most of the women wore rebozos, the ubiquitous shawl seen everywhere in Mexico. As part of their dance routines, they swirled the rebozos dramatically. The aprons are called delantals. Their cross-stitch embroidery can take as much a three months to complete. The skirts the women wear are usually pleated and often made of synthetic material. Not visible under the delantals in this photo are woven belts created on back-strap looms, a technology thousands of years old.

Beauty and the Beast. Although he looked pretty scary in his outfit, this "monster" had a pretty humorous act. He not only cavorted with the female dancers, but he moved out into the mostly foreign crowd, twirling and gyrating and hilariously confronting various of the observers. He even persuaded a couple of the foreign women to dance with him.

A Gringa matches steps with her Purépecha partner. The actual dances consisted of a set of shuffling steps as the dancers swayed their bodies back and forth and occasionally twirling while displaying the rebozo, akin to a bird spreading its wings. As the Purépecha did it, the dance was graceful and charming. As for the Gringos, well, they looked like they were having a lot of fun.


A mask-maker shows how one of his wares looks in action. Piercing red eyes, long drooping horns, and "blood"-stained fangs adorn this creation, worn by one of the mask-makers in the dances. Masks created for ritual purposes have a history that goes far back into pre-hispanic history. Three thousand years ago, the 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.

The artisans displayed a wide variety of masks in various stages of completion. Note that the Caucasian masks are not white, as Caucasians like to think of themselves, but pink which is closer to their actual coloring. The origins of the Purépecha people are murky, although it is thought that they arrived in the Lake Patzcuaro area of Michoacan in the 12th Century AD. They speak a language unlike that of any other in Mesoamerican. Linguists have found some relation to the languages spoken by the Quecha of Peru and the Zuni of the Southwest U.S. It is therefore possible that the Purépecha arrived either from South America (probably by boat) or from the desert wastes to Mesoamerica's north in one of the many waves of Chichameca invaders. They may also be a cultural mix of these two groups. They do seem to have had a strong connection with the South America. This is shown not only by their language roots, but by their extensive use of copper to make tools and weapons, a technology that archaeologists believe they obtained through trade with the West Coast of South America. The Mexica, their closest rivals, used copper primarily for personal decoration, but preferred obsidian for \weapons. The Purépecha's use of copper weapons may have been one of the reasons why the Mexica failed to conquer them, despite efforts that were intense and sustained.

A devil, under construction. The Purépecha, like many Mexican mask-makers, like to incorporate multiple animals in one mask. In addition to animal horns and fangs the devil face above has a pair of snakes writhing from under the eyes, along the face, and meeting near the end of the extended tongue. Only brightly colored paint will be required to create a fearsome-looking end product. The famous Danza de los Toritos (Dance of the Little Bulls) uses masks adorned with the horns of bulls. The dance was originally performed in 1538 AD at the request of 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.

A devil in full regalia. This colorful mask not only bears the typical horns and fangs, but also has a small cat's head growing out of the forehead, complete with its own set of fangs.. You can see one of the eye holes for the wearer just below the painted eye on the left. The detailed craftsmanship and vivid colors of masks like this have led Carole and I to gradually assemble a small collection of wildly imaginative masks from Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and elsewhere.

Ceramic Plates and dishes from Tzintzuntzan

A skeletal mermaid decorates large platter. Each of the tables displayed its beautiful crafts accompanied by a sign showing the name of the village where the objects were created. Skeletal figures like the mermaid above are called 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.

A coyote cavorts in the center of another large plate. For thousands of years, 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.

The beautifully illustrated fish on this platter highlight the Purépecha talent for fishing. Since they settled around a large lake, in a high mountain area with numerous smaller lakes, the Purépecha naturally became fisherman. In fact, they were known for this as much or more than as farmers. Even today, local fishermen use 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

Classic Catrinas show off their 19th Century finery. While this style of Catrina is still very popular, craftspeople throughout Mexico have expanded on the original concept. You can find skeleton figures--both human and animal--engaged in an incredible variety of day-to-day activities, from making tortillas in the kitchen, to playing golf, to riding bicycles, and so on. The fertile volcanic soil in the mountain valleys, and the fish-abundant lakes provided a stable economic base. With the leisure time that resulted, the pre-hispanic Purépecha could expand their skills as craftspeople. In ancient times they were known as skilled weavers who incorporated brilliant hummingbird feathers into their designs. They developed their skills as potters and basket makers since there were plenty of clay and rushes available along the lake shores. Forests thickly covered the mountainsides, so woodworking was another specialty. Their copper products were traded throughout Mesoamerica. The Purépecha have maintained their craftsmanship into the 21st Century, in spite of the ferocious 16th Century depredations they experienced under Nuño de Guzman.

