Indigenous Identity in Mexico

March 2, 2021 – The complexities of Mexican Indigenous identity


Indigenous Nationalities and the Mestizo Dilemma

Mestizo. Métis. Mixed bloods. Though clearly different, all these terms are used to racially classify people with Indian ancestry. However, the definitions vary—and none is wholly satisfactory.

Part of the problem is the widely varying histories of these people. The U.S. and Canada, for example, are settler states, where immigrants who took the land went on to form the majority. There, Indian and mixed-blood populations are a distinct minority.

However, many other countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Ecuador have majority mixed-blood and indigenous populations, or mixed-blood leadership over indigenous majorities. Here, indigenous and mixed-blood identities and political relations come into sharper focus.

In Mexico, by contrast, it is called mestizajeMestizaje policies ask Indigenous Peoples to join the national community and economy, adopt the Spanish language, and abandon their traditional tribal communities, culturelanguage and dress.


Over the years, many indigenous individuals have accepted the path of mestizaje. But about 10 million contemporary indigenous Mexican individuals have not. In much of Latin America, a person is classified as Indian if he or she speaks an indigenous language or identifies with and lives within an indigenous community. That’s certainly true in Mexico, where indigenous identity has become a choice, depending on cultural commitments and identity rather than race. Even a person of full Indian descent can be considered a mestizo, depending on his or her cultural affinity.

North of the border, however, Indian identity is a much more racialized and legalistic affair. Among most U.S. and Canadian tribes, Indian status is determined by federal policies as a function of blood quantum and descent within a particular tribe. But there, unlike in much of Central and Latin America, there is no requirement of language use, cultural knowledge or lifestyle, or community participation.

The contemporary world offers many cultural and identity choices and possibilities. Increasingly indigenous identity requires a conscious choice by individuals, communities and nations about what indigenous membership means and how it is defined. The mestizo nationality, however, does not offer the political, cultural, and territorial autonomy that Indigenous Peoples the world over seek. Until it does, the mestizo dilemma will continue—at who knows what cost in tears and blood alike.


I write this post with mixed emotions regarding my Indigenous identity. I’m angry for the stolen heritage, a consequence of colonization in my birth territory. I’m embarrassed about not knowing my native ancestry, and I’m self-conscious about what other people, especially those who identify as Indigenous would think about my claims, particularly from my country, México.

During my last field research, I spoke to elders from pueblos originarios in Chiapas about Indigenous identity, to learn from people from my birth territory’s perspective. Considering mestizos and recognised Indigenous people share ancestry from Mesoamerican cultures such as Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec, Olmec, to mention some, I asked them “when do we stop being Indigenous?” One of them responded ever so frankly: “when we forget”. We MUST remember. Now I wonder, is it possible for mestizos to reclaim our Indigenous identity, to remember our Indigenous heritage but without reproducing mestizo dominance and privilege? It’s time for us to remember.

Perhaps the most known of this caste system is the mestizo, the “breeding” of a Spaniard with an Indigenous person. However, after some generations, the mestizo identity was reclaimed and re-signified in order to promote a new identity as an independent nation where the colonisers, Spaniards or criollos (people born in the colonies from Spaniard parents), were no longer at the top. The modernist project used mestizaje or the mixing of people as the creation of a new race to be proud of, la raza cósmica. The cosmic race was coined and elaborated by the Mexican philosopher and secretary of education, José Vasconcelos, pivoting on the idea of a “fifth race” in the Americas that transcended race and nationality. At that time, it was believed that “Latin” Americans had the blood of all the races in the world: European, native Americans, Asians and Africans, surpassing the peoples of the “Old World”.


Another factor to consider is the stereotypical image of “how an Indigenous person should look” according to location. There are advantages or disadvantages. For example, when I wear one of my huipiles in México I am considered “cool or trendy” but if my Indigenous sisters with darker skin do the same, they are discriminated against. However, as a woman of color outside my territory, the perception changes. I have been perceived as “native or ethnic” and I am consistently treated differently.

Indigenous identity has been recognised and denied by systems that gain advantage for the extermination of Indigenous people and knowledge. Whether by genocide, “washing” the blood, assimilation or disconnection to territory and languages, the erasure of Indigenous communities would allow the exploitation of land, resources and knowledges all around the world. This is likely why the Mexican government recognise Indigenous people, only through language, thinking that forces assimilation, mestizaje, coloniality and modernity. These processes decrease the number of native language speakers. In the US, the Indigenous or Native identity is attached to blood quantum, which varies between the tribes, and it is recognised by an ID card. If we use their 25% blood quantum rule, 80% of the Mexican population would be considered Native Americans.

