Michoacán . . . Enchanted Homeland of the Purépecha

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Patzcuaro, Michoacan – July 27-Aug. 2. 1970

One Summer In Mexico – Part 37

It cannot be emphasized enough that my explorations of Mexico, courtesy of the Barrett Fellowship, composed a study of the indigenous architecture and urban planning of Mesoamerica. It is impossible to describe architecture only with words. Home movie cameras back then produced very fuzzy images, so the only option for recording accurately, what I discovered, was the single lens reflex camera and Ektachrome color slides . . . which reflected the state of the art in 1970 . . . and really continued to be the state of the art until the 21st century. I have tried to restore the color slides digitally as best I can, but it is a miracle that these slides or me survive at all, considering what I have been through during the past 20 years. Apparently, some film labs in Mexico City did a better job of creating permanent images than others.

When I hopped onto a bus in Mexico City, headed to Morelia and Patzcuaro, Michoacan, I basically did not have a clue where I was going or what that region looked like. All I knew was that Dr. Piña – Chan had added Michoacán to my study syllabus with the sarcastic remark “your Gringo archaeologists need to learn that there is more to Mexico than Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan!” I also did not know why he allotted the same length of time to Lake Patzcuaro as he did Teotihuacan . . . but I thoroughly enjoyed that week.

The Purepecha as a whole are highly intelligent, industrious, extremely talented artisans, brilliant musicians and keep their homes fastidiously clean. I can’t say anything, but good things about them. MANY who immigrate to the United States end up in northern Georgia because the landscape is so similar to their homeland. My next door neighbors in Jasper, GA were a Purepecha family from northern Michoacan. A father-son team from Patzcuaro travel each year to a residence near my home to grow the incredibly sweet corn at Fritchey’s Farm Store, which is around the corner.

I tried to communicate with the Purepecha around Patzcuaro, but there was no “spiritual connection.” They kept to themselves, whereas the mestizos in Patzcuaro were quite friendly with me, albeit puzzled. They couldn’t figure out where I was from, but knew from the INAH Photo ID tag, that I was something more than a standard tourist.

Once I was in the former homeland of the Creeks on August 11, everything changed. The Native people there went out of their way to figure out how to communicate with me and there was instant friendship. Of course, back then, I didn’t realize that I had substantial Native ancestry nor that it was from southern Mexico, but the Native Americans in southern Mexico certainly did. They treated me entirely different than the other tourists, like family. Wherever I went, local Indian families invited me to dinner and to spend the night in their home – especially the Mayas.

The two stories about Maya or Zoque mothers offering their teenage daughters that I have related to you, were really the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It must have happened two and three dozen times. I was staying in a Maya guest hut in eastern Campeche, and the mother paraded her three daughters in front of me, to chose which one I wanted for the night. The oldest one couldn’t have been more than 16. I lied and told her I was married. She didn’t understand, why I would not want one of her young daughters anyway, but did respect the institution of marriage.

Actually, I stayed morally confused the whole month of August because Mexican girls typically date and marry men 5-20 years older than them and even back then, Southern Mexican Indian gals became sexually active at 16, because they had homegrown birth control like the Creeks. Of course, now I understand that it was the tradition of the Creeks also to encourage their teenage children to be promiscuous, so they wouldn’t have wanderlust after marrying. Hindsight is nice.

So, I really connected with the Mayas, Tamulte, Itza and Zoque, but not at all with the Purepecha, even though I highly admired the Purepecha. The southern Indians even started teaching me their languages. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that in the 21st century the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina would send out a national press release stating, “Richard Thornton knows nothing about the Mayas.” LOL

Starting with this video, the format will be a bit more formal and typical of architectural presentations. However, I AM an architect and an architectural fellowship is the reason that you are even seeing these images at all.

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