views updated May 14 2018


ETHNONYMS: Michuguaca, Phorhépicha, Phurhépecha, Purepecha, Purépecha, Tarascos


During the past seven centuries, the Phurhépecha or Tarascans have inhabited and defined a territorial homeland that territory corresponds roughly to the physiographic region known as the Tarascan Subprovince in the Neovolcanic Axis of west-central Mexico. It is now a cultural mosaic of Tarascan-Mexican and Hispano-Mexican (mestizo) towns, but the Tarascan ethnic core is still predominant in three contiguous subareas of the zonethe island and shoreline communities of Lake Pátzcuaro, the highland forests to the west of Lake Pátzcuaro (called the Sierra Phurhépecha or Meseta Tarasca) and a small valley of the Río Duero to the north of the Sierra Phurhépecha (called "La Cañada de los Once Pueblos" in Spanish and "Eráxamani" in Phurhépecha).

The term "Phurhépecha" referred to "the commoners" in ancient Tarascan society and is a counterpart to the Aztec term macehualli. The term "Tarascan," in contrast, probably entered into use during contact with the first Spanish soldiers in the sixteenth century, displacing the Aztec term, michoaque (possessors of fish, sing. michua ), which in the locative form was the Aztec name for the ancient Tarascan empire. Michoacán (Aztec: michi, "fish," plus atl, "water," plus kan, locative) is still the name of the state where the Tarascan homeland is situated.

It remains commonplace for older-adult generations, especially in peasant villages, to refer to themselves as "Tarasco" or "Tarasca" (Tarascan) or forego any identification beyond the name of the central Tarascan town of their township. In contrast, the younger-adult generations, especially young professionals who liveor have residedin regional or national urban centers, use the term "Phurhépecha." The entire population shares a common reference for significant others (especially their mestizo neighbors), who are called "Turísïcha."

The Tarascan Subprovince of the Neovolcanic Axis is located in the area demarcated by the coordinates 19°20 to 19°55 N and 101°00 and 103°00 W. The Neovolcanic Axis is a unique east-west range of volcanoes in central Mexico. It forms a central to west-central belt of highland plateaus and forests of great climatological and ecological diversity that drain precious water into a stairway of lake basins branching to the northwest along the Lerma-Santiago riverway and due west to the Balsas River Basin. This belt is often referred to as the "Tarascan-Aztec System," a label that refers to the two pre-Hispanic state empires that controlled the Central Volcanic belt and surrounding areas during the two centuries prior to the Spanish Conquest.

The inhabited areas of Tarascan Subprovince are between 1,700 and 2,400 meters in elevation. During the rainy season (May or June to October or November), moist air rising from the Pacific precipitates on this volcanic mountain range and filters through the porous rock into the Duero River Basin in the north and northwest, Lake Pátzcuaro in the east, and into the region of Uruapan and the Tecaltecatepec River Basin in the south.

The Tarascans are for the most part highlanders. Approximately 70 percent of the Tarascan-speaking population lives between 1,700 and 2,300 meters above sea level. The rest of the homeland population occupies the valleys and slopes on the perimeter of Tarascan Subprovince approximately 1,500 meters in elevation.

The Mexican national census of 1990 reported 87,088 Phurhépecha speakers above the age of 5 years in the state of Michoacán. This figure is approximately 50 percent lower than a 1994 estimate (which includes children under age 5 as well as emigrants) by the Mexican Institute of Indigenous Affairs. Accordingly, Tarascan speakers probably number between 125,000 and 185,000. Contemporary Tarascan speakers are overwhelmingly bilingual, with Spanish as their second language. Defined in terms of ethnic identity rather than language use, the Tarascan population is certainly larger and, perhaps, growing in response to increasing local awareness and pride in the Tarascan heritage.

The linguistic affiliation of Tarascans has not been established. Affiliation with Macro-Mixtecan has been proposed, but convincing comparative evidence is lacking. Although considerable phonological and lexical variation exists, all dialects of Tarascan are mutually intelligible.

History and Cultural Relations

Among the groups that constituted the pre-Hispanic culture of the Mexican highlands, the Tarascans were unique in their skill in metallurgy, as well as in the use of rounded monumental structures (yácatas, or pyramids, which are common in western Mexico) on rectangular platforms in ceremonial centers. Equally distinctive is the evidence of complex social differentiation without corresponding social distinctions based on access to, and use of, alienable lands. It is probable that the Tarascan system of tribute depended on the labor of commoners on public lands. Similarly, bondage involved the exclusive obligation to perform specific services for an individual. This practice probably formed the basis of a complex system of labor appropriation in which forms of mutual servitude may have existed, thus distinguishing the Tarascan system from both the Aztec mayeque system of slavery and from European systems of slavery and serfdom. Both the division between noble and priestly groups and the more flexible forms of Tarascan political successionbased on personal leadership qualities and organized by a form of ambilateral kin reckoning still imperfectly understood by scholarswere typical of Aztec and other Middle American groups of highland Mexico.

At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tarascan state was controlled from three main centers: Tzintzuntzan (the seat of the supreme leader, or caltzontzin ), Ihuatzio, and Pátzcuaro. Between the first major intervention in the area by the Spanish in 1522 and the arrival of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in 1538, the Tarascan state, as well as Tarascan society and culture, suffered severely both from Spanish conscription for the Conquest of western Mexico and from forced labor. Even before the Spanish forces arrived, smallpox and measles introduced by the Europeans radically reduced the Tarascan population, with tragic consequences for the prevailing social order.

Vasco de Quiroga, supported by a group of European humanist friars, instituted a major program of social reform in the Tarascan homeland between the years of 1538 and 1565. The widely settled Tarascans were congregated in towns organized around religious-communal institutions. Local specialization in crafts was established in different towns, as were markets and a series of norms concerning dress, communal work and property, and even nuptiality.

A problem for Tarascan cultural history is raised both by the brutal disruption of Tarascan culture and society through epidemics and violent oppression during the first two decades of Spanish occupation and by the successful social reforms of noted priest-humanists like Vasco de Quiroga, Juan de San Miguel, and Jacobo Daciano in the following decades. Some scholars have argued that although the Tarascans have maintained their language, as well as such objective cultural elements as the Middle American nutritional and culinary system based on beans, squashes, chilies, and maize, they have adopted the basic complex of Spanish peasant culture in regard to religion, economy, and traditional forms of empirical or "folk" knowledge. In contrast to this "Hispanist" point of view, some Mexicanists argue that the Tarascans continue to represent major continuities in Middle American culture, especially in the relation between language and culture and in such diverse domains as gender relations, socialization, cosmology, and ethnoscience.

Given their importance as a pre-Hispanic state, present knowledge of the Tarascan situation during the Mexican colonial period is amazingly limited. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did systematic study of Tarascan ethnohistory and linguistics begin. In that period, the Tarascan homeland was being significantly altered. In the Sierra Phurhépecha, forest was cut by foreign companies to provide the railroad ties needed for the modernization program initiated during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Similarly, in the Zacapu Valley region, the draining of the shallow Zacapu and its replacement by a major maize plantation altered radically the traditional lifeways of the Tarascan population in that area. Both environmental alterations were associated with a significant immigration of the Hispano-Mexican population. In the twentieth century, revolution, agrarian reform, and resistance to state policies of social reform wrought major changes in the demography, economy, and local political and moral order of the Tarascan homeland.


Most Tarascan towns were formed during the social reforms of the sixteenth century. To this day, the central plaza in each town contains a church whose patron saint represents the local indigenous community and a building site dedicated to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (called the yurhixu in Tarascan or hospital in Spanish). Towns are organized into barrios leading out from the central plaza and typically grouped together to divide the settlement in two halves. Barrios are composed of household compounds, each of which traditionally features wooden structures for storing goods in the front facing the street and leading to a packed-earth courtyard (called ek'ukutiniarhu in Tarascan). Typically, at the end of a compound's courtyard is a wooden kitchen house (which also serves as sleeping quarters), a granary, and a small, roofed corral. Behind the cooking house is a large area (inchákutini ) for cultivating maize, fruit trees, and medicinal and ornamental plants for family consumption. Bilingual Tarascans often use the Spanish term solar to describe this compound garden plot and orchard, whereas local Hispano-Mexicans use the Tarascan borrowing ecuaro, which also refers to areas of cultivation in lands suitable only to hoe farming.