Cēmānāhuac is the name given by the Aztec people to the continent known as America. The Aztec, and the Mexica (the Aztecs who stayed in central México) are one of the most important civilisations in the continent. This náhuatl word is derived from “cē” as one/whole and “Ānāhuac“, deriving from “atl” as water and “nahuac”, a locative meaning “circumvented or surrounded”. Therefore, this name has been translated as “land surrounded by water”.

Indigenous Identity in the
2000 Mexican Census

by: John P. Schmal

History of Jalisco

More Articles by John P. Schmal




Common Group Name  Self-given Name Meaning
1. Tojolabales Tojolwinikiotik Legitimate or true men
2. Tarascos Purépechas Person or people
3. Chichimeca, Jonaz Ézar Indios
4. Triquis Tinujei My brother
5. Zoque O�depüt People of the Language
6. Popoluca Homshuk God of Corn
7. Tzeltales Winik atel Working Men
8. Tzotziles Batsil winikiotik True Men
9. Mochos Mochos o Motozintlecos ……….
10. Huasteco Teenek Those who live in the fields
11. Nahua Macehuale Campesino
12. Otomí Hña hñu Otomí speakers
13. Huicholes Wirrárika The People
14. Kikapú Kikaapoa Those who walk the earth
15. Mazahuas Mazahuas Where there iare deer
16. Mazatecos Ha shuta enima People of Custom
17. Mayas Mayá Name of the Territory
18. Matlazincas Matlazinca Those who make nets
19. Mayos Yoremes The people of the Shore
20. Mixes Ayuuk The People
21 Chinantecos Tsa ju jmí People of the Old Word
22. Chatinos Kitse chaitnio Work of the Words
23. Coras Nayeri  
24. Huaves Mero ikooc The True Us
25. Seris Kon kaak The People
26. Tarahumara Rarámuri Runners on Foot
27. Tepehuanes Odámi People
28. Zapotecos Istmo Binnzá People who come from the Clouds
29. Zapotecos de Valles Benizaa People of the Clouds
30. Zapotecos Sierra Norte Bene xon People of the Clouds
31. Totonacos Totonacos Man of the Hot Country
32. Tlapanecos Meiphaa He who is Painted
33. Chochos Runixa ngiigua Those who speak The Language
34. Choles Winik Men or Milperos
35. Yaquis Yoremes Man
36. Amuzgos Tzjon non People of the textiles
37. Chontales de Oaxaca Slijuala xanuci Inhabitants of the Mountains
38. Chontales de Tabasco Yokoti anob The Yoko Speaking People
39. Guaríjios Macurawe Those who Roam the Earth
40. Mames Mam Father, Grandfather or Ancestors
41. Pimas Oiob The People
42. Pápagos Thono oiotham People of the Desert
43. Pames Xiiúi Indigenous
44. Mixtecos Ñuu savi People of the Rin
45. Lacandon Hach Winik True Men
46. Kumiai Kumiai  
47. Cucapa Cucapa  
48. Paipai Akwaiala  
49. Cochimi    
50. Kiliwa    
51. Ocuilteco    
52. Popolocas    
53. Ixcatecos    
54. Chuj    
55. Jacaltecos    
56. Tepehua

Classification of Mexican Languages

Group Branch Family Sub-Family Language
Joca-Meridional Yumapacua     Paipai
  Tlapaneco Tlapaneca   Tlapaneco
Otomangue Otopame Pame-Jonaz   Pame
    Otomí-Mazahua   Otomí
    Matlatzinca   Matlatzinca
  Savizaa Mazateco-Popoloca   Mazateco
    Mixteca   Mixteco
    Zapoteca   Chatino
  Chinanteco Chinanteca   Chinanteco
  Huave     Huave
Nahua-Cuitlateco Yutonahua Pima-Cora   Pápago
        Pima Alto
        Pima Bajo
    Nahua   Nahua
Maya-Totonaco Mayense Mayense Yaxu Huaxteco
      Yax Maya Peninsular
        Chontal (Tab.)
      Chax Mame
      Rax Quiché
  Mixeano Mixeana Mixe-Popoluca Mixe



      Zoque Zoque
  Totonaco Totonaco   Totonaco
  Purépecha     Purépecha


By John P. Schmal

The Mexican Republic of the Twenty-First Century, boasting more than a 100 million inhabitants, has evolved from many indigenous nations five centuries ago into a single national entity, with Spanish as its primary language.  But beneath the Spanish culture and language, the indigenous identity of the Mexican people is unmistakable.  It is manifested in their appearance, their culture and spirituality and, to some extent, in their language and traditions.  Few of the original Indian cultures still exist in their pure and untainted forms, but most are present in some form in various traditions, customs and religious practices.

In the twelve censuses between 1895 and 2000, the Mexican government has asked its citizens to answer a wide variety of questions.  In many ways, the Mexican census has been much more detailed than the United States census, asking questions about age, disability, nativity, literacy, language, and economic status.

However, for the most part, the census has not been able to gauge the level of indigenous identity beyond the criteria of those who actually speak indigenous languages.  In 1895, 26.09% of persons five years of age and older in the Mexican Republic spoke indigenous languages.  By 1940, this figure had dropped to 14.8%.  It dropped farther to 11.2% in 1950, 7.5% in 1990 and 7.1% in 2000.  The linguistic status, however, does not necessarily explain if a Mexican citizen feels that he or she is an Indian by blood, by culture, or tradition.  However, the 1921 and 2000 Mexican Federal Censuses stand out as exceptions.  In these two censuses, performed 79 years apart, we get a unique view into the ethnic identity of the Mexican people.

In the 1921 census, Mexican natives were asked if they fell into one of the following categories:

  1. “Indígena pura” (of pure indigenous heritage).
  2. “Indígena mezclada con blanca” (of mixed indigenous and white background)
  3. “Blanca” (of White or Spanish heritage).
  4. “Extranjeros sin distinción de razas” (Foreigners without racial distinction).

The five states with the largest populations of “indígena pura” were:

  1. Oaxaca – 675,119 persons
  2. Puebla – 560,971 persons
  3. Veracruz – 406,648 persons
  4. México – 372,703 persons
  5. Guerrero – 248,526 persons

Because the populations of the various states vary widely, the percentage of pure indigenous persons in a given state may provide us with a different set of results.  The five states with the largest percentages of “indígena pura” people are:

  1. Oaxaca – 69.17%
  2. Puebla – 54.73%
  3. Tlaxcala – 54.70%
  4. Chiapas – 47.64%
  5. Yucatán – 43.31%

In the 1921 census, the status “Indígena Mezclada con Blanca” implied that a person was of mestizo origin.  Persons classified by this identity usually did not speak Indian languages, but still felt an attachment to their indigenous roots. The five Mexican states with the largest populations of “Indígena Mezclada con Blanca” were:

  1. Jalisco – 903,830
  2. Guanajuato – 828,724
  3. Michoacán – 663,391
  4. Veracruz – 556,472
  5. Distrito Federal – 496,359

The states with the largest percentages of “Indígena Mezclada con Blanca” were:

  1. Sinaloa – 98.30%
  2. Guanajuato – 96.32%
  3. Durango – 89.10%
  4. Zacatecas – 86.10%
  5. Querétaro – 80.15%

The states with the largest populations of “Blanca” or White persons were:

  1. Distrito Federal – 206,514
  2. Chihuahua – 145,926
  3. Sonora – 115,151
  4. Veracruz – 114,150
  5. México – 88,660

In percentage terms, the “blanca” classification was most prominent in these states:

  1. Sonora – 41.85%
  2. Chihuahua – 36.33%
  3. Baja California Sur – 33.40%
  4. Tabasco – 27.56%
  5. District Federal – 22.79%

Seventy-nine years later, the 2000 census attempted to determine the number of Mexican people who considered themselves to being indigenous, without reference to language.  In order to calculate the indigenous people, the census used three criteria:

  1. Persons who speak indigenous languages (aged 5 and over)
  2. Persons aged 0 through 4 who live in indigenous households
  3. Persons who consider themselves Indian but do not speak an indigenous language.

The five states with the largest numbers of persons classified as “Indígena” in the 2000 census were:

  1. Oaxaca – 1,648,426 persons
  2. Chiapas – 1,117,597
  3. Veracruz – 1,057,806
  4. Yucatán – 981,064
  5. Puebla – 957,650

The five states with the largest percentages of Indigenous people were:

  1. Yucatán – 59.2%
  2. Oaxaca – 47.9%
  3. Quintana Roo – 39.3%
  4. Chiapas – 28.5%
  5. Campeche – 26.9%

In contrast, the five states with the largest numbers of persons who spoke indigenous languages and were five years of age or more were:

  1. Oaxaca – 1,120,312 speakers of indigenous languages
  2. Chiapas – 809,592
  3. Veracruz – 633,372
  4. Puebla – 565,509
  5. Yucatán – 549,532

Of great interest to some people would be the states with the least populations of indigenous persons in the 2000 census:

  1. Aguascalientes – 3,472 persons
  2. Zacatecas – 4,039 persons
  3. Colima – 6,472 persons
  4. Coahuila – 7,454 persons
  5. Baja California Sur – 11,481 persons

In terms of percentages, the five states with the smallest percentages of indigenous persons were:

  1. Zacatecas – 0.3%
  2. Coahuila – 0.3%
  3.  Aguascalientes – 0.4%
  4. Guanajuato – 0.6%
  5. Nuevo León – 0.8%

While many of the inhabitants of Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato do have indigenous roots, the level of assimilation and mestizaje that took place in these areas over the last four centuries has diminished the original Indian identity.

The indigenous identity of the Mexican people is hard to quantify and classify from one state to another, from one linguistic group to another, so census statistics cannot be considered entirely reliable.  However, the 1921 and 2000 censuses do give us the best view of indigenous identity, when compared to other census years.

© 2004, John P. Schmal.  All rights reserved.


CONAPO, Cuadro 1. Poblacion Total, Poblacion Indigena, y Sus Caracteristicas.”

Departamento de la Estadistica Nacional, Annuario de 1930 (Tacubaya, D.F., Mexico, 1932), pp. 40, 48.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografia e Informatica (INEGI), Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Poblacion y Vivienda,  2000, Tabulados Basicos y por Entidad Federativa. Bases de Datos y Tabulados de la Muestra Censal.”

Schmal, John P.

Indigenous Mexico: A State-by-State Analysis (manuscript in progress, 2004).



By John P. Schmal

The Free and Sovereign 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.
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 recent publication and 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.
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
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.
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.
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

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.
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
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.”
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
Cortez’ 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
obstinancy.” 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.” Guzman 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.
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.
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
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.
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 – 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 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).
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.


Access Mexico Connect. “The Tarasco Culture and Empire.” Mexico
Connect, 1996-2003. Online: 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 Lingüístico de Verano, A.C., Familia Tarasca : Tarascan Family.
2001. . August 14,
Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI).
Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de
Población y Vivienda, 2000. (Mexico, 2001).
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,

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

Sixtenth Century Indigenous Jalisco

By John P. Schmal

Jalisco is La Madre Patria (the Mother Country) for millions of Mexican Americans. Given this fact, it makes sense that many sons and daughters of Jalisco are curious about the cultural and linguistic roots of their indigenous ancestors. The modern state of Jalisco consists of 31,152 square miles (80,684 square kilometers) located in the west central portion of the Mexican Republic. However, the Jalisco of colonial Mexico was not an individual political entity but part of the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia, which embraced some 180,000 kilometers ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Besides the present-day state of Jalisco, Nueva Galicia also included the states of Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Nayarit, and the northwest corner of San Luis Potosi. Across this broad range of territory, a wide array of indigenous groups lived before 1522 (the first year of contact with Spanish explorers). Domingo Lazaro de Arregui, in his Descripcián de la Nueva Galicia – published in 1621 – wrote that 72 languages were spoken in the Spanish colonial province of Nueva Galicia. But, according to the author Eric van Young, “the extensive and deep-running mestizaje of the area has meant that at any time much beyond the close of the colonial period the history of the native peoples has been progressively interwoven with (or submerged in) that of non-native groups.”

As the Spaniards and their Indian allies from the south made their way into Nueva Galicia early in the Sixteenth Century, they encountered large numbers of nomadic Chichimeca Indians. Philip Wayne Powell – whose Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War is the definitive source of information relating to the Chichimeca Indians – referred to Chichimeca as “an all-inclusive epithet” that had “a spiteful connotation.” The Spaniards borrowed this designation from their Aztec allies and started to refer to the large stretch Chichimeca territory as La Gran Chichimeca.

Afredo Moreno Gonzalez, in his recent book Santa Maria de Los Lagos, explains that the word Chichimeca has been subject to various interpretations over the years. Some of these suggestions included “linaje de perros” (of dog lineage), “perros altaneros” (arrogant dogs), or “chupadores de sangre” (blood-suckers). In any case, it was apparent that the Mexican Indians of the south did not hold their northern counterparts in high regard. However, in time, they learned to both fear and respect many of these Indians as brave and courageous defenders of their ancestral homelands.

Unfortunately, the widespread displacement that took place starting in 1529 prevents us from obtaining a clear picture of the indigenous Jalisco that existed in pre-Hispanic times. Four primary factors influenced the post-contact indigenous distribution of Jalisco and its evolution into a Spanish colonial province. The first factor was the 1529-30 campaign of Nuño Beltran de Guzman. In The North Frontier of New Spain, Peter Gerhard wrote that “Guzman, with a large force of Spaniards, Mexican allies, and Tarascan slaves, went through here in a rapid and brutal campaign lasting from February to June 1530 Guzman’s strategy was to terrorize the natives with often unprovoked killing, torture, and enslavement.”

Once Guzman had consolidated his conquests, he ordered all of the conquered Indians of Jalisco to be distributed among Spanish encomiendas. The individual receiving the encomienda, known as the encomendero, received free labor and tribute from the Indians, in return for which the subjects were commended to the encomendero’s care. It was the duty of the encomendero to Christianize, educate and feed the natives under their care. However, as might be expected, such institutions were prone to misuse and, as a result, some Indians were reduced to slave labor.Although Guzman was arrested and imprisoned in 1536, his reign of terror had set into motion institutions that led to the widespread displacement of the indigenous people of Jalisco.

The second factor was the Mixtan Rebellion of 1541-1542. This indigenous uprising was a desperate attempt by the Cazcanes Indians to drive the Spaniards out of Nueva Galicia. In response to the desperate situation, Viceroy Mendoza assembled a force of 450 Spaniards and some 30,000 Aztec and Tlaxcalan supporting troops. In a series of short sieges and assaults, Mendoza gradually suffocated the uprising. The aftermath of this defeat, according to Peter Gerhard, led to thousands of deaths. In addition, he writes, “thousands were driven off in chains to the mines, and many of the survivors (mostly women and children) were transported from their homelands to work on Spanish farms and haciendas.”

The third factor influencing Jalisco’s evolution was the complex set of relationships that the Spaniards enjoyed with their Indian allies. As the frontier moved outward from the center, the military would seek to form alliances with friendly Indian groups. Then, in 1550, the Chichimeca War had began. This guerrilla war, which continued until the last decade of the century, was primarily fought by Chichimeca Indians defending their lands in Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, and northern Jalisco.

The Chichimeca conflict forced the Spaniards to rely heavily upon their Christian Indian allies. The result of this dependence upon indigenous allies as soldados (soldiers) and pobladores (settlers) led to enormous and wide-ranging migration and resettlement patterns that would transform the geographic nature of the indigenous peoples of Nueva Galicia. In describing this phenomenon, Mr. Powell noted that the “Indians formed the bulk of the fighting forces against the Chichimeca warriors As fighters, as burden bearers, as interpreters, as scouts, as emissaries, the pacified natives of New Spain played significant and often indispensable roles in subjugating and civilizing the Chichimeca country.”

By the middle of the Sixteenth Century, the Tarascans, Aztecs, Cholultecans, Otomis, Tlaxcalans, and the Cazcanes had all joined forces with the Spanish military. By the time the Chichimeca War had begun, the Tarascans and Otomies, in particular, had already developed “considerable experience in warfare alongside the Spaniards.” As a result, explains Mr. Powell, “they were the first important auxiliaries employed for entradas against the Chichimecas.”

The employment of Tarascans, Mexicans, and Tlaxcalans for the purpose of “defensive colonization” also encouraged a gradual assimilation of the Chichimecas. In the 1590s Nahuatl-speaking colonists from Tlaxcala and the Valley of Mexico settled in some parts of Jalisco to serve, as Mr. Gerhard writes, “as a frontier militia and a civilizing influence.” As the Indians of Jalisco made peace and settled down to work for Spanish employers, they were absorbed into the more dominant Indian groups that had come from the south. By the early Seventeenth Century, writes Mr. Powell, most of the Chichimeca Indians had disappeared as distinguishable cultural entities.

The fourth cause of depopulation and displacement of the Jalisco Indians was contagious disease. The physical isolation of the Indians in the Americas is the primary reason for which disease caused such havoc with the Native American populations. This physical isolation resulted in a natural quarantine from the rest of the planet and from a wide assortment of communicable diseases. When smallpox first ravaged through Mexico in 1520, no Indian had immunity to the disease.

During the first century of the conquest, the Mexican Indians suffered through 19 major epidemics. They were exposed to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cocoliztli (a hemorrhagic disease). Peter Gerhard has estimated the total native population of Nueva Galicia in 1520 at 855,000 persons. However, in the next two decades, the populous coastal region north of Banderas Bay witnessed the greatest population decline. “The unusually brutal conquest,” writes Mr. Gerhard, “was swiftly followed by famine, further violence and dislocation, and epidemic disease.”

By the late 1530s, the population of the Pacific coastal plain and foothills from Acaponeta to Puficacián had declined by more than half. Subsequently, Indians from the highland areas were transported to work in the cacao plantations. When their numbers declined, the Spaniards turned to African slaves. By 1560, Mr. Gerhard wrote, the 320,000 indigenous people who occupied the entire tierra caliente in 1520 had dropped to a mere 20,000. A plague in 1545-1548 is believed to have killed off more than half of the surviving Indians of the highland regions. By 1550, it is believed that there were an estimated 220,000 Indians in all of Nueva Galicia.

The author Jose Ramirez Flores, in his work, Lenguas Indigenas de Jalisco, has gone to great lengths in reconstructing the linguistic map of the Jalisco of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. It must be remembered that, although Jalisco first came under Spanish control in the 1520s, certain sections of the state remained isolated and under Amerindian control until late in the Sixteenth Century. The diversity of Jalisco’s early indigenous population can be understood more clearly by exploring individual tribes or regions of the state. The following paragraphs are designed to provide the reader with some basic knowledge of several of the indigenous groups of Jalisco:

The Cazcanes. The Cazcanes (Caxcanes) lived in the northern section of the state. They were a partly nomadic people, whose principal religious and population centers were at Teul, Tlaltenango, Juchipila, and Teocaltiche. According to Señor Flores, the languages of the Caxcanes Indians were widely spoken in the northcentral portion of Jalisco along the “Three-Fingers Border Zone” with Zacatecas. It is believed that the Caxcanes language was spoken at Teocaltiche, Ameca, Huejocar, and across the border in Nochistlan, Zacatecas.