Whimsical devils adorn another table at the Fair. In the foreground, a fat-bellied devil figure invites you to place something in his pot "belly." Behind him, another devil revs up his motorcycle. After Nuño de Guzman was finally sent back to Spain in manacled disgrace, Bishop Quiroga finally succeeded in enticing the Purépecha down from their mountain hideouts. In 1516 AD, Englishman 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.

Another strange and whimsical creature seems to creep across the table top. It is not clear whether this is a spider or an octopus. There is so much going on with this creature, it is difficult to know where to examining him. For one thing, he appears to have numerous passengers, perhaps providing a reason for his rather grumpy expression. Perched on the ends of each of his legs (tentacles?) is a pretty mermaid. Each of them holds a different object in her arms, some of which appear to be musical instruments which they are playing. Above the heads of the mermaids, crocodile figures cling, with their mouths gaping open. On top of the creature's head sits a small mer-family, including a male and female and their mer-child. There is more, but you get the idea. Somebody had fun making this critter.

Textile Weaving 

Bishop Quiroga would have immediately recognized this free-standing, foot-powered loom. The vendor told me that she had made all of her ware on this machine, and I persuaded her to show me how it worked. She pumps a treadle with her left foot, providing the power for the device. There are almost no metal parts to the loom, making it quite similar to those introduced in to Nueva España in the 16th Century. The "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.

The mechanism's major parts are all wood, connected by twine. When asked how long it took to create one of her long and intricately woven rebozos, she responded "una hora" (one hour). I was amazed at the efficiency of this machine, particularly since it requres no external source of power other than the human that operates it, and given that its design is more than 500 years old. It takes more carpentry skill to construct a free-standing loom than the older traditional designs like the back-strap, but it can be made of rough lumber, as this one is, or even stripped logs. A single free-standing frame can serve several families. Assuming each family has a set of the moveable parts, they can use the frame in alternation.

The weaver could move the shuttle device with a flick of her wrist. The shuttle moves back and forth in the wooden trough seen above. By flicking her wrist back and forth, she moves the shuttle in the trough. This weaves the weft (short cross thread of the woven cloth) through the woof (long blue and white threads wound around the spindle). The twine attached to the cross pieces paralleling the trough are called the harnesses. The simplicity of the loom, and the ease with which she operated it was impressive.

Pots & Basketry

Maiz cobs decorate a display of large pots and other ceramics from the village of Cocucho.  This village is famous for its large pots colored with a stain made from maiz (corn). 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.

Basketry of all sizes and shapes is created in the village of La Granada. They even make small animals like the crocodile and reindeer you can see on the lower left. The baskets and other objects are made from local natural materials collected and woven by the villagers. Some of the 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.

Reindeer, wreaths, and tree ornaments were offered in this booth. It was just before Christmas when I visited this Fair, so some of the woven fibre objects were specifically devoted to that celebration. Purépecha artisans and craftspeople are rightly viewed as some of the most talented and creative in Mexico. In a country filled with talented, creative, artistic people, that is saying something.

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.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Don't have to post this but my experience in Cocucho was that the man was the potter


    Web page

  2. Fascinating!

  3. Jim, I am new to this blog business and am trying to figure the best way to have 2 way communication with you and Carole, Email. Mine is
    My main interest are weather and True cost of living.
    I have lived in the Dallas, area for 35 years and am now 68. Texas is fine but every summer when it hits 110 F
    I long to be in a gentler climate. So my 1st concern is
    can I move to Mexico and still avoid extreme heat. And the 2nd question is about the TRUE cost of living.
    Here in Texas the cost is lower than most of the US but I am sure it is still higher than in Mexico. For example when you visit the many colonial cities and spend the night, what is a realistic average price for a hotel room and meals for 2 nights? LOVE your blog. Hope you are still doing it and will respond to my email. My email is

  4. un saludo afectuoso de Rocio Aguilera Madero y su hijo.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim