Parution : The Relación de Michoacán (1539-1541) and the politics of representation in colonial Mexico

The Relación de Michoacán (1539-1541)


  • Afanador-Pujol, Angélica Jimena. Auteur

Angélica Jimena Afanador-Pujol is Assistant Professor of Art History at Arizona State University, where she teaches courses on the art and architecture of the peoples of the Americas.

Résumé de l’éditeur

The Relación de Michoacán (1539–1541) is one of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts from colonial Mexico. Commissioned by the Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, the Relación was produced by a Franciscan friar together with indigenous noble informants and anonymous native artists who created its forty-four illustrations. To this day, the Relación remains the primary source for studying the pre-Columbian practices and history of the people known as Tarascans or P’urhépecha. However, much remains to be said about how the Relación’s colonial setting shaped its final form.

By looking at the Relación in its colonial context, this study reveals how it presented the indigenous collaborators a unique opportunity to shape European perceptions of them while settling conflicting agendas, outshining competing ethnic groups, and carving a place for themselves in the new colonial society. Through archival research and careful visual analysis, Angélica Afanador-Pujol provides a new and fascinating account that situates the manuscript’s images within the colonial conflicts that engulfed the indigenous collaborators. These conflicts ranged from disputes over political posts among indigenous factions to labor and land disputes against Spanish newcomers. Afanador-Pujol explores how these tensions are physically expressed in the manuscript’s production and in its many contradictions between text and images, as well as in numerous emendations to the images. By studying representations of justice, landscape, conquest narratives, and genealogy within the Relación, Afanador-Pujol clearly demonstrates the visual construction of identity, its malleability, and its political possibilities.


  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Making and the Makers of the Relación de Michoacán
  • 2. Unfaithful Lovers and Malicious Sorcerers: Justice, Punishment, and the Body
  • 3. Making and Emending Landscape in the Petamuti’s Speech
  • 4. Creating Chichimec-Uanacaze Ethnic Identity
  • 5. Mimicry and Identity and the Tree of Jesse
  • 6. Memories of an Ethnographic Funeral
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Spanish invasion and colonization of the Americas was a slow process that frequently involved war, careful planning, and the crafting of political alliances. Competing expeditions of conquistadors to unexplored areas often fought for claims to land, labor, and bounty. Spanish factions found it necessary to collaborate with indigenous noble families to collect tribute, direct building projects, and maintain settlements in working order. Indigenous people were equally divided along kinship and ethnic lines, cultural practices, and centuries-old rivalries. Spaniards used to their advantage the rivalries among indigenous groups. Likewise, indigenous nobles quickly learned to work with the intricacies and politics of the different Spanish factions. These nobles learned to use the colonial court system to defend their claims to land and ancestral privileges. Theirs was a rapidly changing world.

In the winter of 1539, Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza left the viceregal capital Mexico-Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) and traveled by horse westward approximately 193 miles through valleys and forested mountains to the city of Tzintzuntzan on the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro in the present-day state of Michoacán. This journey took him across the political border separating the Aztecs of central Mexico, who spoke Nahuatl, from their P’urhépecha-speaking enemies.¹ On his way to Tzintzuntzan, the viceroy must have seen the lands of Otomís, Matlatzingas, Nahuas, and other groups that inhabited this expansive territory. He took this long and arduous trip to Tzintzuntzan in the hopes of settling what would be one of the most notorious labor and land disputes involving Spaniards and indigenous people in all of colonial Mexico—or, as it was known at the time, New Spain.

Key to resolving this and other disputes was gaining an understanding of P’urhépecha political and territorial organization and history prior to the first arrival of Europeans in 1521. Mendoza, who had come to occupy the post of viceroy four years before his trip, probably knew little about Michoacán. This may have been his reason for commissioning a Spanish Franciscan friar at this time to record the customs of the region. The “Prologue” of the illustrated manuscript containing this account, Relacion de las çerimonias y rrictos y poblaçión y gobernaçion de los yndios de la provinçia de Mechuacán hecha al yllustrisimo señor don Antonio de Mendoça, virrey y governador desta Nueva España por su majestad, etcétera (from here on referred to as the Relación de Michoacán or Relación), states explicitly that the friar created it at the viceroy’s request to help him govern the area more efficiently. Around this time, the viceroy also commissioned other indigenous documents, possibly including the Codex Mendoza, to help him govern, and to send along to Crown officials back in Spain.

The Relación de Michoacán is one of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts from colonial Mexico. It predates even the better-known works by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún about the Aztec people of central Mexico, the Primeros memoriales (ca. 1558–1561) and the Florentine Codex (1578–1580). The Relación now resides in the Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, where it presumably arrived sometime in the sixteenth century. A small book, approximately 20.5 × 14.5 cm, the Relación was written and illustrated on European handmade linen-fiber paper. Today, it contains 139 pages combining alphabetic script and 44 hand-painted images.

According to the friar’s words in the “Prologue,” he determined the general contents of the manuscript and originally envisioned it as a threepart book. Previous studies have noted that the manuscript does not survive in its entirety. Someone removed pages from the manuscript before it was bound. Part 1, containing descriptions of religious ceremonies, was removed; only one of its pages survives. Part 2, containing a historical account of pre-Columbian times, is complete. Part 3, describing ethnographic practices and a history of the events that transpired after the arrival of the Spaniards in the region, seems also to have undergone a purge, for many of its pages have been rearranged.

Upon its arrival at El Escorial, the manuscript was bound. The binder added white sheets of paper at the front and back of the manuscript, trimmed and gilded the edges of the pages, and added a fine honey-colored leather cover, which bears the monastery’s emblem, a cartouche containing a grill (the instrument of Saint Lorenzo’s torture). Unfortunately, the manuscript was bound out of order. The binder placed the prologue first, part 3 directly following it, with the only page from part 1 mistakenly among the folios of part 3, and part 2 after part 3. At the end of part 2, on pages originally left blank by the artists and scribes, another hand at a later date and using a different ink (most likely after the manuscript was bound) wrote a text entitled “Calendario de toda la índica gente por donde han contado sus tiempos hasta oy agora nuevamente puesto en forma de rueda para mejor ser entendido” (Calendar of all indigenous people by which they have counted all of their time up until today, now again put in the shape of a wheel to be better understood). After the manuscript was bound, someone removed at least two pages containing text and possibly one more containing an image. Then a couple of hands numbered its pages using two different systems and two more numbering systems for its images. The manuscript has also undergone several restoration efforts.

In the prologue of the manuscript, the friar tells the viceroy that to accomplish his task, he employed indigenous noble informants, whose oral contributions formed the text. He remains silent about who created the forty-four illustrations of the manuscript. In chapter 1 of this book, I propose these were four native artists, who worked closely with the friar revising the final contents. We see in chapters 1, 3, and 4 that these artists added images when necessary, edited others, and overall illuminated (in the figurative and literal sense) a rather complex text. The friar, who also remains anonymous throughout the manuscript, tells us he translated the narrators’ accounts into Spanish and presented the manuscript to the viceroy in their name.

The interests of these different officials and collaborators gave the Relación a complex final form. The literary scholar Herón Pérez Martínez has pointed out that the Relación brings together different traditions: the epistolary, religious, and epic, as well as that of the InformeInformes were executed at the request of Spanish authorities and were generally structured by the desire to obtain particular information, to answer official requests, and, often, to address particular questions. In epistolary fashion, the Relación reads as a letter to an official containing an epic story, yet it also contains an ethnographic section. Throughout its pages the different contributors express their own interests and desires. The combination of these traditions makes it a fascinating project, yet one that presents many challenges for its analysis.

