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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

Tzintzuntzan (pronounced zin-ZUN-zan) was the capital of the Purépecha nation before the Spanish invasion. In classic conqueror mode the Europeans built the seat of regional power at the most important city in its enemies’ empire. (Soon after it was moved to Patzcuaro and later, Valladolid, now called Morelia.) In this case the Purépecha were the enemy in name only. The last Purépecha king, Tzimtzincha-Tangaxuan II, readily agreed to submission and religious conversion. He’d seen the complete destruction of the Aztec capital, seen the writing on the wall. But despite his capitulation he was tortured and hanged by that savage representative of Spanish church and state Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán.

This was hardly a convincing call to worship, and many natives took to the hills. But most were rounded up and eventually converted to Catholicism using less extreme techniques. The Purépecha goddess of the moon, Xarátenga, was also “converted,” so to speak, becoming yet another representation of the Virgin Mary. In this way the Spanish superimposed Catholic dogma onto the native religion. Throughout Michoacán, look for the symbol of the moon on statues of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin of Health, the state’s patron saint.

Of Feast Days and Festivals, and Churches of Course

Plays, dances, and music were also used to lure the native people to church services and instruct them in the catechism. These legacies today give Michoacan a rich culture of festivals and feast days such as the Christmas pastorelas, a sort of Nativity play. You can see the pastorelas in Tzintzuntzan on the days preceding Christmas, starting December 16. There are Passion plays at Easter and colorful graveside vigils around Day of the Dead.

The rest of the year, Tzintzuntzan has three main attractions: the San Francisco monastery complex; the Purépecha ruins, or yácatas; and the locally produced ceramics, embroidery, carved wood and items of wheat straw (panicua for sale. The Exconvento de San Francisco is being restored. Even if parts of the monastery and adjoining church aren’t open, it’s worth a visit to see the enormous olive grove/atrium planted by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in the 16th century. On the far right side of the complex is Nuestra Señora de la Soledad church. The ceiling is painted in a blue and pink medallion-and-feather motif that looks like a cross between Victorian and American Indian.

The blue velveteen-robed figure in the church is Our Lady of Solitude, for whom the church is named. But the most interesting statue is Nuestro Señor del Santo Entierro (Our Lord of the Holy Burial). The image has grown larger over the years and the Holy Glass Coffin has had to be enlarged twice to accommodate the statue’s head and feet. My guide told me that the pre-Hispanic formula of corn stalks and orchid paste from which the statue is made does tend to grow over time but that many people consider this a miracle.

Just outside the monastery complex, vendor sell green glazed, tan, and unglazed ceramics as well as tons of straw-like Christmas ornaments and dodads. Across the street and up a hill, a large manmade platform supports five yácatas. These key-shaped pre-Hispanic structures were originally faced in volcanic rock held together without mortar. The yácatas are thought to be burial chambers for deceased Purépecha kings, who took male and female attendants---including cook, doctor, wine steward, and others---to serve them in the afterlife. This is a minor archaeological site, and nothing to get worked up about.

Tzintzuntzan Then and Now

At the time of the Spanish conquest Tzintzuntzan had approximately 25,000 to 35,000 inhabitants, sharing power with neighboring Patzcuaro and Ihautzio. In general this was a mountainous and mainly rural empire, covered in woodlands and comprised mainly of small towns and villages.

The Spanish founded their city here in 1534, naming it Mechuacan, the Aztecs’ name for Purépecha lands. In 1861 the more difficult name Tzintzuntzan was restored. Its most commonly accepted meaning is “place of the hummingbirds,” although some attribute the word specifically to the onomatopoeic sound of the beating of the hummingbird’s wings.

Located on the eastern side of Lake Patzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan sits at 1,998 meters (6,555 feet) above sea level and enjoys a warm, sunny climate most of the year. Because of the altitude it can be chilly to downright cold mornings and evenings, especially in the coldest months, December and January. Although not terribly exciting or even picturesque, it makes for a nice day trip when combined with nearby Quiroga and Santa Fe de la Laguna. There’s nowhere recommended to eat in Tzintzuntzan, so plan to grab a bite in the more commercial town of Quiroga or at the lady’s co-op restaurant called Copekua on the main plaza in Santa Fe de la Laguna. It’s easy to get to Tzintzuntzan from Patzcuaro, about 17 km away. Just take a combi from Patzcuaro’s central bus station, el Central de Autobuses.


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