When Cristobal de Olíd and his regiment of Spanish conquistadors first arrived at Lake Pátzcuaro in central Mexico in 1522, they found on its shores a city of 40,000, the capital of the Purépecha Indian Empire, the city of Tzintzuntzan.
Over 450 years later, the modern explorer finds Tzintzuntzan a quiescent, almost sleeping little village of only a thousand souls. Yet tucked away in a corner of this lovely lake country, 7,000 feet in the pine-clad highlands of Michoacán state, charming little Tzintzuntzan keeps safe a wonderful treasure of ancient monuments and legends that retell the early history of Michoacán. [Photo: Tzintzuntzan village from the old ruins]
From a plateau on the wooded hill overlooking Tzintzuntzan (seen-soon-sahn) and the lake, Don Alonso, the old caretaker of the local archeological zone, pointed out to me where the Spaniards first entered the basin. As we walked along the hillside he enlightened me with his own versions of local history and folklore. The plateau itself, he told me, was created by Indian workmen using great quantities of fill rock, covered by nine feet of packed earth to form a broad mesa on which the Purépecha (poo-RAY-pecha) rulers built their ceremonial center.
Here stand the yacátas, or ruins, of five large Purépecha temples. The temples themselves do not survive; only their unusual terraced circular platforms, two of which have been restored.
Preliminary excavations have shown that these platforms and temples were built over the tops of previous temples, erected on the hillside long before the mesa was created. Off to one side lie ruins believed to have been the dwellings of high priests. A large patio, originally covered by a pillared roof, was perhaps an altar to the local coyote deity. The tombs of high priests were unearthed beneath its floor, and on a nearby slope, archeologists have discovered a huge deposit of human bones, 20 meters by 10 meters and 2.5 meters deep. [Photo: Ruins of temples, Lake Patzcuaro]
Close inspection of the buildings, as Don Alonso demonstrated, shows that different rooms, even sections of the same wall were built by different hands, in different patterns -- apparently the work of "tarea", tribute labor crews. In fact, only about ten percent of the 1.5 million people in the ancient Purépecha Empire were of the ruling Purépecha stock. The remainder spoke Chichimec and Nahuatl-related dialects and were apparently conquered subjects of the once powerful Purepecha. In central Mexico, the Purépecha language is unique in its relationship to the Mayan tongue and ultimately, some believe, to the roots of the Quechua language of the Incas.
The remnants of another, smaller platform structure lie in rubble on the opposing hillside, marking the community center of the original residential town of Tzintzuntzan, which blanketed the hillsides and spilled over toward Ihuatzio village (known then as Cuyuacán) on the far side.
Over eight hundred years ago, nearby Pátzcuaro was the center of the indigenous world of Michoacán -- as again today it is the center for visiting tourists. Some time after the fall of the Toltecs, the great Purépecha King Tariacuri succeeded in consolidating a vast empire that stretched from Lake Chapala in the north to the fringes of the rival Nahuatl-Aztec (Mexíca) state to the south and east.
But a rift occurred when Tariacuri died, leaving a son and two nephews as heirs to the kingdom. His son Hiqugage remained in Pátzcuaro, but the two nephews seceded with their own followings to establish separate capitals. Nephew Hiriapan chose Cuyuacán (today Ihuatzio), and Tangoxoán moved to Tzintzuntzan (known then as Mechuacán). However, the dedication of new capitals required a great number of sacrifices, and campaigns were launched at home as well as abroad to capture sacrificial victims. From their successful campaigns, the kings also brought back quantities of gold and silver.
This information comes down to us through the Relación de Michoacan, a collection of native chronicles and ethnographic information compiled in Spanish about 1539, probably by Fray Martín de Jesus de la Coruña and his Franciscan monks. The history states only that the son and one nephew died violent deaths, leaving Tangoxoán, the sole heir, to rule from his new capital at Tzintzuntzan. But certainly this is the stuff legends are made of.
