A Look into Guanajuato's Past

By John P. Schmal


Present-Day Guanajuato

The landlocked State of Guanajuato — located in the center of the Mexican Republic — shares borders with San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas on the north, with Querétaro on the east, the state of México on the southeast, Jalisco on the west, and Michoacán on the south. Guanajuato is a relatively small state twenty-second in terms of size among the Republic's thirty-one states with a surface area of 30,768 square kilometers of territory, giving it 1.6% of the national territory. Politically, the state is divided into 46 municipios.


Guanajuato’s 2010 population was 5,853,677, representing 4.9% of Mexico’s total population and ranking sixth among the 31 states and the Distrito Federal (DF). The capital of Guanajuato is the City of Guanajuato, which was founded in the 1550s after Spanish entrepreneurs found rich veins of silver in the mountains surrounding the city. The indigenous tribes in the region noticed the numerous frogs in the area and referred to the area as “Quanax-juato,” combining the Tarascan “quanas” (frogs) and “huato” (mountainous), which essentially means a high place with many frogs. The Spaniards would later translate Quanax-juato into Guanajuato.


The Bajío

Guanajuato is recognized as part of El Bajío (The Lowlands) which includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro. According to Wikipedia, the Bajío has received recognition as the region with the best quality of life in Mexico. The region is a strong business and economic center and considered one of the safest areas of the country.


The Guanajuato Economy

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Guanajuato was about 765 trillion pesos in 2015 and contributed 4.5% of Mexico’s national GDP. In 2015, the five primary contributors to Guanajuato’s GDP were: manufacturing (33.2%); wholesale and retail trade (16.0%); real estate and rental and leasing (10.0%); construction (8.1%); and information (6.3%). Guanajuato’s 2.5 million workers in 2016 were employed in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing (22.7%) and commerce (20.6%). The mining, electricity and water industry once an important element of Guanajuatos economy now employs only 0.7% of the work force.


Early Spanish Exploration

It is believed that the Spanish explorer Cristóbal de Olid explored some parts of Guanajuato in the early 1520s, after advancing northward from Michoacán and the Kingdom of the Purépecha. The Spaniards sent more explorers into the area in the following decades.


Ciudad de Guanajuato

In the 1540s, Franciscan missionaries first visited the area around the present-day City of Guanajuato and by 1546, a cattle estancia had been established in the area. Then, in 1552, Captain Juan de Jaso discovered the silver veins in the area, leading to the establishment of mines in 1557. (The rich Zacatecas silver mines —148 miles (238 km) to the northwest —had been discovered a decade earlier in 1546). By 1570, it was reported that 600 Spanish miners lived in the camps around the Guanajuato mining area. Four years later, Guanajuato was elevated to the status of a city. However, Guanajuato’s silver production fell significantly during the Seventeenth Century, but experienced a revival in the Eighteenth Century after the discovery of the rich Valenciana Mine Complex.


The Valenciana Mine Complex

The massive silver vein of the Valenciana Mine Complex, seven kilometers north of Guanajuato, was discovered in 1750 with the mining operations starting in 1774. The silver reserves of Guanajuato were huge and produced 20% of the era’s total silver while the Valenciana Mine dug out 30% of the world’s yearly total of silver.


La Gran Chichimeca

When the Spaniards started exploring Guanajuato in the 1530s and 1540s, they encountered several nomadic tribes occupying the area which they referred to as La Gran Chichimeca, which included large parts of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes and Durango. Although the Aztecs had collectively referred to these Indians with the umbrella term, Chichimecas, they were actually composed of several distinct cultural and linguistic groups inhabiting a large swath of territory.


All of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture, based on the gathering of mesquite and tunas (the fruit of the nopal).  However, many of them also lived off of acorns, roots and seeds and hunted small animals, including frogs, lizards, snakes and worms. Over time, the Chichimeca label became synonymous with the word “barbarian” among the Spaniards and Mexica.


The historian Philip Wayne Powell has written several books that dealt with the Chichimeca Indians and the Spanish encounter with these Indians. In his publication Soldiers Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War, Mr. Powell noted that “Hernán Cortés, the Conqueror, defeated the Aztecs in a two-year campaign” but that his “stunning success created an illusion of European superiority over the Indian as a warrior.” Continuing with this line of thought, Mr. Powell observed that “this lightning-quick subjugation of such massive and complex peoples as the Tlaxcalan, Aztec, and Tarascan, proved to be but prelude to a far longer military struggle against the peculiar and terrifying prowess of Indian America's more primitive warriors.”


The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)

Mr. Powell writes that rush to establish new settlements and pave new roads through Zacatecas and Guanajuato, “left in its wake a long stretch of unsettled and unexplored territory...” As these settlements and the mineral output of the mines grew in numbers, “the needs to transport to and from it became a vital concern of miners, merchants, and government.” To function properly, the silver mines “required well-defined and easily traveled routes.” These routes brought in badly-needed supplies and equipment from distant towns and also delivered the silver to smelters and royal counting houses in the south.


Mr. Powell wrote that these highways “became the tangible, most frequently visible evidence of the white man's permanent intrusion” into their land. As the natives learned about the usefulness of the goods being transported (silver, food, and clothing), “they quickly appreciated the vulnerability of this highway movement to any attack they might launch.” In time, the Zacatecos, Guachichiles and Guamares, in whose territory most of the silver mines could be found, started to resist the intrusion by assaulting the travelers and merchants using the roads. And thus began La Guerra de los Chichimecas (The War of the Chichimecas), which eventually became the longest and most expensive conflict between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of New Spain in the history of the colony.


