The Empire the Aztecs Couldn’t Conquer

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“It’s the legacy of our people,” my uncle said as we looked at the pyramids. We were not in Egypt, but rather in the town of Tzintzuntzan, in the state of Michoacán, in southwestern Mexico. The pyramids or yacatas, before us were particularly round and made of volcanic stone – perhaps the most intact relics of the P’urhépechas, a pre-Hispanic indigenous group that once ruled here, but most people have never heard of. In fact, I had never heard of it either until a few months ago when I found out I was a direct descendant.

Born and raised in California, I grew up not knowing this part of my heritage as it was lost in my family after my grandfather passed away in 1978. My grandmother was left with five children and no income , but after saving, she brought my dad and his siblings to the United States in 1983. Under the pressure of assimilation, my father disconnected from our P’urhépecha culture, and it was only Recently, as I started to be curious about my identity, I started asking him about our past. So in 2021, at the age of 31, he brought me to Michoacán for the first time. It was then that I met my uncle Israel, and he revealed to me that not only were we P’urhépecha, but that my great-grandmother, Juana, was still alive and living in the little pueblo. of nearby Urén.

When people think of Mexico before Hernan Cortezthey automatically think of the Aztecs, but what they don’t know is that the P’urhépecha existed at the same time – and they were such a powerful kingdom that they were the only indigenous group in Mexico that the Aztecs didn’t. failed to conquer.

In fact, it’s the most common thing Mexicans know about them, said Fernando Pérez Montesinos, assistant professor of indigenous environmental history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s very usual [way] to refer to the P’urhépechas and their history, but that’s because we know that the P’urhépechas were as powerful as the Aztecs,” he said, explaining that the Aztecs tried to fight the P ‘urhépechas in battle, but could not defeat them.

Standing and strong at 4ft 10in (about 1.4m), my great-grandmother P’urhépecha is a community elder and lives in a weathered building made of cement walls and humble amenities. She can speak the endangered language, a trait that is fading in a country where Spanish is the official language. (Of Mexico’s estimated population of 128.9 million, 124.8 million are native Spanish speakers – while only 175,000 speak P’urhépechaand they all live in the state of Michoacán.)

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