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The Politics of Conquest: An Interpretation of the Relación De Michoacán

  • James Krippner-Martínez (a1)

Therefore Most Illustrious Sir, the elders of this city of Michoacán present to Your Lordship this writing and relación, and I also in their name, not as author but rather as an interpreter of them. -Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá, ca. 1540.

The Relación De Las Ceremonías Y Ritos Y Población Y Gobernación De Los Indios De La Provincia De Michoacán is a complex, and beautiful, colonial text. We know that it was compiled by a Franciscan missionary, most probably Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá, although we cannot state his identity with complete certainty. We also know that it was based on the testimony of Michoacán's indigenous elite. Beyond that, however, it is not possible to obtain specific information about the text. For example, we do not know how or when the indigenous testimonies were collected, except that it was during the first twenty years after the Conquest (1519). The indigenous elite informants, with one exception, are also unknown.

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1 de Alcalá Fray Jerónimo, La Relacion de Michoacán, edición de Francisco Miranda (Morelia: FIMAS, 1980): 6. This is the most recent edition of the Relación de Michoacán, and it benefits from Francisco Miranda’s command of the original document and subsequent copies of the Relación, as well as his sensitivity towards Michoacán’s indigenous languages. Craine Eugene R. and Reindorp Reginald C., ed. and trans., The Chronicles of Michoacán (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970) may prove useful to the English language reader, although it is seriously limited in certain regards. For a complete survey and critique of the manuscript forms and various published editions of the Relación de Michoacán, as well as the estimated dates of compilation, see Francisco Miranda, “Estudio Preliminar,” xix–xlv.

2 A considerable amont of scholarly effort has been expended to determine who wrote the Relación de Michoacán. Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá is the most plausible candidate, for a variety of reasons, although limitations in the existing evidence prevent his authorship from being established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Nevertheless, the series of illustrations which accompanied the original manuscript clearly indicate that the missionary presenting the text to the Viceroy was a Franciscan. See Warren J. Benedict, “Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá: Author of the Relación de Michoacán?,” The Americas, XXVII no. 3 (Jan. 1971): 307326 ; Miranda Francisco, “Estudio preliminar,” in Relación de Michoacán, XXIII–XXV.

3 This type of approach (searching for intelligible patterns in a text), as well as the tentative nature of such an enterprise, is suggested by the work of Roland Barthes. For examples, see Barthes Roland, “Historical Discourse,” trans. Wexler Peter, Social Science Information (International Social Science Council) 6, no. 1 (August 1967): 145155 and “What is Criticism?” in Criticai Essays, trans. Howard Richard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 255260. A useful overview of the broad trends in twentieth-century literary criticism is Eagleton Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). For an argument suggesting that our understanding of works not traditionally considered as “literature,” such as the Relación de Michoacán, can benefit from literary criticism, see 194–222.

4 For example, Beltrán Ulises, “Estado y Sociedad Tarascos,” in La sociedad indigena en el centro y occidente de México, Pedro Carrasco, et al. (Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán, 1986), 4562; Carrasco Pedro, “Economia y politica en el reino tarasco,” in La sociedad indigena…, 63102. The tendency to rely solely on the Relación de Michoacán as a source of “prehispanic” information is stronger in older literature, for example Ugarte José Bravo, Historia sucinta de Michoacán, vol. 1 (Mexico: Editorial Jus, 1962), esp. 49108. For an article which argues against attributing a dominant position to the region’s Tarascan or Purépecha peoples far into the prehispanic past, based on their regional dominance as presented in the Relación de Michoacán, see Schondube Otto B., “Las exploraciones arqueológicas en el area tarasca,” in La cultura purhé: II Coloquio de Antropologia e Historia Regionales, coord. Miranda Francisco (Zamora: FONAPAS Michoacán, 1981), 1622, through 30 for dissenting comments and reply. For a detailed analysis of prehispanic settlement in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin, see Gorenstein Shirley and Pollard Helen Perlstein, The Tarascan Civilization: A Late Prehispanic Cultural System, Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology, no. 28 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1983).