In hand-to-hand combat, the Chichimeca warriors gained a reputation for courage and ferocity. Even when the Chichimeca warrior was attacked in his hideout or stronghold, Mr. Powell writes, “He usually put up vigorous resistance, especially if unable to escape the onslaught. In such cases, he fought - with arrows, clubs, or even rocks! Even the women might take up the fight, using the weapons of fallen braves. The warriors did not readily surrender and were known to fight on with great strength even after receiving mortal wounds.”


Guanajuato’s Indigenous Groups

The following paragraphs discuss the indigenous tribes that lived in the region of present-day Guanajuato, all of which took part — in one way or another — in the Chichimeca War.


The Otomíes as Spanish Allies

The Otomíes were a Chichimeca tribe that occupied parts of Querétero, Guanajuato, the State of México and northwestern Hidalgo. The Otomíes belong to the extensive Oto-Manguean linguistic family. (The Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca also belong to this language family).


Soon after the European contact, the Otomíes allied themselves with the Spaniards and Mexica Indians. As a result, writes Mr. Powell, Otomí settlers were “issued a grant of privileges” and were “supplied with tools for breaking land.”  For their allegiance, they were exempted from tribute and given a certain amount of autonomy in their towns. Beginning in the 1550s, Luis de Velasco (the second Viceroy of Nueva España) used Otomí militia against the Chichimecas in the Chichimeca War.


Unlike most of the other Chichimeca tribes, the Otomíes have survived to the present day and their language is the seventh most commonly spoken indigenous language in Mexico today.


The Guachichiles

Of all the Chichimec tribes, the Guachichile Indians occupied the largest territory, — an estimated 100,000 square kilometers — from Saltillo, Coahuila in the north to Lake Chapala in eastern Jalisco on the southern end. Their territory extended through parts of eastern Zacatecas, western San Luis Potosí, parts of eastern Jalisco, Aguascalientes and western Guanajuato. According to John R. Swanton, the author of The Indian Tribes of North America (Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145-1953) classified the Guachichile tribes as part of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. This would make them linguistic cousins to the Aztecs.


The name Guachichil given to them by the Aztecs meant head colored red. They had been given this label, writes Mr. Dunne, because “they were distinguished by red feather headdresses, by painting themselves red (especially the hair), or by wearing head coverings (bonetillas) made of hides and painted red.” The archaeologist Dr. Paul Kirchhoff wrote that the following traits characterized the Guachichile Indians: “painting of the body; coloration of the hair; head gear; matrilocal residence; freedom of the married woman…”


In the development of tribal alliances, the Guachichiles were considered the most advanced of the Chichimec tribes. They were a major catalyst in provoking the other tribes to resist the Spanish settlement and exploitation of Indian lands. “Their strategic position in relation to Spanish mines and highways,” wrote Mr. Powell, “made them especially effective in raiding and in escape from Spanish reprisal.” The Spanish frontiersmen and contemporary writers referred to the Guachichiles “as being the most ferocious, the most valiant, and the most elusive” of all their indigenous adversaries.


The Guamares Confederation

The nation of the Guamares took up portions of western and central Guanajuato, northeastern Jalisco and eastern Aguascalientes. The 17th Century author Gonzalo de las Casas called the Guamares “the bravest, most warlike, treacherous, and destructive of all the Chichimecas.”


Before the Spanish contact, the Guamares had established a confederation of tribes in what is now Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and northeastern Jalisco in response to the threat of conquest from the Aztec Empire to the southeast and the Purépecha Kingdom to the southwest. Their tribal alliances stretched eastward into the present state of Querétaro and westward towards Lagos de Moreno in Jalisco and included both the Zacatecos and Guachichiles (other Chichimec tribes). The following link provides information about the Guamar Confederation, as well as a map:




At the time of the Spanish arrival in the region, the Guamares inhabited many parts of present-day Guanajuato, including Ciudad de Guanajuato, Pénjamo, León, San Felipe and San Miguel el Grande. The Guamares took an active part in the Chichimeca War during the 1560s, after which they fell into decline, while the Guachichiles and Zacatecos continued to fight on until the 1590s. According to the anthropologist David Frye, the last reference to the Guamares dates from around 1572, after which they apparently assimilated alongside the “civilized” Indians that moved into their region.


One of the few scholars to study the lifestyle of both the Guachichiles and Guamares was the archaeologist Paul Kirchhoff. His work, "The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico," is one of the few reference works available that describes the social and political organization of both the Guamares and Guachichile.


The Pames

The semi nomadic Pames constitute a very divergent branch of the extensive Oto-Manguean linguistic family. They were located mainly in northcentral and eastern Guanajuato, southeastern San Luis Potosí, and also in adjacent areas of Tamaulipas and Querétaro. To this day, the Pames refer to themselves as "Xi'úi," which means indigenous. This term is used to refer to any person not of mestizo descent. They use the word "Pame" to refer to themselves only when they are speaking Spanish.


The Pames lived south and east of the Guachichiles, with some living as far south as Acámbaro, Orirapúndaro and Ucareo. Their territory overlapped with the Otomíes of Jilotepec, the Purépecha of Michoacán, and the Guamares in the west. In 1531, an Otomi force under Don Fernando de Tapia, formerly known as Conín, conquered and dispersed the southern Pame and founded in the town of Querétaro. As the 1530s and 1540s progressed, Spanish cattle ranchers and Otomíes had begun taking over the Pame lands in eastern Guanajuato and western Querétaro.


Initially, the Pames were minor players in the Chichimeca War. According to Professor Frye, they took part in small raids on cattle ranches in the Bajío. However, in the 1570s, they became more involved in the hostilities, but settled down peacefully when the war ended. Today the Pames continue to exist as a cultural group with a living language.