When Captain Olíd, (one of the principals in Cortez' siege of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán), advanced toward Tzintzuntzan in 1522, the Purépecha had already learned of the destruction of the powerful Aztec Empire. In fact, the devastation of the Spaniards had already arrived. The current Purépecha king died in a smallpox epidemic brought by Aztec messengers seeking aid. The new king, Tangoxoán II, a meek descendant of the city's early founder, fearing a similar fate for his kingdom, went into hiding until after Olíd arrived, then gave up without a fight.
The Spaniards soon labeled the local Indians Tarascos, from the native word tarascué, meaning "relatives" or "in-laws". According to Friar Coruña, it was a term the natives used mockingly for the Spaniards, who regularly violated their women. But the Spaniards mistakenly took it up, and the word Tarasco, (English: Tarascan), is commonly used today for the Indians who call themselves Purépecha.
It was Tangoxoán II himself, on a visit to Mexico City, who asked the bishop to send Catholic priests to Michoacán. Six Franciscan missionaries, led by Fray Martín de Jesus de la Coruña arrived in Tzintzuntzan in 1525. Their initial task was the construction, begun in 1526, of the large Franciscan monastery of Santa Ana in Tzintzuntzan. They saved a great deal of labor by tearing down much of the Purépecha temples and platforms, using the quarried stones for their own buildings. [Photo: Front of the Franciscan monastery]
The monastery thrived for over one hundred years, before being converted into a school, a function it served until 1964. The Mexican government completed restoration work in 1974 and today the ancient 'convento' is open to the public at no charge. Much of the original two-story quadrangle remains, and fragments of original frescoes over 400 years old can still be seen in the large arched entryway that leads to the inner patio.
The monastery faces a spacious churchyard where an original stone cross still stands where Fray Martín placed it in the 16th century. Santa Ana now serves as an informal museum, displaying a number of religious paintings, wooden statues, stone carvings and other artifacts of the early years of Catholicism in Michoacán. The Templo de la Soledad, called 'La Capilla', (the chapel) with its beautiful three-tiered bell tower, also faces the church grounds, and nearby on separate grounds stands the smaller 17th century Capilla Abierta (open chapel) de la Concepción. [Photo: Churchyard of the Franciscan monastery]
Nuño Guzmán de Beltran plays the heavy in local history. Named by Charles V. to head the first audencia (governing committee) to replace Cortez' rule in Mexico City, Guzmán abused his power and was excommunicated by the church. Anticipating loss of his position as well, he set off for Jalisco and Michoacán, bent on plunder.
Guzmán arrived in Tzintzuntzan in 1530 and promptly subverted all progress toward conversion of the Indians. He officially claimed the area for Spain and demanded that all tribute of gold be brought to him. He was displeased however, with the paltry amount of gold he received, and although he cruelly tortured the king and his advisors, little more gold was produced. In fact, much of the Purépecha treasure of precious metals had already been sent to Cortez in Mexico City. [Photo: Chapel of the Conception, left, Templo de la Soledad, right]
A local legend maintains that Tangoxoan II had hidden part of the treasure in small boats and sunk them into Lake Pátzcuaro, but that Guzmán was informed of the deception. Whether or not this is true, the displeased Guzmán finally had the unfortunate king dragged through town behind a horse, then garroted him to death and burned him at the stake. Guzmán now declared himself "King of the Tarascan Empire" and led a brief reign of terror that drove most of the Indians far into the mountains, before he left to plunder Jalisco, taking with him 8,000 Purépecha men as soldiers. Good relations with the Spaniards had been destroyed, but a beneficent figure was soon to arrive.