Studies of colonial-era manuscript paintings have often divided manuscripts by patronage and read them accordingly. Broadly speaking, the main distinction being made is between ethnographic documents produced by Spanish officials and works produced by indigenous people. For the communities of central Mexico, for example, scholars have pointed out that indigenous patrons often produced histories, tribute lists, maps, and genealogies to legitimize their power and fight against the encroachment of Spaniards, other indigenous groups, and even other members of their own families. Ethnographic manuscripts produced by Spanish clerics and officials with the collaboration of indigenous painters, like the works of Sahagún and Diego Durán, are often seen as serving the interests of Europeans who sought to gain useful information for their religious, economic, personal, and political enterprises. Analysis of these manuscripts has for the most part focused on the contributions of Spaniards, their background, and the value of the information they collected for understanding the pre-Columbian past. Art historians Dana Leibsohn and Carolyn Dean have pointed out that when scholars have analyzed the function of indigenous collaborators, they have done so to understand what survives of the pre-Columbian past or what represents a European influence. They notice that many studies deny the intricacies of the process and ways in which they came to be produced in the colonial period. In his recent study of the accounts of the Spanish conquest of central Mexico, the historian Kevin Terraciano has begun to unravel how indigenous contributors shaped the accounts of the conquest that Sahagún collected. My study takes this approach one step further by looking at how two different and competing ethnic and political factions of indigenous artists and informants working on one ethnohistoric manuscript shaped its content to promote their own interests.

To better situate the Relación, archival research has been key in understanding the complex picture in which different Spanish and indigenous factions sometimes collaborated and sometimes fought for resources and status in the colonial socioeconomic hierarchy. These documents reveal that oversimplified views of colonizer versus colonized present an obstacle when analyzing the intricacies of colonial-era society. Ethnic and political factions often crossed such a neat divide and shaped much of colonial life.

While scholars have assumed that the indigenous contributors of the Relación held the same interests, careful analysis of the Relación and archival documents reveals that the contributors were in fact members of two distinct ethnic groups and their agendas were not uniform. To collect information, the friar worked with noble members of two ethnic factions. One was a ruling elite family of Michoacán called the Uanacaze, who claimed descent from their tutelary god Curicaueri. The Uanacaze were members and the leaders of a larger ethnic group sometimes referred to in the Relación as the Uacúsecha, a P’urhépecha name meaning “the eagles.” Elsewhere in the manuscript the Uacúsecha are called Chichimecs, a Nahuatl name generally used for nomadic groups from northern Mexico. According to the Relación, the Uanacaze and their group had allegedly migrated to Michoacán from elsewhere. The manuscript tells us that upon their arrival to the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán’s highlands, the Uanacaze conquered its local residents and settled in three cities along the lakeshore: Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio, and Pátzcuaro. From there they launched the conquest of the region all the way to the lowlands along the Pacific coast. By the time Spaniards arrived in this area, Tzintzuntzan had become the politically dominant city.

Another contributor to the Relación was a non-Uanacaze noble known as Don Pedro Cuiniarangari. Even though in the pages of the Relación, the Uanacaze ruler refers to Don Pedro as his “brother,” a word used as a term of endearment among friends in other documents, Don Pedro identifies himself as a descendant of high priests from one of the islands in Lake Pátzcuaro, that is, as a noble isleño (Islander). These so-called Islanders had held sway over the islands and basin of Lake Pátzcuaro until the Uanacaze conquered the region.

At the time the Relación was completed in 1541, however, Don Pedro was governor of the region. Because the governorship was the highest post in the colonial government that could be held by an indigenous man, there was understandably the potential for tension between Don Pedro and the Uanacaze. To ease this tension, Don Pedro, in his contribution to the Relación, focused, among other things, on his past role as an intermediary between the Uanacaze ruler and the Spanish forces. Significantly, he took credit for having helped facilitate the area’s peaceful submission to the European newcomers in the 1520s.