The Purépecha (Tarascans)

In pre-Hispanic times, the Purépecha — also referred to as the Tarascan Indians — occupied and reigned over most of the state of Michoacán, but they also occupied some of the lower valleys of both Guanajuato and Jalisco. Celaya, Acámbaro, and Yurirapúndaro were all in Purépecha territory.


According to Professor Frye, the Spanish advances of the 1520s had pushed both the Purépechas and the Otomíes to advance into new regions in Guanajuato. As allies of the Spaniards, these two groups took advantage of the military protection offered by the conquerors and thus been able to survive as cultural entities to the present day.


Peace through Luxury Items

Unable to defeat the Chichimecas militarily in many parts of the war zone, the Spaniards offered goods and opportunities as an incentive for the Guachichiles and Guamares to make peace. Many of the Chichimecas had been nomadic (or semi-nomadic) and had not possessed most of the luxury items that the Spaniards had (i.e., warm clothes, agricultural tools and supplies, horses, and beef). Those who made peace were given agricultural implements and permitted to settle down to a peaceful agricultural existence. In many cases, Mexica, Tarascans and Otomíes were settled among them to help them adapt to their new existence.


Assimilation and Mestizaje

In the area of the Ciudad de Guanajuato mines, Tarascans, Otomíes and Mexica had steadily replaced the original Chichimeca inhabitants, while Tarascans and Otomíes also replaced the Chichimecas living in the Celaya and San Miguel el Grande districts. In Pénjamo (in the western region), a settlement of Tarascans, Otomíes and Christianized Guamares became a defensive settlement against Chichimeca attacks. 


After the Chichimeca Indians were persuaded to settle down in the late Sixteenth Century, Guanajuato experienced a high degree of mestizaje. This would be due in great part to the huge influx of a very diverse group of people from many parts of the Spanish colony of Mexico. The influx of more established and refined Indian cultural groups combined with the establishment of the Spanish language and Christian religion as the dominant cultural practice. And a result there was a high degree of assimilation, in which most traces of the old cultures were lost.


With the end of the Chichimeca War, Guanajuato became a magnet for more Spaniards and indigenous peoples from the south. As the Seventeenth Century progressed, several new villas were established across the region: Salamanca (1603), Valle de Santiago (1606), Salvatierra (1643) and San Pedro Piedra Gorda (1680 —now Manuel Doblado).


The 1790 Census

Late in the colonial period, the 1790 census of Nueva España (México) revealed that the Intendencia of Guanajuato had a population of 430,022, of which 186,312 were indios (43.3%) and 115,927 (27.0%) were Españoles. Another 127,783 (29.7%) belonged to “otras castas,” such as mestizos, mulatos and castizos.


Although the Indians made up only 21.5% of the population of the large district of Guanajuato City, they represented half or more of many other locations within the intendencia, including Salamanca (49.0%), Celaya (50.9%), Silao (50.8%) and Piedra Gorda (59.7%). However, as indicated in later censuses starting in 1895, it is believed that the “indio” classification did not include the speaking of indigenous languages, which had almost ceased in this part of México.


Modern Times

Although many of the Guanajuatenses are believed to be descended from the indigenous inhabitants of their state, the cultures and languages of their ancestors - for the most part - have not been handed down to the descendants. In the 1895 census, only 9,607 persons aged five or more spoke indigenous languages. This figure rose to 14,586 in 1910, but dropped to only 305 in the 1930 census, in large part because of the ravages of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which took the life of one in eight Mexican citizens.


The 1921 Census

As a matter of fact, Guanajuato's total population fell from an all-time high in the 1910 census (1,081,651 persons) to a Twentieth Century low of 860,364 in the 1921 census. But the 1921 Mexican census gives us a very interesting view of the widespread mestizaje of Guanajuato's modern population. In this census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including "indígena pura" (pure indigenous), "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white), and "blanca" (white).


Out of a total population of 860,364 people, only 25,458 inhabitants of Guanajuato (or 2.96%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number - 828,724, or 96.33% - classified themselves as being mixed, while a mere 4,687 individuals (0.5%) classified themselves as white. The following table illustrates the 1921 data for the State of Guanajuato:


The 1921 Mexican Census: Racial Classifications in Guanajuato

Racial Classification

No. of Persons

% of Total State Population

Indígena Pura



Indígena Mezclada con Blanca






Question Ignored or Other Classifications



Total Population



Source:  Departamento de la Estadística Nacional, Annuario de 1930: Estados Unidos Mexicanos (Tacubaya, Distrito Federal, 1932), pp. 48-50.


Twentieth Century Indigenous Guanajuato

From the latter half of the Twentieth Century into the present century, the population of indigenous speakers has remained fairly small. When the 1970 census was tallied, Guanajuato boasted a mere 2,272 indigenous speakers five years of age and over. The Otomí speakers made up the most significant number (866), followed by the Purépecha (181) and Náhuatl (151). The Chichimeca-Jonaz language, a rare language spoken in only in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí, was not tallied individually in the 1970 census, but was probably among the 790 persons listed under “otras lenguas Indígenas.”


The 2000 Census

According to the 2000 Mexican Census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Guanajuato amounted to only 10,689 individuals, or 0.26% of the total state population. These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, many of which are transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic. The largest indigenous groups represented in the state were:


  1. Chichimeca Jonaz (1,433 indigenous speakers)
  2. Otomí (1,019)
  3. Náhuatl (919)
  4. Mazahua (626)
  5. Purépecha (414)
  6. Mixteco (225)
  7. Zapoteco (214)


The Chichimeca-Jonaz language is classified as a member of the Oto-Manguean language family and is divided into two major dialects: the Pame dialect, which is used in San Luis Potosí, and the Jonaz dialect used in Guanajuato. With a total of 1,433 Chichimeca-Jonaz speakers living in the state of Guanajuato in 2000, it is interesting to note that the great majority - 1,405 persons five years of age or more - actually lived in the municipio of San Luis de la Paz in the northcentral part of the state (adjacent to San Luis Potosí).


