The P’urhépechas were the only indigenous group in Mexico the Aztecs failed to conquer but, despite this, the story of the P’urhépechas was nearly lost to history.
Their pyramids are in the town of Tzintzuntzan, in Mexico’s south-western state of Michoacán. The pyramids, or yácatas, are uniquely round and made of volcanic stone. They are the most intact relics of the P’urhépechas, a pre-Hispanic indigenous group that once reigned there, but that most people have never heard of.
When people think about Mexico before the conquest by Spain’s Hernán Cortéz, they automatically think about the Aztecs. What they don’t know is that the P’urhépecha existed at the same time as the Aztecs, and they were such a mighty kingdom that they were the only indigenous group in Mexico that the Aztecs failed to conquer. The Aztecs fought the P’urhépecha, but couldn’t defeat them.
Today, their language is fading in a country where Spanish is the official language. Out of Mexico’s estimated population of 128.9 million, 124.8 million are native Spanish speakers, whereas only 175,000 speak P’urhépecha, and they all live in the state of Michoacán.)
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.)
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.
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, 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.
One example is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, constructed in Pátzcuaro around 1540. The conventional knowledge is that Bishop Vasco De Quiroga built that cathedral, but it was actually built by P’urhépecha hands. The Spanish didn’t have to use forced labor to construct the cathedral, as the P’urhépecha community agreed to collaborate and lend their physical labor.
Even though the empire acquired tremendous power, and left behind this incredible legacy, the P’urhépecha Empire has largely been left out of Mexican discourse, overshadowed by the Aztecs. That appears to be a result of Mexican nationalism that evolved in the 19th and 20th Centuries – everything was considered to be based around Mexico City. Thus the narrative of Mexican identity was built around mostly the legacy of the Aztecs. Also, because there are more narratives of Aztec battles, wars and resistance against the Spaniards, there is a lot more material for epic stories, whereas with the P’urhépechas, there is not the same type of drama. That’s unfortunate, and was one of the reasons this missing part of Mexican history attracted me to write this blog. The P’urhépechas deserve to be remembered and re-introduced as a major part of Mexican history.