5 Warren J. Benedict, The Conquest of Michoacán (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 2441. In this article, I employ the term “Purépecha” to refer collectively to the indigenous peoples whose history is recorded in the Relación de Michoacán. In adopting this usage and spelling, I accept Miranda’s argument that “purépecha” is an appropriate designation for this population in prehispanic and colonial, as well as more contemporary times (see “Estudio Preliminar,” xxxii-xxxv). Miranda’s claim that the term “purépecha” had broader connotations than simply “common people,” which is the most frequent definition found in early colonial dictionaries, remains controversial. Readers should be aware that this population has generally been referred to as “tarascos” or Tarascan, particularly in the academic literature. Nevertheless, it is clear that this term was a colonial creation, and not a self-designation of the indigenous population. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen to designate the cultural group as “Purépecha,” because I view this as the most appropriate choice among limited and imperfect alternatives. Nevertheless, to avoid any possible linguistic contradiction, I will employ the term “indigenous elite,” as opposed to “Purépecha elite,” when referring to the social strata prominently featured in the Relación de Michoacán.

6 The significance of the conditions under which a text is produced, as well as the intended audience, in shaping the overall content of a particular work is noted in Chartier Roger, “Texts, Printings, Readings,” in The New Cultural History, ed. Hunt Lynn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 154175. In addition, Hunt Lynn, “Introduction: History, Culture and Texts,” in The New Cultural History, 124, provides a useful overview of recent trends in historical approaches to the interpretation of culture.

7 Some important works in the historiograpy of the Franciscans, and the role of missionaries in “New World” colonization process more generally, include the following: Borges Pedro, Métodos misionales en la cristianización de América (Madrid: Departamento De Misionologia Española, 1958); Clen-dinnen Inga, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517–1570 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); MacCormack Sabine, “The Heart Has Its Reasons: Predicaments of Missionary Christianity in Early Colonial Peru,” Hispanic American Historical Review 67 (1985): 443-66; Phelan John Leddy, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956).

8 Relación De Michoacán, 4. All quotations have been translated into English. However, in certain instances where it was not possible to entirely capture the meaning in English, I have included the original Spanish.

9 Ibid., 5.

10 Ibid., 4-5. This appeal to higher values resonates with some of the broader elements of what has been termed “missionary discourse.” As products of the sixteenth century, perhaps influenced by Renaissance ideals, the missionaries generally conceived of Christianity as the perfection of human beings. Thus, their powerful desire to see people move from “less perfect” states of existence to “more perfect,” conceived of in terms of Christianity. Borges Pedro, Métodos misionales…, 204. Of course, the social implementation of this ideal often produced less than perfect results.

11 Relación de Michoacán, 335. Ricard Robert, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, orig. 1933), 79, states that Michoacán indigenous peoples actually drove the Franciscans out of Michoacán twice during their first years in the region.

12 Relación de Michoacán, 5.

13 Ibid., 6.

14 Warren , “Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá: Author of the Relación de Michoacán,” 307 ; Francisco Miranda, “Estudio preliminar,” xxv; Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest…, 58. Warren suggests that his section of the text may have been destroyed during the same campaign which suppressed the work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a campaign which Ricard links to the dying off of the initial missionary generation.

15 Warren , The Conquest of Michoacán, 287.

16 Relación de Michoacán, 353.

17 Warren , The Conquest of Michoacán, 287.

18 Scholes France V. and Adams Eleanor B., eds. Proceso contra Tzintzincha Tangaxoan el Calt-zontzin, formado por Ñuño de Guzmán, año de 1530 (Mexico: Porrua y Obregon, 1952), esp. 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 26, 33, 39, 41, 45, 46.

19 Mirand, “Estudio preliminar,” xxiii. Warren , “Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá: Author of the Relación de Michoacán?, 309.

20 Relación de Michoacán, 339–356. esp. 353. Warren , “Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá: Author of the Relación de Michoacán!,” 307.

21 Relación de Michoacán, 351–2.

22 Warren , The Conquest of Michoacán, 86.

23 Borges , Métodos misionales…, 9498. Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, 52.

24 Warren , The Conquest of Michoacán, 51. Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, 37. It is revealing that the Relación de Michoacán contains descriptions of this initial contact with Spanards, although it does not describe the activity of Fray Martin de la Coruna, or indeed any missionary activity, outside of a few very limited comments. Perhaps these descriptions were lost when the first section was destroyed, or maybe our missionary author did not feel compelled to probe the missionary past. See Relación de Michoacán, 307–311.

25 Relación de Michoacán, 335.

26 Ibid., 349.

27 Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, 135144.

28 Beltrán , “Estado y sociedad tarascos,” 4954; Beals Ralph L., “The Tarascans.” In The Handbook of Middle American Indians 8, no. 2 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969): 727; Carrasco Pedro, “Economia politica en el reino tarasco,” 9496. An interesting comparative article which notes the fragile and contested nature of “convergences” between Spanish colonizers and native populations, even within a shared Christian discourse, is MacCormack Sabine, “Pachacuti: Miracles, Punishments, and Last Judgements: Visionary Past and Prophetic Future in Early Colonial Peru,” American Historical Review 93, no. 4 (Oct. 1988): 9601006.