The 2010 Census

In the 2010 census, Guanajuato ranked 30th among the Mexican states and the Distrito Federal in its percentage of indigenous speakers. In fact, only 0.3% of Guanajuato’s residents actually spoke an indigenous language. Within the Mexican Republic, only Aguascalientes and Coahuila had smaller percentages.


More than one-third of the 15,204 indigenous speakers 3 years and older in Guanajuato in the 2010 census did not specify which language they spoke, as noted in the following table:


The 2010 Census: Indigenous Languages Spoken in Guanajuato

Indigenous Language

Population 3 Years and Older Who Speak an Indigenous Language

Percent of all Indigenous Speakers

Unspecified Indigenous Language






Chichimeca Jonaz









Purépecha (Tarasco)












Other Languages






Source: INEGI. Censo de Población y Vivienda 2010: Tabulados del Cuestionario Básico: Población de 3 años y más que habla lengua indígena por entidad federativa y lengua


Although several native languages were spoken in Guanajuato, most of them were transplants from other Mexican states. Otomí was the most commonly-spoken language (21.6%), followed by the Chichimeca-Jonaz tongue.


Municipios with Indigenous Speaking Populations

In 2010, the Municipio of León had 3,270 indigenous speakers, with 21.5% of all Indigenous language speakers in Guanajuato. The majority of the languages spoken there were Náhuatl (the language of the Aztecs still spoken by one-quarter of Mexico’s indigenous languages speakers) and Otomí.


San Luis de la Paz was the municipio with the second largest number of indigenous speakers in the State (2,273 speakers or 15.0% of the state total), but nearly all of them spoke the Chichimeco-Jonaz language.


The Municipio of Tierra Blanca had the third largest population of indigenous speakers: 2,090 persons, or 13.7% of the state population. Tierra Blanca is the stronghold of the Otomí in Guanajuato, with 2,037 Otomí speakers in 2010.


Considered Indigenous Classification

In 2016, the Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey. One of the survey questions asked, “De acuerdo, con su cultura, se considera indígena?” Essentially, Mexican residents were being asked if they considered themselves indigenous through their culture. Based on the responses to this question, across all states, the survey reported that 21.5% of all Mexicans considered themselves to be of indigenous descent, which means that more than one-fifth of the entire population of the nation recognized its indigenous origins.


While only 0.2% of the people in Guanajuato speak indigenous languages today, nearly one-tenth of the population (9.1%) considered themselves to be indigenous in this survey. Today, many citizens of Guanajuato — although they are far removed from the cultures and languages of their ancestors —remain as the living representation of their indigenous ancestors.


Municipio Histories

At the following link, researchers will find links to each of Guanajuato’s municipios. Through this resource, interested readers can learn more about the indigenous people and history of each of their ancestral municipios:




Copyright © 2017 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.




De las Casas, Gonzalo. "Noticias de los Chichimecas y Justicia de la Guerra Que Se les ha Hecho por los Españoles." (Stuttgart, 1936).


Departamento de la Estadística Nacional. "Annuario de 1930." Tacuba, D.F., Mexico, 1932.


Frye, David. “The Native peoples of Northeastern Mexico,” in Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod, The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 1. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 89-135


Gerhard, Peter. “A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain.” Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.


Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). "Estadísticas Históricas de Mexico, Tomo I." Aguascalientes, INEGI, 1994.


Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). “Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000 y 2010.


Kirchhoff, Paul. "The Hunter-Gathering People of North Mexico," in "The North Mexican Frontier: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography." Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971 (pp. 200-209).


Powell, Philip Wayne. "Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War." Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975.


Prado, Juan Jose. "Guanajuato's Legends and Traditions." Guanajuato, Guanajuato: Prado Hnos., 1963.


Robles Uribe, Josefina. Historia Regional de Guanajuato: Perfil Socioeconómico.” Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Limusa, S.A. de C.V. Grupo Noriega Editores, 2000.


Secretaríat de Economía, ProMéxico Trade and Investment: Guanajuato. Online:



Secretaría de Programacíon y Presupuesto. 1er Censo de Población de la Nueva España. 1790: Censo de Revillagiedo. Mexico, D.F.: Dirección General de Estadística, 1977.


Thomas, Cyrus. "Indian Languages of Mexico and Central America." Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Smithsonian Institution, 1911, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 44.


Valenciana Mina. “Guanajuato Mine Guide.” Online:



Wikipedia. “Bajío.” Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baj%C3%ADo


Wikiwand, “Confederación Guamare.” Online: http://www.wikiwand.com/es/Confederaci%C3%B3n_guamare




By John P. Schmal


The State of Michoacán de Ocampo, located in the west central part of the Mexican Republic, occupies 59,864 square kilometers (23,113 square miles) and is the sixteenth largest state in Mexico, taking up 3% of the national territory. With a population that was tallied at 3,985,667 in the 2000 census, Michoacán is divided into 113 municipios and has a common border with Jalisco and Guanajuato (to the north), Querétaro (on the northeast), the state of Mexico (on the east), Guerrero (to the southeast), and Colima (to the west). In addition, Michoacán's southeast border includes a 213-kilometer (132-mile) shoreline along the Pacific Ocean.

Dominated by the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Michoacán extends from the Pacific Ocean northeastward into the central plateau. The climate and soil variations caused by this topography make Michoacán a diverse agricultural state that produces both temperate and tropical cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Mining is a leading industry in the state, with significant production of gold, silver, zinc, and iron.

