When the Spaniards arrived in Michoacán in 1519, they found the region dominated by the Purépechan people – whom they named Tarascans – whose chief town, Tzintzuntzán, lay on the shores of Lago de Pátzcuaro. The Tarascan civilization, a serious rival to the Aztecs before the Conquest, had a widespread reputation for excellence in the arts, especially metalworking and feathered ornaments. Though the Tarascans submitted peaceably to the Spaniards in 1522 and their leader converted to Christianity, they did not avoid the massacres and mass torture that Nuño de Guzmán meted out in his attempts to fully pacify the region. Guzmán’s methods were overly brutal, even by colonial standards, and an elderly Spanish nobleman-turned-priest, Vasco de Quiroga, was appointed bishop to the area in an attempt to restore harmony. He succeeded beyond all expectations, securing his reputation as a champion of the native peoples – a reputation that persists today. He coaxed the native population down from the mountains to which they had fled, established self-sufficient agricultural settlements and set up missions to teach practical skills as well as religion. The effects of his actions have survived in a very visible way for, despite some blurring in objects produced for the tourist trade, each village still has its own craft speciality: lacquerware in Uruapan, guitars in Paracho, copper goods in Santa Clara del Cobre, to name but a few.
Vasco de Quiroga also left behind him a deeply religious state. Michoacán was a stronghold of the reactionary Cristero movement, which fought a bitter war in defence of the Church after the Revolution. Perhaps, too, the ideals of Zapata and Villa had less appeal here as Quiroga’s early championing of native peoples’ rights against their new overlords meant that the hacienda system never entirely took over Michoacán. Unlike most of the country, the state boasted a substantial peasantry with land it could call its own and therefore it didn’t relate to calls for land and labour reform.