The Story of Mexico/Chapter 7
West of the city of Mexico and the state of the same name lies Michoacan, one of the largest of the present divisions of the country. It begins on the plateau, but stretches down the steep western slope to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, seamed with deep barrancas between the upper and the lower portions, so steep and impassable that the railway which is already engineered to connect the capital with Colima on the western coast, waits long to gather courage for the leap. On the higher land mountain-peaks divide fertile lofty valleys, in which large lakes sparkle in the soft light of the climate. Michoacan signifies in Tarascan Land of Fish. These broad sheets of water are even now as still and lonely as when the early wanderers from the unknown North settled upon their borders, except when the shriek of a modern steam-engine disturbs their silence, and frightens the many birds who live there. As the train passes along the edge of Lake Cuitzao, eighteen miles long, clouds of winged creatures start up surprised, but not much frightened from the rushes by the water. Perhaps a rose-colored flamingo may be seen standing on one leg, undisturbed by the noise, because he is unaccustomed to fear. Across the lake glows a brilliant scarlet behind graceful mountain outlines. By the many curves of the road these forms appear, vanish, and recur, till the day has faded. vase in the national museum, washington. Farther from the capital, Patzcuaro and its lake have hidden their charms still longer. It was only in 1886 that the railroad penetrated to them. They are nearer the middle of the upper part of Michoacan, at an elevation of seven thousand feet above the sea. The heights in this region, though they seem hills, because their base is on so high a level, attain to numbers of measurement belonging to mountains. The Place of Delights, as the name of Patzcuaro is translated from the Tarascan language of its old inhabitants, is a lonely little city now, containing no more than eight thousand natives, many of whom are descended from the first inhabitants, and speak the Tarascan tongue. The town is built on hilly broken ground, with narrow crooked streets, from which glimpses are constantly to be had of the beautiful lake stretching out below. Abundant springs water the town and flow through the fountains in the market-place, an open square surrounded by noble ash-trees. Just outside the town stone seats have been placed at a point overlooking a lovely view of the clustering town, the long irregular lake with jutting points clothed throughout the year with verdure, and dotting islands upon its surface.
This place of delights was long the seat of the native chiefs of Michoacan, who, though they did not attain such a reputation for learning and cultivation as Ixtlilxochitl the Texcucan narrator has given his ancestors, had yet taste and intelligence enough to enjoy the beauty of their home.
In the beginning, wandering tribes may have settled on the borders of the lake for the mere casual advantages of satisfying their hunger, for the lake abounds with fish, and feathered game frequent its shores from time immemorial. The first have been supposed to be Chichimecs, either before or after their dealings with the Toltecs. The region was too attractive for one tribe to possess it unmolested. Other men, perhaps fresh from the same mysterious North, perhaps driven out by force or discontent from former homes upon Anahuac, came to dispute the fruitful territory. Such contests were decided by the triumph of the stronger; intermarriages healed the wound, and brief peace settled on the shore of the lake, to be broken by and by with similar incursions, followed by similar results. Out of such sequence, a name and date emerge as pegs to hang some facts on, in the hitherto accepted story.
Iré-Titatacamé was this first chief of this first people with a name which could last. He made friends with a neighboring chief, and married his daughter, the Princess of Naranjan. We may imagine her, like her remote descendants, a dusky maiden, rather small, with straight black hair, which she knew how to braid in two long tresses to hang along her back. Did her grandmother learn the art from the same coiffeur that prepared the mother of Ramses for her morning care? Her eyes were intelligent, piercing, but soft, two rows of brilliant white teeth lighted her face when she smiled, as she gathered herself poppies for a wreath on the borders of the Lake of Delights.
This princess became the mother of Sicuiracha, who was born in 1202, they say, about the time that the little English prince, Arthur, was being murdered at Rouen by the order of his wicked uncle. The little prince of Naranjan-Chichimeca was not ten years old when a tribe of Tarascans assaulted his father's city, and slew that monarch. He grew up to console his mother, avenge the deed, and to control his own subjects and the conquered tribe, which however impressed its language and dialect upon the nation, so that in that region, Tarascan survived.