The Purhépecha

For more than a thousand years, Michoacán has been the home of the Purhépecha Indians (more popularly known as the Tarascans). The modern state of Michoacán preserves, to some extent, the territorial integrity of the pre-Columbian Kingdom of the Purhépecha. This kingdom was one of the most prosperous and extensive empires in the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican world. The name Michoacán derives from the Náhuatl terms, michin (fish) and hua (those who have) and can (place) which roughly translates into "place of the fisherman."

Because the Purhépecha culture lacks a written language, its origin and early history are shrouded in mystery. Its stories, legends and customs pass from one generation to the next through oral traditions. A Tarascan origin myth relates the story of how Curicaueri, the fire god, and his brother gods founded the settlements along Lake Pátzcuaro. The primary source of information about the cultural and social history of the Purhépecha Indians is Relación de Michoacán (published in English as The Chronicles of Michoacán), which was dedicated as a gift to Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first Viceroy of Nueva España (1535-1550). Professor Bernardino Verástique's Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the Evangeliztion of Western Mexico, frequently cites "The Chronicles" in his publication and is an excellent source of information about the history of Michoacán in general.

The Tarascans of Michoacán have always called themselves Purhépecha. However, early in the Sixteenth Century, the Spaniards gave the Purhépecha a name from their own language. The name of these Indians, Tarascos, was derived from the native word tarascué, meaning relatives or brother-in-law. According to Fray (Friar) Martín 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 Spanish word Tarasco (and its English equivalent, Tarascan), is commonly used today to describe the Indians who call themselves Purhépecha. Today both the people and their language are known as Tarasca. But Professor Verástique comments that the word Tarasco "carries pejorative connotations of loathsomeness and disgust."

"The Purhépecha language," writes Professor Verástique, "is a hybrid Mesoamerican language, the product of a wide-ranging process of linguistic borrowing and fusion." Some prestigious researchers have suggested that it is distantly related to Quecha, one of the man languages in the Andean zone of South America. For this reason, it has been suggested that the Purhépecha may have arrived in Mexico from Peru and may be distantly related to the Incas. The Tarascan language also has some similarities to that spoken by the Zuni Indians of New Mexico.

Early Purhépecha History

The ancient Tarascan inhabitants were farmers and fishermen who established themselves in present-day Michoacán by the Eleventh Century A.D. But, in the late Twelfth Century, Chichimec tribes from the north crossed the Lerma River into Michoacán and settled in the fertile valley near the present-day town of Zacapu. "The entry of these nomadic hunters, writes Professor Verástique, "was facilitated by the fall of the Toltec garrisons at Tula and the political vacuum created in the region by the city's fall." Once in Michoacán, the nomadic Chichimecs began to intermingle with the Purhépecha, to create what Verástique calls "the Purhépecha-Chichimec Synthesis."

By 1324 A.D., they had become the dominant force in western Mexico, with the founding of their first capital city Pátzcuaro, located 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) above sea level along the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro (Mexico's highest lake). The name, Pátzcuaro, meaning "Place of Stones," was named for the foundations called "Petatzecua" by Indians who found them at the sites of ruined temples of an earlier civilization. Eventually, however, the Purhépecha transferred their capital to Tzintzuntzan ("Place of the Hummingbirds"), which is about 15 kilometers north of Pátzcuaro, on the northeastern shore of the lake. Tzintzuntzan would remain the Purhépecha capital until the Spaniards arrived in 1522.

Tzintzuntzan, the home of about 25,000 to 30,000 Purhépecha, was the site of the Tarascans' peculiar T-shaped pyramids that rose in terraces. The Tarascans became skilled weavers and became known for their feathered mosaics made from hummingbird plumage. With time, these gifted people also became skilled craftsmen in metalworking, pottery, and lapidary work. In the Michoacán of this pre-Hispanic period, gold, copper, salt, obsidian, cotton, cinnabar, seashells, fine feathers, cacao, wax and honey became highly prized products to the Tarascans. Neighboring regions that possessed these commodities quickly became primary targets of Tarascan military expansion. When a tribe was conquered by the Tarascans, the subjects were expected to pay tributes of material goods to the Tarascan authorities.

The Purhépecha Empire

During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, the Purhépechas grew militarily strong and economically prosperous. An early Tarascan king named Tariácuri initiated numerous wars of expansion. In addition to occupying and establishing garrisons in the western frontier (now Jalisco), he cut a wedge through the Sierra Madre into the tierra caliente (hot country) of the present-day state of Guerrero. With this acquisition, he incorporated Náhuatl people into his empire. However, the region was also a primary source of certain precious objects that were used in the religious cults of the time: copper, gold, silver, cotton, copal incense, cacao, beeswax, and vegetable fats.

Confrontations with the Aztecs

Eventually, the Purépecha Kingdom would control an area of at least 45,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers), including parts of the present-day states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima, and Jalisco. However, 240 miles to east, the Aztec Empire, centered in Tenochtitlán, had begun its ascendancy in the Valley of Mexico. As the Aztecs expanded their empire beyond the Valley, they came into conflict with the Tarascans. More than once, the Aztecs tried to conquer the Tarascan lands. But, in all of their major confrontations, the Tarascans were always victorious over the Aztecs. The Aztecs called the Tarascans Cuaochpanme, which means "the ones with a narrow strip on the head" (the shaven heads), and also Michhuaque, meaning "the lords of the fishes".