According to Mr. Powell, the Caxcanes were “the heart and the center of the Indian rebellion in 1541 and 1542.” After the Mixtán Rebellion, the Cazcanes became allies of the Spaniards. For this reason, they suffered attacks by the Zacatecas and Guachichiles during the Chichimeca War.  A a cultural group, the Caxcanes ceased to exist during the Nineteenth Century.

Cocas. The Coca Indians inhabited portions of central Jalisco, in the vicinity of Guadalajara and Lake Chapala. When the Spaniards first entered this area, the Coca Indians, guided by their leader Tzitlali, moved away to a small valley surrounded by high mountains, a place they named “Cocolan.” Because the Cocas were peaceful people, the Spaniards, for the most part, left them alone. Jose Ramirez Flores lists Cuyutlan, San Marcos, Tlajomulco, Toluquilla and Poncitlan as towns in which the Coca language was spoken.

The Coras. The Coras inhabited what is most of present-day Nayarit as well as the northwestern fringes of Jalisco. The word “mariachi” is believed to have originated in their language. Today, the Coras, numbering up to 15,000 people, continue to survive, primarily in Nayarit and Jalisco. The Cora Indians have been studied by several historians and archaeologists. One of the most interesting works about the Cora is Catherine Palmer Finerty’s In a Village Far From Home: My Life Among the Cora Indians of the Sierra Madre (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000).

Cuyutecos. The Cuyutecos – speaking the Nahua language of the Aztecs – settled in southwestern Jalisco, inhabiting Atenquillo, Talpa, Mascota, Mixtlan, Atengo, and Tecolotlan. The population of this area – largely depleted by the epidemics of the Sixteenth Century – was partially repopulated by Spaniards and Indian settlers from Guadalajara and other parts of Mexico. It is believed the Cuyuteco language may have been a late introduction into Jalisco. Other Nahua languages were spoken in such southern Jalisco towns as Tuxpan and Zapotlan.

Guachichiles. The Guachichiles, of all the Chichimeca Indians, occupied the most extensive territory. The Guachichile Indians – so well known for their fierce resistance towards the Spaniards in the Chichimeca War (1550-1590) – inhabited the areas near Lagos de Moreno, Arandas, Ayo el Chico, and Tepatitlan in the Los Altos region of northeastern Jalisco. Considered both warlike and brave, the Guachichiles also roamed through a large section of the present-day state of Zacatecas.

The name of  “Guachichile” that the Mexicans gave them meant “heads painted of red,” a reference to the red dye that they used to pain their bodies, faces and hair. Although the main home of the Guachichile Indians lay in Zacatecas, they had a significant representation in the Los Altos area of Jalisco. After the end of the Chichimeca War, the Guachichiles were very quickly assimilated and Christianized and no longer exist as a distinguishable cultural entity.

Huicholes. Some historians believe that the Huichol Indians are descended from the nomadic Guachichiles, having moved westward and settled down to an agrarian lifestyle, inhabited a small area in northwestern Jalisco, adjacent to the border with Nayarit. The Huicholes, seeking to avoid confrontation with the Spaniards, became very isolated and thus we able to survive as a people and a culture.

The isolation of the Huicholes âEUR” now occupying parts of northwestern Jalisco and Nayarit âEUR” has served them well for their aboriginal culture has survived with relatively few major modifications since the period of first contact with Western culture. Even today, the Huichol Indians of Jalisco and Nayarit currently inhabit an isolated region of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Their language was spoken in the northern stretches of the Three-Fingers Region of Northern Jalisco, in particular Huejuquilla, Tuxpan and Colotlan.

The survival of the Huichol has intrigued historians and archaeologists alike. The art, history, culture, language and religion of the Huichol have been the subject of at least a dozen books. Carl Lumholtz, in Symbolism of the Huichol Indians: A Nation of Shamans (Oakland, California: B.I. Finson, 1988), made observations about the religion of the Huichol. Stacy B. Schaefer and Peter T. Furst edited People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion and Survival (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), discussed the history, culture and language of these fascinating people in great detail.

Otomies. The Otomies were a Chichimeca nation primarily occupying Queretaro and Jilotepec. However, early on, the Otomies allied themselves with the Spaniards and Mexica Indians. As a result, writes Mr. Powell, Otomi 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. During the 1550s, Luis de Velasco (the second Viceroy of Nueva España) used Otomi militia against the Chichimecas. The strategic placement of Otomi settlements in Nueva Galicia made their language dominant near Zapotitlan, Juchitlan, Autlan, and other towns near Jalisco’s southern border with Colima.