Sicuiracha lived to a good old age, and in peace. He died at the close of the thirteenth century, leaving two sons.
One of these married an island woman of the lake, and her son preserved the royal line; for his father and uncle were put to death by a chieftain of the neighborhood who desired the fair Place of Delights for his own. But Tixiacurí was hidden by priests, who taught him the great art of war, so that in due time he came forth at the head of armies, destroyed his enemies, took to himself all the territory of the king who slew his father, and extended his own even beyond these, thus first really governing the wide kingdom of Michoacan, which goes down to the sea.
Tixiacurí, at his death, divided the territory, giving parts of it to two nephews, one of whom, Hicuxaxé, got Patzcuaro, and called himself king of it. Tangoxoan, the son of the late king summoned his court to Tzintzuntzan, fifteen miles up the lake. He is counted the fifth of the chiefs of Michoacan, and leaves no other record but that all his sons died violent deaths.
In the next period the provinces given to Tixiacurí's nephews came together again under one head, and the tribes thus united grew and prospered. Zovanga, the seventh ruler, held sway over the whole extent of Michoacan. Its capital was Tzintzuntzan, and its fullest limit touched the waters of the western ocean. This king constructed the celebrated walls of Michoacan to shut in his territories; he advanced agriculture, and brought his army to such excellence that it triumphed over his enemies, even the Mexicans, who, by this time powerful rivals, undertook an expedition into Michoacan in 1481. In a bloody battle which lasted two whole days the Mexicans were utterly routed.
The reign of Zovanga is described as long and glorious, and he left his country in a state of peace and prosperity when he died, near the beginning of the sixteenth century. The eighth and last Tarascan monarch of Michoacan, Tangoxoan II., was the contemporary of Montezuma; like him, unfortunate enough to live to see the invasion of the Conquistadores. He was called by them Calzonzi, which is only the Tarascan word for any chief or leader.
His capital was at Tzintzuntzan, a city with a population of forty thousand inhabitants, it is said, at the time of the conquest. Its name is an imitation of the noise of humming birds, which, in the Tarascan days, as now, darted in multitudes over the gay flowers that border the lake in profusion. This people loved birds as they did flowers, and excelled in the delicate feather-work still practised in Mexico, in which bright-colored plumage is daintily made to serve instead of paints. The monarch of Michoacan held court at Tzintzuntzan, but his pleasure-house was at Patzcuaro, eighteen miles away. Legend says that when he chose to have a collation there, a line of servants was stationed all along the way between the two palaces, to pass the dishes from the royal kitchen to the royal table. However this may be, there are traces of a subterranean passage which perhaps connected the capital with the other town. Some years ago an excavation was attempted at Tzintzuntzan, with the hope of discovering this passage, but the natives quietly resisted this work by always filling up the place as soon as it was dug out. From generation to generation these people transmit the traditions of the ancient grandeur of their race, and silently preserve what they can of its traces. They have no written language of their own, and no orators. What they know of the past they do not wish to tell to outsiders; but their villages are full of legends, which the old people hand down to the younger ones in their strange Tarascan speech. They are tenacious of their manners and customs, and preserve in their church festivals the forms and rites which the early priests allowed them to transfer from their old religion to the ceremonials of the newly acquired Catholic faith. The Tarascans are skilful in carving in bone. They make tiny boxes, neatly fitted with lock and key, of wood. Their canoes are dug out of tree-trunks, and they kill the wild fowl which swarm and herd in quantities upon their lake, with a long wooden javelin hurled with skill. Their pottery, like that of all the Mexicans, is simple in design, graceful in form, and tasteful in color. From time immemorial they have possessed the knowledge of handling clay and making their utensils of it.