Purepecha – Tarascan Indians

The Purepecha are an indigenous people with strong ties to the Mexican state of MichoacÁn. Traditionally known as the Tarascans, the Purepecha peoples reside in and around the Sierra Madre mountains. The origins of the Purepecha can be traced back to pre-colonial times, when the indigenous group controlled much of the state, along with portions of Guanajuato and Jalisco. These areas made up the powerful pre-colonial Tarascan state; “MichoacÁn” is the Nahuatl-derived name for the Tarascan state. The Purepecha suffered various attempts at conquest by the Mexica Empire, but the indigenous group was never subjected to Mexica rule. In spite of this, the Mexica maintained trade with the Purepecha, mainly for their excellent coppersmithing skills. The Purepecha were finally subjected to Spanish rule by 1530.

Today, the Purepecha population currently numbers around over 175,000 people, many of whom seek to maintain strong connections with their ancient customs and traditions. In addition to indigenous residents in MichoacÁn, there are also a number of prominent Mexican and Mexican-American individuals with significant Purepecha heritage. These include former NASA astronaut JosÉ Moreno HernÁndez, Mexican-American actor Alex Meraz and noted Mexican musician and composer Don Pedro Dimas. Dimas in particular is a leading proponent in keeping the Purepecha heritage, music and language alive through his works.

In addition to the Spanish language spoken all throughout Mexico, the Purepecha also have their own indigenous language known as P’urhÉpecha. According to statistics gathered in 1990, over 120,000 Purepecha in MichoacÁn fluently spoke their indigenous language. Since then, that number has increased to nearly 200,000 people. Much of the increase in fluent speakers can be attributed to an indigenous language law enacted by the Mexican government in 2000. This particular legislation granted indigenous languages including P’urhÉpecha official status alongside Spanish in regions where they are spoken. This has led to a remarkable increase in educational instruction of P’urhÉpecha in local schools and throughout several communities.

The Purepecha people are well known for creating colorful, decorative folk art, much of it consisting of intriguing and charming sculptures from the native clay in the area. Hand painted in vibrant colors, the majority of these sculptures combine traditional indigenous motifs with Christian beliefs to create genuinely unique works of art. They are also well known for creating sculptures of vehicles with devils or skeletons riding on them. These sculptures are intended to warn people of the dangers of reckless driving. Purepecha creations aren’t just limited to clay sculptures – the indigenous people are also known for their wooden craft, also hand painted in extraordinarily vivid colors.

Much of the artistic output created by the Purepecha is devoted to the Day of the Dead festival, held all throughout MichoacÁn with a particular focus on the city of PÁtzcuaro. The city offers best-known and most popular celebrations of the entire state, as well is an excellent opportunity for the indigenous Purepecha people to exhibit and sell their crafts. According to the 2005 census, there are approximately 4,000 residents of PÁtzcuaro who still speak the indigenous language.


The Purepecha make charming folk art of local clay which are then hand painted in bright colors. They combine Catholicism with their native beliefs resulting in wonderfully colorful and fanciful folk art. For example, they often make various sculptures of vehicles with skeletons or devils riding on them. The idea is to warn about the perils of reckless driving. Their imaginative sculptures often combine traditional Indian and Christian motifs in their work. Much of their work is created for the Day of the Dead festival. They are excellent collectible examples of true folk art.

sculptures of vehicles with skeletons or devils sculptures of vehicles with skeletons or devils
15″ tall x 11″ long. 6″ long x 6″ tall.
sculptures of vehicles with skeletons or devils sculptures of vehicles with skeletons or devils
7 1/2″ long x 7″ tall. 7 1/2″ long x 6 1/2″ tall.

These skeletons and devils have a small cup as their body.

skeletons and devils skeletons and devils
4 3/4″ tall.  3 3/4″ tall.