Tarascan towns range in population from 1,000 to 7,000 inhabitants. The pattern of town settlements varies in the different subregions of the Tarascan homeland. Most distinctive are the settlements in the small Duero River Valley, or Cañada de las Once Pueblos, which form an almost continuous line along the original colonial road connecting Morelia with Guadalajara. All Tarascan towns are associated with a constellation of small hamlets, or ranchos, ranging from as few as 30 to as many as 500 inhabitants. Generally these hamlets were formed over generations when sites for seasonal cultivation and pasturage gradually became permanent residences.

The traditional texture of Tarascan settlements has changed significantly in the last half of the twentieth century. The movable wooden cabin, or troje, with its fir shingles, and the stacked-stone walls of the family compounds are rapidly being replaced by constructions of brick and concrete. Migrants to Mexican cities and to the United States have returned with new house plans and a taste for concrete floors and two-story structures with windows. These changes are especially visible in the towns along the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro.


The Tarascan homeland is characterized by local and regional specialization in the production, extraction, and control of both natural and social resources. Tarascan towns and barrios are identified by their distinctive pottery, woodworking, weaving of cloth and straw, and embroidery. Although the region is dominated by small-scale agricultural activities, there are also some communities of fishers with exclusive commercial rights to Lake Pátzcuaro. Other communities specialize in certain forest-based activities (ranging from the extraction of turpentine to the splitting of shingles), and still others have developed unions of tour guides, rental services (boats and horses), and souvenir shops to accommodate tourists.

The regional economy is marked by central wholesale-retail markets in large mestizo towns, as well as by special markets that operate during religious festivals in individual Tarascan towns. Money is the basic medium of exchange, although bartering is still common and, on certain days in certain markets, the expected practice.

In general, the Tarascan economy has a peasant substrate that combines food production (maize, beans, squashes, fruit, hogs, chickens, turkeys) and collection for consumption with cash cropping, share cropping, day labor, and handicrafting. Legally, land in Tarascan townships is collectively held. In those areas of the Tarascan homeland once controlled by large agricultural estates (haciendas), collective land rights were established through federal appropriation of the former estate's lands to create ejidos. In other areas, the collective landholding unit is the Indian community, recognized by law as a communal property-holding body. Often, both forms of collective land tenure overlap in a single town. By law, each individual's right to land is established either by membership in the collective unit or by kinship with a legitimate landholding member. The cultivator is referred to as a comunero when the holding is through family membership in the Indian community or as an ejidatario if family membership is in the ejido assembly. In practice, these collective lands were, for the most part, divided into de facto private holdings, with varying degrees of collective constraint over the right to purchase individual titles, especially as regards persons not recognized as community members. A 1992 constitutional reform allows commercial title to the landthat is, permits each individual holder to sell his or her land freely. Local Tarascan political groups, however, produced and cosigned a declaration rejecting this reform and forbidding the individual alienation of any collective land in the Tarascan homeland. This declaration was reaffirmed by cosigners and additional Tarascan groups in February 1994.

The Tarascan population is characterized by a clear sexual division of labor. Women prepare food, wash clothes, care for infants and toddlers with the help of older children, cultivate the solar in the household compound, and, when necessary, help men prepare, plant, and harvest field crops or orchards. Carpentry, construction, net fishing, and lumber work are exclusively men's activities. Certain phases of ceramic work and straw weaving are organized by sex. For example, women typically paint designs on clay objects, but men fire the pottery. Both men and women enter into commercial activities. It is common for women to control the commerce in products of exclusively feminine activities such as embroidery and hand weaving shawls and blankets.

