The Empire of P’urhépechas in Mexico

The P’urhépechas were the only native group that Aztecs couldn’t conquer, but still they have been lost to history. Most people are unaware of this part of heritage in the town of Tzintzuntzan, in Mexico’s south-western state of Michoacán where the pyramids or yácatas, stand tall which are uniquely round and made of volcanic stone – perhaps the most intact relics of the P’urhépechas, a pre-Hispanic indigenous group that once ruled here, yet that a great many people have never known about.

When people think about Mexico before Hernán Cortéz, they naturally contemplate the Aztecs, but what they are not aware that the P’urhépecha existed at the same time and they were such a mighty kingdom that they were one of the only native groups in Mexico that the Aztecs failed to conquer. The Aztecs tried to fight the P’urhépecha in battle, but couldn’t defeat them.

Few elders of the community still live in eroded buildings made of cement walls and humble commodities. They can speak the endangered language, which is a fading trait in a country where Spanish is the official language. Out of Mexico’s assessed populace 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. They can still cook without electricity or a stove.

One can continue to gaze in amazement at the monuments that the ancestors of P’urhépechas had built to honour deities like their sun god, Curicaueri. Between the 14th and early 16th Centuries, the P’urhépechas ruled over 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 taking over the 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 can also learn about the way in which the P’urhépecha understood the world and the importance that Lake Pátzcuaro had for them.” The colossal lake had several habitable islands, plentiful fish and a surrounding landscape lush with mountains blanketed in pine trees. The area was so spectacular that the P’urhépechas believed the lake was a gateway to heaven. 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 caught the P’urhépecha ruler and forced them to give up the empire. Still historians consider this change more peaceful than the siege of the Aztecs. The P’urhépecha people were given more autonomy as compared to Aztecs, and P’urhépecha elites kept on having impact and authority over the region. Due to this autonomy, the three administrative centres of their power, Tzintzuntzan, Pátzcuaro, and Ihuatzio – remained economic hubs during the colonisation period. At the town’s Plaza Grande, a celebration of P’urhépecha culture is still on full display, as is the custom every weekend in Pátzcuaro where teenage boys perform a traditional dance called Danza de los Viejitos, This pre-Hispanic dance was originally performed by the elderly as part of a ritual to the ancient gods.

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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, eclipsed by the Aztecs. “That has to do more with how Mexican nationalism came out in the 19th and 20th Centuries – everything is based around Mexico City, and the narrative of Mexican identity was built around mostly the legacy of the Aztecs,” Pérez Montesinos said. “Also, because there are more narratives of battles, wars and resistance against the Spaniards, there is a lot more material for an epic story, whereas with the P’urhépechas, you don’t have the same type of drama.”