This book examines the Relación’s illustrations in relation to the differing agendas of Don Pedro, the Uanacaze, and colonial authorities, including the viceroy. Ultimately, it seeks to reveal how the indigenous artists and nobles who worked on the manuscript developed differing visual strategies for representing themselves and the ethnic identities of their ancestors in the face of competing claims and changing values in order to shape their future in colonial society. To communicate with their colonial audience, the artists of the Relación had to reinterpret and reimagine the past. They did so by conscientiously adapting selected pre-Columbian and European iconographic prototypes, thus becoming active agents in the creation of knowledge about the region. Through their visual images they represented ethnic identity and history in ways that not only reflected their own interests but also could be understood by the colonial authorities.

The work of anthropologists and social theorists such as Fredrik Barth, Michel Foucault, Arjun Appadurai, Elizabeth Brumfiel, and Ann Stoler on social classifications such as race and ethnicity provides ways to better comprehend how the illustrations of the Relación served to shape the viceroy’s views. These scholars point out that socially constructed classifications help create and shape identities that are class affirming and thus fundamental to acquiring and maintaining political power. In the case of the Relación, the images served to allocate desirable attributes to the Uanacaze elite while representing other ethnic groups in less desirable terms. However, ethnic identities had to be carefully crafted, since Don Pedro, a non-Uanacaze noble, occupied the most important political post. His self-image had to be codified in ways that justified his position to the Spanish authorities at the same time that he and the Uanacaze were striving to present a united front against the encroaching interests of the Spaniards in the region.

While the interests of these contributors often come together in the Relación, sometimes their differences manifest as incongruities between text and images. Because the images were inserted in the manuscript after the text was completed and highlight different aspects of it, they act upon and create a constant dialogue with it. The text they illustrate provides a way to read the images by helping to convert indigenous concepts into ideas that could have been understood by a colonial audience.

My investigation builds on the work of previous scholars in order to further our understanding of how ethnic differences in the colonial period shaped the images and content of colonial narratives of the pre-Columbian past. Since the Relación’s first publication in 1869, it has received copious scholarly attention. Twelve editions, two of which are facsimiles, have made this work widely available. Additionally, the text of the Relación has been translated into, and published in, English, French, and Japanese. To date, however, the manuscript has been largely used as a primary source for understanding the pre-Columbian life of the region, serving as a window into pre-Columbian beliefs and practices, history, and socioeconomic organization. When scholars have analyzed the significance of ethnic divisions in the Relación, they for the most part have focused on what these divisions reveal about pre-Columbian times. For example, in his study “Los antiguos habitantes de Michoacán,” written between 1902 and 1923 but not published until 1960, the Mesoamericanist Eduard Seler used the Relación’s text and other colonial-era documents to determine that before the arrival of the Spaniards, the inhabitants of Michoacán had been a multiethnic society governed by the Uanacaze. Following Seler, the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff wrote an introduction to the 1956 facsimile of the Relación in which he divided the characters in the Relación’s narrative according to their ethnic affiliations in order to ease our reading of the text.

Since then, the Relación’s text has served as a primary ethnohistorical source for studies of P’urhépecha social and ethnic classifications and interactions prior to the conquest. Nevertheless, studies in the last fifteen years have questioned the veracity of the Relación’s contents and pointed to the contradictions with the archaeological record.

The archaeologist Dominique Michelet has warned against taking the Relación at face value, pointing to the incongruity between the manuscript’s “mythical qualities” and modern-day concepts of history. He notes the parallels between the Relación and Aztec migration stories, the Relación’s deviation of narrative time from “real” time, the unlikely nature of some of the sequences of events, the numerous political interventions of the god Curicaueri, and the moralizing nature of the narrative. However, as the art historian Elizabeth Boone has noted of studies of Nahuatl and Mixtec histories, while the distinction between mythical and historical narratives highlights the discrepancies among modern, colonial, and indigenous notions of history, it obscures the arbitrary nature of our own modern historical practices and implicitly discredits other forms of history. Rather than attempt to investigate the veracity or lack thereof of the Relación’s contents, this book aims to investigate the choices the indigenous contributors made in the colonial context.