Purepecha Indians (Tarascans). The Purepecha Indians – also referred to as the Tarascans, Tarscos, and Porhe – inhabited most of present-day Michoacan and boasted a powerful empire that rivaled the Aztec Empire during the Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries. As recently as 1990, the Purapecha numbered 120,000 speakers. This language, classified as an isolated language, was spoken along the southern fringes of southern Jalisco, adjacent to the border with Colima.

Tecuexes. The Tecuexes Indians occupied a considerable area of Jalisco north of Guadalajara and western Los Altos, including Mexticacan, Jalostotitlan, Tepatitilan, Yahualica, Juchitlan, and Tonalan. The Tecuexes also occupied the central region near Tequila, Amatltan, Cuquio, and Epatan. The Tecuexes have been studied by Dr. Phil Weigand, who wrote articles on them. They no longer exist as a cultural group.

Tepehuanes. In pre-Hispanic times, the Tepehuan Indians inhabited a wide swath of territory that stretch through sections of present-day Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango and Chihuahua. However, their territory was gradually encroached upon by the Spaniards and indigenous migrants from central Mexico. After they were crushed in their rebellion of 1616-1619, the Tepehuan moved to hiding places in the Sierra Madre to avoid Spanish retaliation.

Today, the Tepehuan retain elements of their old culture. At the time of the Spanish contact, the Tepehuanes language was spoken in “Three Fingers Region” of northwestern Jalisco in such towns as Tepec, Mezquitic and Colotlan. The Tepehuanes language and culture are no longer found in Jalisco, but more than 25,000 Tepehuanes still reside in southern Chihuahua and southeastern Durango.

The revolt of 1616 was described in great detail by Charlotte M. Gradie’s The Tepehuan Revolt of 1616: Militarism, Evangelism and Colonialism in Seventeenth Century Nueva Vizcaya (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000). The author Campbell W. Pennington also wrote about the Tepehuan people in The Tepehuan of Chihuahua (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1969).

The indigenous nations of Sixteenth Century Jalisco experienced such enormous upheaval in the space of mere decades that it has been difficult for historians to reconstruct the original homes of some native groups. Peter Gerhard, in The Northern Frontier of New Spain, has done a spectacular job of exploring the specific history of each colonial jurisdiction. Anyone who studies Mr. Gerhard’s work comes to realize that each jurisdiction, and each community within each jurisdiction, has experienced a unique set of circumstances that set it apart from all other jurisdictions. A brief discussion of some of the individual districts of Jalisco follows:

Tequila (North central Jalisco). The indigenous name for this community is believed to have been Tecuallan (which, over time, evolved to its present form). The inhabitants of this area were Tecuexe farmers, most of who lived in the Barranca. North of the Rio Grande were the Huicholes, who were the traditional enemies of the Tecuexes. Although Guzman and his forces passed through this area in 1530, the natives of this area offered stiff resistance to Spanish incursions into their lands. The Huicholes north of the Rio Grande raided the Tecuexes settlements in the south before 1550. According to Gerhard, “the Indians [of this jurisdiction] remained hostile and uncontrolled until after the Chichimec war when an Augustinian friar began their conversion.”

Lagos de Moreno (Northeastern Los Altos). The author Alfredo Moreno Gonzalez tells us that the Native American village occupying this area was Pechititan. According to Mr. Gerhard, “most if not all of the region was occupied at contact by Chichimec hunters-gatherers, probably Guachichiles, with a sprinkling of Guamares in the east.” It is also believed that Tecuexes occupied the region southwest of Lagos. When Pedro Almindez Chirinos traveled through here in March 1530 with a force of fifty Spaniards and 500 Tarascan and Tlaxcalan allies, the inhabitants gave him a peaceful reception.

Jalostotitlan (Northern Los Altos). This town was called a parish of Tecuexes.

San Juan de Los Lagos and Encarnacián de Diaz (Northern Los Altos). The indigenous people of these districts were called “Chichimecas blancos” because of the limestone pigments they used to color their bodies and faces. The indigenous name for San Juan was Mezquititlan.

La Barca (East central Jalisco). La Barca and the shores of Lake Chapala were the sites of three indigenous nations: Poncitlan and Cuitzeo – which ran along the shores of Lake Chapala – and Coinan, north of the lake. The people of these three chiefdoms spoke the Coca language. Guzman’s forces traveled through here in 1530, laying waste to much of the region. By 1585, both Coca and Nahuatl were spoken at Ocotlan, although Gerhard tells us that the latter “was a recent introduction.”