During the reign of the Tarascan king Tzitzic Pandacuare, the Aztecs launched a very determined offensive against their powerful neighbors in the west. This offensive turned into a bloody and protracted conflict lasting from 1469 to 1478. Finally, in 1478, the ruling Aztec lord, Tlatoani Axayácatl, led a force of 32,000 Aztec warriors against an army of almost 50,000 Tarascans in the Battle of Taximaroa (today the city of Hidalgo). After a daylong battle, Axayácatl decided to withdraw his surviving warriors. It is believed that the Tarascans annihilated at least 20,000 warriors. In the art of war, the Purhépecha had one major advantage over the Aztecs, in their use of copper for spear tips and shields.

The Arrival of the Spaniards

In April 1519, a Spanish army, under the command of Hernán Cortés, arrived on the east coast of Mexico near the present-day site of Veracruz. As his small force made its way westward from the Gulf coast, Cortés started meeting with the leaders of the various Indian tribes they found along the way. Soon he would begin to understand the complex relationship between the Aztec masters and their subject tribes. Human sacrifice played an integral role in the culture of the Aztecs. However, the Aztecs rarely sacrificed their own. In their search for sacrificial victims to pacify their gods, the Aztecs extracted men and women from their subject tribes as tribute. Cortés, understanding the fear and hatred that many of the Indian tribes held for their Aztec rulers, started to build alliances with some of the tribes. Eventually, he would align himself with the Totonacs, the Tlaxcalans, the Otomí, and Cholulans. Finally, on November 8, 1519, when Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán (the Aztec capital), he was accompanied by an army of at least 6,000.

Aware that a dangerous coalition was in the making, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II quickly dispatched ten emissaries to Tzintzuntzan to meet with the Tarascan King, Zuangua. The Aztec messengers arrived in October 1519 and relayed their monarch's plea for assistance. But Zuangua, after consulting with his sages and gods, came to believe that the "new men from the east" would triumph over the Aztecs. Unfortunately, the Aztec emissaries brought more than a cry for help. Apparently, one of them carried the disease smallpox into the capital city and into the presence of the King.

With this initial exposure to the dreaded disease, King Zuangua became ill and died. In a matter of days, a deadly plague of smallpox ravaged through the whole kingdom. Horrified by this bad omen, the Tarascans threw the Aztec representatives in prison and sacrificed them to their gods. Shortly thereafter, as Tenochtitlán was locked in a life-and-death struggle for survival against a massive attacking force, the Purhépechas in Tzintzuntzan choose as their new monarch, the oldest son of Zuangua, Tangoxoán II.

The Conquest

On August 13, 1521, after a bloody 75-day siege, Tenochtitlán finally fell to a force of 900 Spaniards and a hundred thousand Indian warriors. Almost immediately, Hernán Cortés started to take an interest in the surrounding Indian nations. Once in control of Tenochtitlán, Cortés sent messengers off to Tzintzuntzan. These messengers returned with Tangoxoán's emissaries, who were greeted by Cortés and taken on a canoe tour of the battle-torn city. The famous conquistador made a point of demonstrating his cavalry in action. In concluding his guided tour, Cortés assured Tangoxoán's representatives that, if they subjected themselves to the King of Spain, they would be well treated. They soon returned to Tzintzuntzan to report to their king.

Convinced that the Spaniards would allow him to continue ruling and fearing a terrible fate if he challenged them, Tangaxoan allowed the Spanish soldiers to enter Tzintzuntzan unopposed. The only precaution the Purhépechas took was to sacrifice eight hundred slaves who they feared would join the Spanish if a fight did occur. In July 1522, when the conquistador Cristobal de Olíd, with a force of 300 Spaniards and 5,000 Amerindian allies (mainly Tlaxcalans) arrived in the capital city of Tzintzuntzan, they found a city of 40,000 inhabitants.

Horrified by the sight of the temples and pyramids awash with the blood of recent human sacrifices, The Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers looted and destroyed the temples of the Purhépecha high priests. The occupying army, writes Professor Verástique, "required an enormous exertion of human labor and the preparation of vast quantities of food." During the four months that the occupying army stayed in Michoacán, it soon became apparent that the Spaniards were interested in finding gold and silver in Tangoxoán's mountainous kingdom. The discovery of gold in western Michoacán near Motín in 1527 brought more of the invaders. However, several of the Náhuatl tribes in the region resisted the intrusion vigorously. With the influx of adventurers and treasure seekers, more of the Tarascans were expected to help labor in the mines or help feed the mineworkers and livestock.

On a visit to Mexico City, in 1524, King Tangoxoán II was baptized with the Christian name of Francisco. It was Tangoxoán II himself, on another visit to Mexico City, who asked the bishop to send Catholic priests to Michoacán. In 1525, six Franciscan missionaries, led by Fray Martín de Jesus de la Coruña, arrived in Tzintzuntzan in 1525. The next year, they built a large Franciscan monastery and a convent. They saved a great deal of labor by tearing down much of the Purhépecha temples and platforms, using the quarried stones for their own buildings. Augustinian missionaries would arrive in Michoacán during 1533.

In the meantime, however, Cortés, seeking to reward his officers for their services, awarded many encomienda grants in Michoacán to the inner core of his army. The tribute-receiving soldier, known as an encomendero received a grant in the form of land, municipios or Indian labor. He was also obliged to provide military protection and a Christian education for the Indians under his command. However, "the encomienda grant," comments Professor Verástique, "was also fertile ground for bribery and corruption." Continuing with this line of thought, the Professor writes that "forced labor, especially in the silver mines, and the severe tribute system of the conquistadors" soon inflicted "extreme pressures on Purhépecha society."

