by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
Pátzcuaro, Michoacán – July 28, 1970
One Summer In Mexico – Part 28
It is an example of the power of 21st century technology, when analyzing historic buildings & prehistoric cities.
The ancient city of Pátzcuaro is located 163.52 mi (263.16 km) west of Mexico City in the State of Michoacán. It was founded around 1330 AD by an enigmatic indigenous people, known by their Spanish name of Tarascano in 1970, but are now known by their indigenous name of Purepeche. Actual spelling of the word is P’urhépecha. The Purepeche are believed to have originated in Peru, perhaps beginning their migration northward in response to Moche Culture oppression.
The Purépecha were the only known indigenous people in the Americas to enter the Bronze Age. They perfected the creation of bronze weapons and tools about 70 year prior to the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico (1517). Their empire was never conquered by the Aztec Empire. In fact, there is no record of the Aztecs ever defeating them in battle, but numerous battles in which the Aztecs were slaughtered by the better armed Purepecha.
Their technological achievements were most likely due to the presence of metal ores within their empire, and their knowledge of metallurgy, which was far superior to that of the Aztecs; such skills have persisted in their descendants and are still widely regarded today, particularly their coppersmithing. Even though they were enemies with the Aztecs, the Aztecs still traded with them, mainly for metal tools and weapons.
Most of the historic core of the town was planned by Italian architects, according to the 1585 Law of the Indies, thus dates to the late 16th and 17th centuries. The central portion of the city is one of the best-preserved colonial era historic districts in the Americas. Within this core area are several 16th century churches, monasteries and convents that are of exceptional architectural quality. They were constructed from stones, originally utilized to build Purepeche temples, palaces and public buildings. However, there has been very little archaeological work in the central core.
In 1970, Pátzcuaro had a population of 14,300. The population in 2020 is approximately 60,000. Therefore, the photographs that I took in 1970 are extremely valuable for documenting the appearance of the city and surrounding landscape prior to extensive suburban development.
I am still struggling with the vast amount of visual information that I collected in Mexico. I have not looked at most of the slides since I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, teaching a course in Pre-Columbian Architecture. During that era we were not able to see the details of any of the slides in the slide viewers. Thus, I very often missed important details.
Therefore, I am creating videos, which will be able to explain the Mexico I saw in 1970 far more comprehensively than possible in a The Americas Revealed article. They will be posted on my People of One Fire Youtube Channel. While revitalizing the 50 year- old slides digitally, I made an astonishing discovery. It is a shame that back in 1970’s. we didn’t have affordable, high resolution digital cameras of today The discovery would have been even more remarkable.
First morning in Patzcuaro
While in Michoacan, I stayed at the Gran Hotel on the Zocalo (main square.) It had changed little since the mid-1800’s, when it was constructed. Some time in the mid-20th century, water pipes had been run outside the walls in order to serve free-standing lavatories and commodes. I paid the equivalent back then of $4 a night to stay there. For about $3 I could get a gourmet meal in the hotel’s restaurant . . . which also hadn’t changed in a century.
In 1970, very few Gringos and Canadians knew about Patzcuaro. I was the only United States citizen in the hotel. There were also some French students staying there. The rest of the guests were Latin Americans. The situation now in Patzcuaro is quite different. Many North Americans and Europeans have moved there . . . jacking up real estate prices to the point where the Natives can’t afford to live there. It is still, however, an extremely popular tourist destination for middle class Mexican families.
I awoke at sunrise to the sounds of Purapeche vendors setting up their stalls in the ancient market square immediately behind the Gran Hotel and my room. This location has been used as a market since around 1320 AD. It now looks entirely different. Archaeologists excavated many layers of human activity and then the market square was repaved to make it more attractive to tourists.
This first video on Patzcuaro is in English, but the Spanish language video on Patzcuaro below it is vastly more professional and contains more accurate information on the city’s history. Also, definitely more cultural details on the second video.