Since World War II, the Tarascans have left their homeland to find jobs in other parts of Mexico and in the United States and have been the recipients of government programs of formal schooling. Since the late 1960s, professionalization through formal education, new strategies of economic accumulation, and new consumption practices associated with migration have combined to bring significant changes to the traditional peasant substrate of the Tarascan economy.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Tarascan kinship reckoning is bilateral to such a degree that each nuclear family must be seen as the union of the respective kindreds of mother and father. The major kinterm distinction is between highly familiar terms for members of the nuclear family and more formal bilateral terms for the extended kindred. There is, however, a degree of patrilineal bias. Ideally, postmarital residence is virilocal; daughters-in-law are clearly subordinate to their respective in-laws, especially the husband's mother. Similarly, the order of preferred namesakes for children reflects a flexible ambilateral kin hierarchy with patrilineal bias. The first-born is named by, or after, the parents' marriage godparents, who, as ritual kin, bring together the respective kindreds of husband and wife. The paternal grandparents are the next preferred namesakes, and the maternal grandparents follow in priority. Newlyweds are called acháti or warhíti sapichu ("little mister and misses") until the birth of their first child, when they usually will establish neolocal residence. Thus, at different moments in the domestic life cycle, a Tarascan will live in an extended-family compound composed of several separate family houses and in a single household compound cofounded by husband and wife.

Both rights of primogeniture and ultimogeniture are loosely recognized in inheritance. The lastborn often inherits the family compound, along with the obligation to provide daily care for parents in their old age. Inheritance is a major source of conflict, given the relative independence of a husband's and wife's property rights, the general and overlapping expectations of all offspring, and the tremendous irregularities in the written titles to the lands of the Tarascan homeland.

Tarascan adulthood is traditionally established by marriage and parenthood. Baptismal godparents are the preferred go-betweens in marriage negotiations, especially in cases of marriage by elopement. Sixteenth-century accounts of Tarascan marriages, as well as excellent ethnographic descriptions in the twentieth century, indicate striking continuities in the ritual process. Marriage leads to the establishment of new ritual-kin relations. It is common for the marriage godparents to name, or approve of, the baptismal godparents of each child. Baptismal godparents will, in turn, approve or name the marriage godparents of their godchild.

By tradition, a child is baptized after the patsákuni, the forty-day postpartum period of rest and isolation of mother and child. Prior to baptism, reference to the child is made in terms of the marriage godparents, painu pitántskata or maína pitántskata (godfather's or godmother's namesake). Children are swaddled for the first six weeks of life and usually remain in constant bodily contact with the mother or with an elder sister, cousin, or aunt during the first year. Nursing is prolonged, often lasting until the third or fourth year. Gender-differentiated imitation of adult activities results from prolonged periods of parallel play while accompanying adults engaged in everyday tasks. This is the most common mode of socialization in Tarascan towns and hamlets. In contrast to children socialized in urban environments, Tarascan children enjoy constant physical and emotional contact with care givers.

Sociopolitical Organization and Ritual

Tarascan sociopolitical organization and ritual reflect the complex and intertwining power relations of mestizo and Tarascan coexistence over the centuries. With the Mexican constitution of 1917, rural, regional, and local social, institutions had to contend with a nationalist postrevolutionary socialism and a policy of agrarian reform. This constitutional affirmation of an exclusively secular basis for community properties and their government (ejidos and Indian communities) conflicted with the traditional religious-communal organization of the Tarascan homelands.

Traditionally, each town's cabildo was composed of the members of the community who had carried out a series of costly ritual obligations organized around the annual calendar of religious celebrations. With the exception of the Catholic sacraments, the cabildo designated or ratified all local civil and religious functions and served as the supreme community-level body for adjudication. In the first half of the twentieth century, a purely civil institutional order was implemented and the cabildo lost all real political authority. In this context, asymmetrical relations between Tarascans and mestizos became politically explicit by rejecting the political legitimacy of native religious authority. By 1950, with the exception of the municipio of Cherán, all Tarascan villages and hamlets came under the control of mestizo townships or municipios. Most communities were divided by prolonged local conflicts depicted in Purhépecha oral tradition as a struggle between the conservative followers of Tarascan Catholic tradition and its institutions, on the one hand, and radical agrarian "atheists," on the other.