Tlaxmulco (Central Jalisco). Before the contact, the Tarascans held this area. However, they were later driven out by a tribe from Tonalan. At the time of contact, there were two communities of Coca speakers: Tlaxmulco and Coyotlan. The natives here submitted to Guzman and were enlisted to fight with his army in the conquest of the west coast. After the Mixtán Rebellion, Cazcanes migrated to this area.

Tonala / Tonallan (Central Jalisco). At contact, the region east of here had a female ruler. Although the ruling class in this region was Coca speakers, the majority of the inhabitants were Tecuexes. Coca was the language at Tlaquepaque, while Tzalatitlan was a Tecuexe community. In March 1530, Nuño de Guzman arrived in Tonalan and defeated the Tecuexes in battle.

San Cristábal de la Barranca (North central Jalisco). Several native states existed in this area, most notably Atlemaxaque, Tequixixtlan, Cuauhtlan, Ichcatlan, Quilitlan, and Epatlan. By 1550, some of the communities were under Spanish control, while the “Tezoles” (possibly a Huichol group) remained “unconquered.” Nine pueblos in this area around that time boasted a total population of 5,594. After the typhus epidemic of 1580, only 1,440 Indians survived. The migration of Tecuexes into this area led historians to classify Tecuexe as the dominant language of the area.

Colotlan (Northern Jalisco). Colotlan can be found in Jalisco’s northerly “Three-Fingers” boundary area with Zacatecas. This heavily wooded section of the Sierra Madre Occidental remained beyond Spanish control until after the end of the Chichimeca War. It is believed that Indians of Cazcan and Tepecanos origin lived in this area. However, this zone became “a refuge for numerous groups fleeing from the Spaniards.” Tepehuanes Indians – close relatives to the Tepecanos – are believed to have migrated here following their rebellion in Durango in 1617-1618.

Cuquio (North central Jalisco). When the European explorers reached Cuquio in north central Jalisco they described it as a densely populated region of farmers. The dominant indigenous language in this region was Tecuexe. Guzman’s lieutenant, Almindez Chirinos, ravaged this area in February 1530, and in 1540-41, the Indians in this area were among the insurgents taking part in the Mixtán Rebellion.

Tepatitlan (Los Altos, Eastern Jalisco). Tecuexes inhabited this area of stepped plateaus descending from a range of mountains, just east of Guadalajara. In the south, the people spoke Coca. This area was invaded by Guzman and in 1541 submitted to Viceroy Mendoza.

Guadalajara. When the Spanish arrived in the vicinity of present-day Guadalajara in 1530, they found about one thousand dispersed farmers belonging to the Tecuexes and Cocas. But after the Mixtán Rebellion of the early 1540s, whole communities of Cazcanes were moved south to the plains near Guadalajara.

Purificacián (Westernmost part of Jalisco). The rugged terrain of this large colonial jurisdiction is believed to have been inhabited by primitive farmers, hunters, and fisherman who occupied some fifty autonomous communities. Both disease and war ravaged this area, which came under Spanish control by about 1560.

Tepec and Chimaltitlan (Northern Jalisco). The region surrounding Tepec and Chimaltitlan remained a stronghold of indigenous defiance. Sometime around 1550, Gerhard writes that the Indians in this area were described as “uncontrollable and savage.” The indigenous inhabitants drove out Spanish miners working the silver deposits around the same time. A wide range of languages was spoken in this area: Tepehuan at Chimaltitlan and Tepic, Huichol in Tuxpan and Santa Catarina, and Cazcan to the east (near the border with Zacatecas).

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights under applicable law are hereby reserved. Material from this article may be reproduced for educational purposes and personal, non-commerical home use only. Reproduction of this article for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited without the express permission of John P. Schmal.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored “Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico” (Heritage Books, 2002) and “The Indigenous Roots of a Mexican-American Family” (Heritage Books, 2004).  Most recently, he coauthored “The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey” (Heritage Books, 2004).

Jose Ramirez Flores, Lenguas Indigenas de Jalisco. Guadalajara: Unidad Editorial, 1980.

Peter Gerhard, The North Frontier of New Spain. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Afredo Moreno Gonzalez, Santa Maria de Los Lagos. Lagos de Moreno: D.R.H. Ayuntamiento de Los Lagos de Moreno, 1999.

Jose Antonio Gutierrez Gutierrez, Los Altos de Jalisco: Panorama histárico de una region y de su sociedad hasta 1821. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1991.

Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal, My Family Through Time: The Story of a Mexican-American Family. Los Angeles, California, 2000.

Jose Maria Muria, Breve Historia de Jalisco. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Econámica, 1994.

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

Eric Van Young, “The Indigenous Peoples of Western Mexico from the Spanish Invasion to the Present: The Center-West as Cultural Region and Natural Environment,” in Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod, The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 136-186
Copyright © 2004, by John P. Schmal.

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