Purepeche Nativity Christ Child This Purepecha Nativity by Emilia Guiterrez Zacarias features 12 moveable figures with the largest being 6″ tall. The Christ Child is depicted in the petals of a flower.
Purepeche Last Supper Purepecha Last Supper is a large fanciful piece that measures 24 inches long and 13 1/2 inches high.
straw crucifix This huge straw crucifix is hand made by Indians in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. It is approximately 5 feet tall.

nativity An excellent example of the combination of native and Christian beliefs, this extra large nativity combines the Purepecha Blackface ceremony with the Nativity. Note the two little devils climbing in the tree. A really wonderful folk art piece, it measures 16″ high and 16 1/2″ long. Signed by artist Antonia Cruz Rafael Calle.
Nativity This Nativity is placed on a large floral base shaped like a cake stand. With angels in front and a devil behind, this folk art sculpture by Victor Mateo Julian measures 14″ tall and 15″ in diameter.
Last Supper Imaginative and colorful Last Supper – with bread, fish, and — watermelon. By folk artist Victor Mateo Julian it measures 15″ long and 6 1/2″ tall.

pottery nativity Hand made and painted pottery nativity is a whimsical example of folk art by Teresa Raphael of the Purepecha village of Ocumicho. Tree of Life Nativity is 17″ tall 13″ wide and 5″ deep.
pottery nativities These pottery nativities are hand made by Joaquin Victor of the Purepecha village of Ocumicho. They are shaped like a basket with colorful flower or leaves along the handle and the Holy Family inside. They are approx. 8″ tall 7″ wide and 5″ deep.
plaques of the Virgin with a small angel Colorful plaques of the Virgin with a small angel and a hole at top for hanging are hand made by Audelia of the Purepecha village of Ocumicho. They are approx. 5 1/2″ tall and 4″ wide.
crucifixes These crucifixes have a hole at top for hanging are hand made by Audelia of the Purepecha village of Ocumicho. They are approx. 5″ tall and 3″ wide.

Purepeche art Purepeche artwork
Mermaid – 10″ long x 8″ tall. Devil and Woman on a motorcycle – 8″ long x 10″ tall.

Purepecha clay crucifix Colorful, Purepecha clay crucifix may be hung on the wall. 15″ tall x 13″ wide.
Purepecha clay sculpture “Peace to the World” is signed by Purepecha artist Antonir Felipe Cadelanio. It is a large 13 1/2″ tall x 9 1/2″ wide.
Purepecha Adam and Eve Large Purepecha Adam and Eve candelabra holds five candles. 16″ tall x 16″ wide.

painted wooden mask
Hand carved and painted wooden mask measures 12 inches from tip to tip of horns and is 10 inches tall.

painted wooden mask
Hand painted clay mask measures 11 inches from tip to tip of horns and is 8 inches tall.

Additional Information

Tzintzuntzan, Mexico — Purepecha (Tarascan) People; by Randy R …
Roth-Seneff and Kemper – Tarascans

11 thoughts on “Purepecha – Tarascan Indians”

  1. my grand father MAXIMO was born in ZAMORA MICHOACAN,I remember him speaking to my grandma in their native tongue.

  2. My grandmother (RIP) was from Tototlan in southern Jalisco. I know very little about her, but am trying to piece together a cultural history for myself. If anyone knows anything about this area or how to start a record search in Mexico I would greatly appreciate the info. mflores@nmu.edu

  3. Is there a way to locate family tree on Tarascan Indians ? Where can I start ? All I know is the family name of who I am looking for!!! Please reply me with where I can start searching for families that can be relatives to my relatives

  4. I had a DNA from my, she is almost 75% Purepecha (Tarascan indian, I would to find info about this tribe, their ways,and the way of life, if anyone out can help, please send me e-mail at rgg0630@aol.com

  5. My great grandmother was purepecha…
    I know very little of her except her name…
    I would love to find out if I have family there still…
    Great grandmother was Elena Pantoja…
    Married Then Elena Pantoja Ynosencio
    Links how to find records would be good…thank you

  6. Alex Meras is PUREPECHA!!!!!!!!!!! i had no idea for a while,but i was amased 2,actually all of the wolf pack are at least a little native americans

  7. hello my name is margarita i was born a u.s citizen but my native roots are those of the purepecha people….i know very little of what is the culure of my people and just like to say thank you for giving me a better understanding of who i am….

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