Currently this political-religious dichotomy is fading. Now, different groups of Tarascan professionals seek both to consolidate a general pan-Tarascan regional identification among Tarascan towns and to achieve institutional recognition of this unity through electoral redistricting. These aims have inspired a revisionist revitalization of the Tarascan heritage. The cabildo, now seen as a council of elders, is being actively promoted in several communities, and a pan-Tarascan version of the cabildo and cargo system is present in the celebration of the Phurhépecha New Year (P'urhépecherhi Jimpanhi Wéxurhini). Since 1982, this event has been organized both to revitalize Tarascan custom and ethnic pride and to promote local consciousness of the homeland. The celebration is organized at the regional level along lines similar to the local religious cargo systems. The celebration rotates annually among the Tarascan towns of the subregions of the homeland. The representatives of the host town are responsible for the recently created pan-Tarascan national symbols, the Phurhépecha flag and the ta'rhésÏ (a stone on which is engraved the emblem of each town that hosts the New Year's celebration). After the celebration, each town's representatives become part of a council of elders, a pattern that is reminiscent of the former cabildo system.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Tarascans have developed their own distinctive form of Native Mesoamerican Catholicism, often described as a "folk" or "popular" version of Catholic doctrines and religious ritual. These practices include community-based devotion to saints and virgins, organized by the system of religious cargos and festivals, and a complex calendar of pilgrimages to local, regional, and national shrines. There is also a rich oral tradition that includes supplications and songs for the perpetuation of harvests, as well as stories centered on the figure of the Pingua or devil-patron. Local orators, tiósïrhi wantárhicha ("those who speak of God"; sing. tiósïrhi wantárhi ), officiate at burials, intercede during marriage negotiations (especially those involving elopement), and at wedding celebrations. They possibly represent continuity with the role of the petamuti, a pre-Hispanic religious orator responsible for preserving the collective memory of Tarascan cosmology. Specialization in magical ritual and curing with herbs and oral incantations is widespread and associated with certain towns such as Cherán in the Sierra Phurhépecha. The dual concept of soul and body is the source of many practices, for example, the matsïp'ini ("twisting" of body and soul) of a firstborn son is intended to make him resistant to the danger of espanto (the separation of body and soul) and to the harmful effects of the mal de ojo ("evil eye," the malicious interest of others who might endanger body-soul harmony). Tarascans typically believe in an afterlife and in a complex Catholic conception of heaven, including purgatory and limbo, as well as notions of bondage in life to the devil. They have specialists to aid the soul's struggle to leave the body during the agony of death and to accept its eternal destiny.

Tarascan singers and composers, pirericha, are recognized through out the Tarascan homeland. Many are regionally and nationally famous, their songs performed by numerous local groups and their recordings purchased and enjoyed throughout the Tarascan homeland and beyond. In the ceramic arts, the Tarascans have received international recognition in many categories, whether for the fantastic creations of Ocumicho, the giant green pineapples of Patamban, or the white ware of Tzintzuntzan.


Alcalá, Fray Jerónimo de (1980). La relación de Michoacán. Morella, Mexico: FIMAX. Originally issued in 1541.

Beals, Ralph L. (1946). Cherán: A Sierra Tarascan Village. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology.

Beals, Ralph L. (1969). "The Tarascans." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol.8, Ethnology, Part Two, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 725-773.Austin: University of Texas Press.

Brandes, Stanley (1988). Power and Persuasion: Fiestas and Social Control in Rural Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carrasco, Pedro (1952). Tarascan Folk Religion. Publication 17. New Orleans: Tulane University, Middle American Research Institute.