Don Vasco de Quiróga arrived in Mexico in 1530 at the age of 60 and first visited Tzintzuntzan in 1533. A royal edict of 1534 awarded Tzintzuntzan the title of 'City of Michoacán', and in 1536 it became the seat of a newly created bishporic. In 1538 Don Vasco became the Bishop of Michoacán. He succeeded in implanting himself in the minds and hearts of the natives as "Tata", or "Daddy" Vasco, the benefactor and protector of the Indians. [Photo: View over the village from the bell tower]
In 1530 Lake Pátzcuaro was considerably higher than we see it today, covering most of the flatlands where the present village lies. Fray Martín wrote that Santa Ana was built by the shore, not 70 meters from the lake; today it sits over 400 meters away, with much of the present village in between. The Indians, in those days, lived on the mountainsides, surrounding the church site, but after the tyranny of Guzmán, they stayed far away from the compound of the intruders.
To attract the Indians to come down and hear the Word (according to Don Alonso), Don Vasco staged performances of a dance called "Los Toritos", a dance which is performed today in the streets of local villages on festival occasions. All the dancers wear colorful costumes and masks, one of which is a great bull's head. The bull prances to the music of guitars and trumpets as the others try to capture him with capes and ropes. [Photo: Front of the Templo de la Conception]
Soon a few of the Indians came to investigate this strange phenomenon and Don Vasco befriended them with gifts. He treated the Indians with enlightened compassion and soon many families came down from the hills to settle near the monastery, as much for protection as to embrace the new faith. Don Vasco stood at odds with the cruel treatment the Spanish soldiers meted out to the Indians, and with his influence and personal power, he put an end to the crippling tribute system the Spaniards had inherited from the Purépecha kings.
In 1540 the Spaniards moved their administrative center to abandoned Pátzcuaro, when Don Vasco decided (against much protestation) to build his new cathedral there. Although Tzintzuntzan remained the Franciscan headquarters, it soon dwindled in size and significance. and the royal title of City of Michoacán passed to Pátzcuaro.
During his ministry Don Vasco also sent to Spain for a battery of artisans to teach the Indians home crafts. To Santa Clara he sent a coppersmith; to Pátzcuaro, artists in lacquer ware and silver; weavers to Erongarícuaro; woodcarvers to Janítzio; and to Tzintzuntzan, potters and basket weavers who taught the Indians to fashion mats from the tule reeds that grow abundantly along the shores of the lake. These crafts, taken up by Indians already highly proficient in stone, shell, and metal crafts, have been passed on from generation to generation and thrive in these villages today as a substantial tourist trade and an enduring legacy from their beloved "Tata" Vasco. [Photo: Belltower of the Templo de la Concepcion from below; this was the back cover of the Américas issue]
Pátzcuaro became the scene of all subsequent local history and today is a popular and attractive tourist town, protected as a national historical monument. Only twenty minutes away by car, Tzintzuntzan is today a small and poor village. Tzintzuntzan: "The Place of the Hummingbirds", even the hummingbirds are gone now, hunted to extinction by the Purépecha, who prized their iridescent feathers to adorn their clothing.
In contrast to the ubiquitous red and white buildings of Pátzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan is a study in brown. Ancient adobe walls, unadorned by paint or whitewash, are covered only with a crumbling plaster of the same adobe, made as it was by the Spaniards hundreds of years ago. Away from the highway that cuts through the village, I didn't see a single vehicle in the dusty, deserted streets.
A few shops and stalls line the highway, offering distinctive Tzintzuntzan pottery and a variety of tule crafts, but not a single hotel or even a cafe is to be found in Tzintzuntzan. The local pottery, while simple by international standards, is as innovative and attractive as any in the area.
During the week, only a few cars stop on their way to Pátzcuaro to peruse the few small shops in Tzintzuntzan, and few tourists venture to step beyond the main street, where 13th century Indian legend and 16th century conquest history wait to be rediscovered.
Yet, just one block off the highway -- there, in the quiet of the vast churchyard, dotted with old trees, grizzled now and dying of old age -- you may still hear the echoes of horses hooves, as Spanish soldiers draw up to the Santa Ana monastery to hear Mass, and perhaps a lecture, from Don Vasco de Quiróga.