Over the course of the last fifty years, studies of the Relación have begun to shed light on the colonial context of the manuscript’s narrative. Scholars such as Cynthia Stone, Hans Roskamp, Miguel León-Portilla, J. Benedict Warren, and Herón Pérez Martínez have focused on the contributions of the Spanish friar and his role as an early ethnographer. Warren has tracked down and identified the friar as Jerónimo de Alcalá. Pérez Martínez and Stone, as well as Moisés Franco Mendoza and Jean Marie Le Clézio, have begun to unravel the relation of the indigenous contributions to the Relación’s text to a P’urhépecha oral tradition that survived into the early colonial period. Recently, the historians James Krippner-Martínez and Claudia Espejel Carbajal have begun to inquire about the impact of Spanish practices and beliefs on the contents of the Relación. Some scholars, such as Carlos Paredes Martínez and Otto Schöndube, have noted that the Relación’s text privileges the history of the larger ethnic group known as Uacúsecha, which, according to Roskamp, would have helped their descendants position themselves advantageously in colonial society. However, how this group’s responses to its colonial context shaped the manuscript’s text remains to be explored. The contributors to the Relación did not belong to one indigenous group but two, a fact that has not been taken into account when analyzing how the manuscript reflects their diverging strategies for accessing colonial authorities.

The images have not received the same kind of critical analysis as the text and are often assumed to simply illustrate it. In the 1956 facsimile edition of the Relación, the scholars José Tudela and José Corona Núñez go to great lengths to identify iconographic details in the pictures, correlating them with material culture items such as ceramics and architecture. Anthropologists such as Patricia Anawalt and Helen P. Pollard, in addition to using the images to help interpret archaeological findings, have used them to reconstruct elements of Michoacán’s pre-Columbian material culture such as dress, palaces, and tools. While this reciprocity among text, images, and material culture has served to validate the manuscript as a resource for understanding pre-Columbian life, it has tended to obscure the complexity of the situation.

The assumption that the images are only straightforward illustrations of the text has often gone hand in hand with the belief that the artists in Michoacán had had no previous experience in conveying information through images. This derives in part from the friar’s prologue to the Relación, in which he states that the people of Michoacán lacked books. Whether he meant books using alphabetic writing (as in the case of European books) or pictographic books like those produced in Mesoamerica is not stated, but his assertion was not uncommon in the early sixteenth century. European clergy often failed to see the pictographic writing of Mesoamerican books as a viable source of information because they upheld alphabetic writing as a mark of civilization. The friar’s statement has triggered a discussion about whether or not there was a pre-Columbian pictographic writing system in Michoacán and what kinds of writing may have existed there. This debate, however, has contributed little to our understanding of the Relación’s images as products of the colonial period.

The belief that during the colonial period the artists of the Relación lacked visual literacy has meant that until now little agency has been attributed to them. Their ability to make choices and encode complex thoughts in their visual imagery has gone unrecognized for the most part. In the influential 1956 edition of the Relación, José Tudela, who praises the manuscript’s illustrations for their innovative qualities, nevertheless characterizes them as “childlike” and “without tricks or conventions that are preestablished or inherited.” Although scholars have criticized this paternalistic approach, they continue to perceive the images as lacking complexity.

In a recent study of the images and their relevance to the pictographic tradition in Michoacán, Juan José Batalla Rosado concludes that even though the images include some pre-Columbian Mesoamerican iconographic conventions, such as footprints representing movement and direction of travel, they do not contain logosyllabic writing. He therefore concludes that in Michoacán more complex thoughts must have been transmitted orally. Similarly, Nora Jiménez, who fails to see any phonetic or logographic information in the Relación’s paintings, concludes that they serve only to illustrate the text.