Nuño de Guzmán

Concerns for the impending devastation of the indigenous people of Mexico soon reached the Spanish government. The Crown decided to set up the First Audiencia (Governing Committee) in Mexico in order to replace Cortés' rule in Mexico City and reestablish their own authority. On November 13, 1528, the Spanish lawyer, Nuño Guzmán de Beltran, was named by the Spanish King Carlos V to head this new government and end the anarchy that was growing in Nueva España.

Unfortunately, writes Professor Verástique, "the government of Spain had no idea of the character of the man whom they had appointed as president of the Audiencia." Eventually it became apparent that the "law and order personality" of Guzmán would be replaced with "ruthlessness and obstinacy." As soon as Guzmán took over, "he sold Amerindians into slavery, ransacked their temples searching for treasure, exacted heavy tribute payments from the caciques, and kidnapped women." Guzmán was "equally spiteful with his own countrymen," confiscating the encomiendas that Cortés had awarded his cronies.


Almost immediately, the Bishop-elect of Mexico City, the Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga came into conflict with Guzmán. Appointed as the "Protector of the Indians" and inquisitor of Nueva España, Zumárraga initiated court proceedings to hear Amerindian complaints about Spanish injustice and atrocities. By 1529, Guzmán was excommunicated from the church for his defiance of the church and his abuse of the Indian population. Anticipating loss of his position as well, Guzmán set off for Michoacán at the end of 1529.

Accompanied by 350 Spanish cavalrymen and foot soldiers, and some 10,000 Indian warriors, Guzmán arrived in Michoacán and demanded King Tangoxoán to turn over all his gold. However, unable to deliver the precious metal, on February 14, 1530, the King was tortured, dragged behind a horse and finally burned at the stake. Guzmán's cruelty stunned and horrified the Tarascan people who had made their best efforts to accommodate the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans. Fearing for their lives, many of Purhépecha population either died or fled far into the mountains to hide. Guzmán's forces plundered the once-grand and powerful Purhépecha nation. Temples, houses, and fields were devastated while the demoralized people fled to the mountains of Michoacán.

Guzmán now declared himself "King of the Tarascan Empire" and prepared to leave Michoacán. However, before moving on to plunder Jalisco, Guzmán drafted 8,000 Purhépecha men to serve as soldiers in his army. News of Guzmán's blatant atrocities rippled through the countryside and reached the ears of church authorities. While Guzmán moved on in an attempt to elude the authorities in Mexico City, Bishops Bartolomé de Las Casas and Zumárraga prepared a case against Guzmán. Eventually he would return to the capital, where he was arrested and shipped to Spain for trial.

A New Beginning: Vasco de Quiroga

Guzmán's cruelty had destroyed the relationship between the Spanish and the Tarascans. In a short time, the grand and powerful Purhépecha nation had been completely devastated. Had it not been for the effort of one man whose ideals, good judgment and ability to put into practice the morals that he preached, it is possible that the Purhépechas would not have survived this catastrophe. This man was Don Vasco de Quiroga, who at the age of 60, arrived in Mexico in January 1531, with a mandate to repair both the moral and material damage that had been inflicted upon Michoacán by Guzmán. A Spanish aristocrat born in Galicia, Don Vasco de Quiróga was trained in the law but would play an important role in the evangelization of the Purhépecha people.

According to Bernardino Verástique, the primary task assigned to Quiroga was to assume "the pastoral role of protector, spiritual father, judge and confessional physician" to the Purhépecha. On December 5, 1535, Vasco Quiroga was endorsed by Zumárraga as Bishop-elect of Michoacán. The nomination was approved on December 9, 1536, and in 1538, he was formally ordained by Bishop Zumárraga in Mexico City. Quiroga, upon arriving in Michoacán, very quickly came to the conclusion that Christianizing the Purhépecha depended upon preserving their language and understanding their worldview. Over time, Quiroga would embrace the Tarascan people and succeed in implanting himself in the minds and hearts of the natives as "Tata", or "Daddy" Vasco, the benefactor and protector of the Indians.

To attract the Indians to come down from their mountain hideouts and hear the Word of God, Don Vasco staged performances of a dance called "Los Toritos", a dance that is still performed today in the streets of local villages during certain festivities. 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.

Little by little, small groups of natives came down from the hills 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 was able to put an end to the crippling tribute system the Spaniards had inherited from the Purhépecha kings.

Recovery and Rejuvenation

Don Vasco ensured that the old boundaries of the Purhépecha Kingdom would be maintained. He began construction of the Cathedral of Santa Ana in 1540. He also established the Colegio de San Nicolas Obispo. As a Judge (oidor) and Bishop, Quiroga was driven by a profound respect for Spanish jurisprudence and his desire to convert the Purhépecha to a purified form of Christianity free of the corruption of European Catholicism. He strove to establish "New World Edens" in Michoacán by congregating the Purhépecha into repúblicas de indios, or congregaciones (congregations) modeled after Thomas More's Utopia. Guided spiritually by the friars, the natives of these communities became self-governing. Under this system, Augustinian and Franciscan friars could more easily instruct the natives in the fundamental beliefs of Christianity as well as the values of Spanish culture.

Quiroga's efforts to raise the standard of living for the Tarascans gradually took hold. Labor in the communal fields or on the cattle ranches was performed on a rotating basis to permit the people to become self-supporting and to allow them free time for instruction, both spiritual and practical, and to work in specialized industries. Gathering the dispirited Purhépechas into new villages made possible the development of a particular industrial skill for each community. Soon one town became adept at making saddles, another produced painted woodenware, and another baskets, etc. In time, the villages developed commerce between one another, thus gaining economic strength. Don Vasco de Quiroga finally died on March 20, 1565 in Pátzcuaro.

