Pátzcuaro is a living reminder that history is not made up of black and white cartoon characters. Most often, life has plenty of gray areas. And gray characters.
In the 1500s, the Purépecha ruled an area of central Mexico centered on Lake Pátzcuaro and covering the current state of Michoacán and parts of Guanajuato and Jalisco. The Aztec had attempted to conquer the Purépecha empire, but they lost each battle. After one battle, the Purépecha slaughtered 30,000 Aztec prisoners.
When the Spanish tribe, along with an army of native allies, invaded the Purépecha empire, resistance was slight. Instead, the young emperor pledged homage to the conquistadors, converted to Christianity, and hoped that he had made a deal to save his crown and people.
He was wrong. A new Spanish force, Nuño de Guzmán, came to power. He tortured and killed the emperor and enslaved the people. Living up to what has become the modern view of the Spanish conquistador.
At this point, one of those remarkable men showed up to play the role of deus ex machina. Father Vasco de Quiroga arrived in 1533 at about the same time Spain arrested Guzmán.
A humanist and disciple of Thomas More, Don Vasco saw an opportunity to assist the Purépecha through More’s Utopia. He established a hospital and a seminary for the Indians, out of compassion, but also as an advocate of the Spanish empire.
He then persuaded the secular authorities to let the enslaved Indians spend some time developing regional skills. Following More’s outline, each village would specialize in a certain manufacture. Copper. Furniture. Musical instruments.
And it worked. A society destroyed was rebuilt. The remnants of that system can still be seen in the surrounding villages. And we just may make some trips this month to see the results.
But the best example of that entrepreneurial drive can be seen in front of Don Vasco’s dream church. The approach to the church looks like a flea market on steroids.
But I suspect old Don Vasco, whose bones are interred in the church, smiles down on this hodge-podge Purepecha enterprise zone.