Carrasco, Pedro (1986). "Economía y política en el reino tarasco." In La sociedad indígena en el centro y occidente de México, edited by P. Carrasco et al., 63-102. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán.

Foster, George M. (with the assistance of Gabriel Ospina)(1948). Empire's Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology.

Friedrich, Paul (1984). "Tarascan: From Meaning to Sound." In Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Victoria Reifler Bricker. Vol. 2, Linguistics, edited by Munro S. Edmonson, 56-83. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Kemper, Robert V. (1981). "Urbanization and Development in the Tarascan Region since 1940." Urban Anthropology 10(1): 89-110.

Pollard, Helen Perlstein (1993). Taríacuri's Legacy: The Prehispanic Tarascan State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Swadesh, Morris (1969). Elementos del tarasco antiguo. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

West, Robert C. (1948). Cultural Geography of the Modern Tarascan Area. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology.



views updated May 29 2018


Tarascans (now also called Purépecha), the Native American linguistic and cultural group that in pre-Spanish times occupied most of the area of the present Mexican state of Michoacán. The Tarascans dominated an empire that extended into regions of the present states of Guerrero, Guanajuato, and Jalisco but probably did not reach the Pacific coast. The expansionism of the Tarascans and the Aztecs brought them into conflict that cost many lives but did not give either side a decisive victory.

The Tarascan ruler, known as the cazonci, had his capital at Tzintzuntzan on Lake Pátzcuaro in central Michoacán. The population of the Lake Pátzcuaro basin at the time of the Spanish Conquest was about 100,000. Tzintzuntzan was dominated by a platform on which there were five temple structures called yácatas. The principal deity was Curicaueri, a god of the sun and fire, to whom perpetual fires were kept burning. A major female deity, Cuerauáperi, was goddess of fertility in humans and the soil. Religious ceremonies included human sacrifice, particularly of war captives.

The first major Spanish expedition entered the region in 1522, under the leadership of Christóbal de Olid, but it withdrew after six months. The last cazonci, Tzintzicha Tangaxoan, was executed by Nuño de Guzmán in 1530. Franciscan missionaries arrived in 1525, followed by Augustinians in 1537. The royal judge Vasco de Quiroga, who became first bishop of Michoacán in 1538, is revered as the protector of the Tarascans.

In 1540–1541 one of the Franciscans, probably Jerónimo de Alcalá, wrote Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobierno de los indios de la provincia de Michoacán, the most informative description of the life and culture of the Tarascans. The missionaries also prepared grammars and dictionaries of the language, which is unrelated to other Mesoamerican tongues. The Tarascan grammar published by Maturino Gilberti in 1558 was the first grammar of an American Indian language to be printed.

During the colonial period the Tarascans maintained a mixed cultural identity at the village level, largely centered in their churches, hospitals, and confraternities. They have survived as an identifiable group in Michoacán, where the language is still spoken by over 105,000 people in a number of villages, and they are noted for craftsmanship in copper, wood, lacquer, textiles, and pottery.

See alsoGuzmán, Nuño Beltrán de; Indigenous Peoples; Michoacán; Olid, Cristóbal de.


Maturino Gilberti, Arte de la lengua de Michuacán (1558; 1987).

George M. Foster, Empire's Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (1948).

Jerónimo De Alcalá, Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobierno de los indios de la provincia de Michoacán (1956; 1977).

J. Benedict Warren, Vasco de Quiroga and His Pueblo-Hospitals of Santa Fe (1963).

Delfina E. López Sarrelangue, La nobleza indígena de Pátzcuaro en la época virreinal (1965).

Jerónimo De Alcalá, The Chronicles of Michoacán, translated and edited by Eugene R. Crane and Reginald C. Reindorp (1970), a somewhat faulty translation.

Shirley Gorenstein and Helen Perlstein Pollard, The Tarascan Civilization: A Late Prehispanic Cultural System (1983).

J. Benedict Warren, The Conquest of Michoacán (1985).

                                       J. Benedict Warren