On February 28, 1534, King Carlos issued a royal edict, awarding Tzintzuntzan the title of City of Michoacán, and in 1536 it became the seat of a newly created Bishopric. However, Tzintzuntzan lost its importance when the Spaniards changed their administrative center to Pátzcuaro in 1540. Then, in 1541 the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza issued an order to raise a city called Valladolid, 185 miles northwest of Mexico City. This town - originally known as Guayangareo by the indigenous people - was elevated to the status of a city in 1545, with the approval of the King of Spain. Almost three centuries later, in 1828, Valladolid, the birthplace of Jose Maria Morelos was renamed Morelia in honor of the revolutionary patriot who served in the War of Independence. Although Tzintzuntzan remained the headquarters of the Franciscans, it soon dwindled in size and significance as the royal title of City of Michoacán passed to Pátzcuaro.

The Colonial Period

During the colonial years, thanks to Quiroga's efforts, Michoacán flourished and came to occupy an important position in regard to its artistic, economic and social development. The prosperity that flourished in Michoacán has been explored in a number of specialized works. Professor Verástique has suggested that "Vasco de Quiroga's ideals of humanitarianism and Christian charity had a critical influence on the conversion process."

Unfortunately, the repercussions of Guzmán's cruelty also had long-range effects on Michoacán's population. Professor Verástique writes that "three factors contributed to the loss of life in Michoacán: warfare, ecological collapse, and the loss of life resulting from forced labor in the encomienda system." Between 1520 and 1565, the population of Michoacán had declined by about thirty percent, with a loss of some 600,000 people. For the rest of the colonial period - the better part of three centuries - Michoacán would retain its predominantly agrarian economy.

Michoacán in the Twentieth Century

Michoacán - known as the Intendancy of Valladolid during the Spanish period - saw a significant increase in its population from the 1790 census (322,951) to the 1895 census (896,495). The 1900 census tallied 935,808 individuals, of whom only 17,381 admitted to speaking indigenous languages. It is likely, however, that during the long reign of Porfirio Díaz, many indigenous-speaking individuals were afraid to admit their Indian identity to census-takers.

In the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, one in eight Mexican citizens lost their lives. The armies and battlegrounds of this civil war shifted from one part of Mexico to another during this decade. Michoacán was not the site of major active revolutionary participation, but Jennie Purnell, the author of Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán, writes that Michoacán endured "attacks by rebel bands, wide-spread banditry, prolonged drought, and devastating epidemics." As a result, the population of Michoacán in 1910 (991,880) dropped to 939,849 in the 1921 census.

The 1921 Mexican Census

The 1921 census was unique among Mexican tallies because it asked people questions about their racial identity. Out of a total population of 939,849 people in Michoacán, 196,726 persons claimed to be of "indígena pura" (pure indigenous) descent, representing 20.9% of the total population. The vast majority of Michoacán residents - 663,391 in all - identified themselves as "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white, or mestizo), representing 70.6% of the total state population. Only 64,886 individuals referred to themselves as "blanca" (white).

The 2000 Mexican Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in the state of Michoacán totaled 121,849 individuals. The most common indigenous languages in Michoacán are: Purépecha (109,361), Náhuatl (4,706), Mazahua (4,338), Otomí (732), Mixteco (720), and Zapoteco (365).

In all, 121,409 persons who spoke Purépecha were tallied in Mexico's 2000 census, with the vast majority of them living in Michoacán. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of these Purépecha-speaking persons - 103,161, or 85% - also spoke the Spanish language, indicating a significant level of assimilation. In recent decades, the people of Michoacán have developed a new appreciation of their Purépecha roots and culture. Today, the people of Michoacán can look back with pride on several hundred years of evolution: from an indigenous kingdom to a Spanish colony to a free and sovereign state of the Republic of Mexico.

The 2010 Mexican Census

In the 2010 census, Michoacán was ranked 13th among the Mexican states with 3.5% of its population speaking indigenous languages (136,608 individuals in all). The single largest group among the indigenous speakers were the Purhépecha who represented 83.1% of total indigenous-speaking language. Náhuatl was the second most common language spoken in the state.


The 2010 census also included a question that asked people if they considered themselves indigenous, whether or not an indigenous language was spoken. The results of this question indicated that 15.7 million Mexicans 3 years of age and older identified themselves as “indigenous:” 14.9% of the total Mexican population. This time Michoacán ranked 14th, with 14.6% of its population 3 years of age and older being considered indigenous.


In 2010, a total of 124,494 Mexicans identified themselves as speakers of the Purépecha language. Purépecha was the 15th most commonly spoken language in Mexico, and more than 94% of those persons lived within the borders of Michoacán. However, the rate of monolingualism in the Purépecha speakers declined from 12.9% in 2000 to 7.8% in 2010.


The Future

The future of Mexico’s indigenous languages is not certain, but there does appear to be some effort to carry on some of the nation’s ancient languages.  The movement of indigenous peoples from their places of origin to other parts of Mexico will play some role in the continued decline of some languages.  On the other hand, the sense of pride and cultural identity among some indigenous groups will ensure the survival of many of the languages well into the future.


Copyright © 2016, by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


Access Mexico Connect. "The Tarasco Culture and Empire." Mexico Connect, 1996-2003. Online: http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tarasco.html. April 20, 2003.

Eugene R. Craine and Reginald C. Reindorp, “The Chronicles of Michoacán.” Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Departamento de la Estadística Nación, “Annuario de 1930.” Tacubaya, Distrito Federal, 1932.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). “Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos.” XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000 y 2010.

Jennie Purnell, “Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán.” Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Bernardino Verástique, “Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the Evangelization of Western Mexico.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

J. Benedict Warren, “The Conquest of Michoacán: The Spanish Domination of the Tarascan Kingdom in Western Mexico, 1521-1530.” Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.


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