29 Relación de Michoacán, 148.

30 To a twentieth-century reader, influenced by archaeology, this transition is also important since the text notes that Hiripan and Tangaxoan began to practice sedentary agriculture in a place called Naranjan, giving up the semi-nomadic existence of Tariacuri. Thus, they established the trait which distinguished the Purépecha peoples from their “Chichimeca” neighbors to the north. Ibid., 154.

31 Ibid., 213–14, 307–310.

32 There are forty-four illustrations which accompanied the original manuscript. According to Francisco Miranda, these illustrations are a treasure of the “pictografía indigena,” thus indicating that they were drawn by the Purépecha immediately after the Conquest. Miranda , “Estudio preliminar,” 9, xli.

33 On Spanish notions of social order, see Morse Richard, “The Heritage of Latin America,” in Hartz Louis et al., The Founding of New Societies (New York, 1964): 123177; and “Towards a Theory of Spanish American Government,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 15, no. 1 (Jan. 1954): 71–93. On missionary conversion strategies see Borges , Métodos misionales…, 377381; Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, 135142.

34 Miranda, “Estudio preliminar,” xxxvii-xxxvii.

35 Gutiérrez Ramón, “Honor Ideology, Marriage Negotiation, and Class-Gender Domination in New Mexico, 1690–1846,” Latin American Perspectives 44, 12:1 (Winter, 1985): 81, 91–92.

36 Relación de Michoacán, 260, 260–273 for discussion of marriage.

37 Ibid., 261.

38 lbid., 261.

39 Ibid., 267. For an additional, although fragmentary, missionary viewpoint on Purépecha sexual practices, see the document reprinted in Carrasco Pedro, “Parentesco y regulación del matrimonio entre los indios del antiguo Michoacán, Mexico,” Revista española de antropología Americana 4 (1969): 219222. For an examination of the penalties for adulterous behavior prior to and during the Conquest period, in Michoacán and other regions, see de la Orden José Tudela, “La Pena de adulterio en los pueblos precortesianos,” Revista de Indias 31, no. 123124 (Enero-Julio, 1971): 377–388, esp. 380–385.

40 For an interesting comparative article on the clash of cultures within an unequal colonial context, and how this detracted from missionary efforts, see MacCormack , “The Heart Has Its Reasons: Predicaments of Missionary Christianity in Early Colonial Peru,” esp. 454458.

41 I need not dwell on this point, since the missionary-conquistador rivalry is well known in the scholarly literature. For examples, see Borges , Métodos misionales…; Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, esp. 5492; Phelan , The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans, esp. 7687; Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, esp. 239264.

42 Relación de Michoacán, 326.

43 Scott Joan Wallach, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 48.

44 Warren , The Conquest of Michoacán, 136137.

45 Relación de Michoacán, 344–45, (entire dialogue).

46 Ibid., 350–352.

47 Ibid., 344–345, Gutierrez, “Honor Ideology…,” 86–89.

48 Relación de Michoacán, 353.

49 Ibid., 324.

50 Ibid., 251.

51 Ibid., 90.

52 Ibid., 112.

53 Warren , The Conquest of Michoacán, 42.

54 For a thoughtful, not unsympathetic retrospective on how missionary inability to extricate Christianity from a European “cultural, sociological, and even political framework” prevented the building of more secure bridges between the missionary and indigenous communities, see MacCormack , “The Heart Has Its Reasons,” 450459, esp. 454, 458 (quote). MacCormack notes, for the example of Peru, how missionary participation in campaigns of “reducciones” inextricably linked the missionaries to the colonial state.

55 Relación de Michoacán, 335; Ricard , The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, 79.

56 Phelan , The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans, 58; Clendinnen , Ambivalent Conquests, 4556.

57 A recent overview of interest concerning the new scholarship on texts in history is provided in Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History.

58 Relación de Michoacán, 112.

59 MacCormack, “Pachacuti: Miracles, Punishments, and Last Judgements: Visionary Past and Prophetic Future in Early Colonial Peru,” 960. For an example of conflict which leads to the intense repression of an indigenous population, the Maya, by missionaries, see Clendinnen , Ambivalent Conquests, esp. 7292.

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