Rather than analyze the images as anachronistic tools for understanding the pictographic writing of the pre-Columbian period, I propose to look at them as colonial products, the result of the artists’ deliberate selections from a repertoire of both European and Mesoamerican motifs, formats, and illusionistic techniques made to convey rich meanings and encode complex thoughts. Scholars have long recognized that in other parts of Mesoamerica, pre-Columbian and early colonial pictographic writing and visual imagery encoded many layers of information about religious, sociopolitical, and economic practices. Mesoamerican artists did not necessarily make clear-cut distinctions between “art” in the European sense of the word and what we call writing.³⁶ Boone has pointed out that recording speech was often not the goal in Mesoamerican writing systems of the sixteenth century; rather, Mesoamerican pictography expressed complex ideas that were represented either directly or through abstract conventions.³⁷ Since for the most part there is no dependency on sound in these visual representations, they have the ability to cross language and ethnic barriers.

Although, as was the case for the Aztec-dominated Valley of Mexico, no known pre-Columbian illustrated manuscripts survive from Michoacán, indigenous pictographic writing was commonly known and widely used during the colonial period. Archival documents reveal that indigenous nobles from Michoacán presented pinturas (paintings) depicting tribute, territories, and historical information to prove their claims before the Spanish authorities. Most of these paintings no longer exist, but accounts of them can be found in the court records now housed in Mexican and Spanish archives.

The existence of these colonial documents is significant not only because they attest to pictographic literacy in Michoacán but also because they reveal that this system shared elements with other writing systems in Mesoamerica. This is not to say that no iconographic differences existed between P’urhépecha and other Mesoamerican writing systems. Rather, it is to point out that they must have shared enough elements to be read across cultural and language barriers. In a court case from the 1550s, for example, the plaintiff, who was Don Pedro’s son, presented as evidence a painting, now lost, that several indigenous witnesses “read” at trial. If witnesses did not speak Spanish, somebody else translated their testimony in P’urhépecha or Nahuatl into Spanish, and a scribe recorded it. Thus, speakers of both P’urhépecha and Nahuatl could “read” the same painting even though the verbal form of their reading varied linguistically.

Recent approaches have gone beyond a literal and iconographic reading of the images of the Relación. Roskamp has looked at some of the iconography used in the images and their parallels with Mesoamerican writing systems, pointing to some of the more complex ideas the artists may have represented. Stone, taking a structuralist approach, has interpreted the images as “echoing” a pre-Columbian cosmovision organized according to principles of duality and a belief in an axis mundi. Stone has ignored, however, the fact that some of the images show evidence of European prototypes. Furthermore, she has interpreted the illustrations without reference to the text they accompany.⁴¹ On the other end of the spectrum, Espejel Carbajal has claimed that none of its iconographic elements can be safely attributed to a pre-Columbian tradition. She sees the illustrations as representing a solely Spanish pictographic system.⁴² The range of the interpretations offered by these scholars signals the difficulty in recognizing the variety of sources that the artists drew upon, as well as understanding the motives behind their choices.
Rather than look at the images as repositories of one tradition to the exclusion of another, I look at what the adaptation of aspects of both preColumbian and European pictorial traditions reveals about the interests of and strategies employed by the two indigenous ethnic groups involved in the making of the Relación. Most of the surviving illustrations of the Relación deal with ethno-political conflicts that took place before the arrival of the Europeans. Yet how the political motives of the indigenous artists working during the colonial period shaped those images remains to be explored. My work goes beyond previous scholarship by analyzing the images within the context of archival colonial documents to reveal the conflicts that engulfed the indigenous collaborators. The Relación provides an important opportunity for study because its indigenous collaborators represented the interests of two distinct indigenous ethnic groups.
My analysis attempts more than this, however. It also shows how the contributors to the Relación shaped its images to make them understandable to its intended recipient. This necessitates discussion of the challenges Spaniards faced in Michoacán during the early colonial period; for example, this area did not have a homogeneous population. Numerous ethnic groups lived in the Lake Pátzcuaro area. The region was multilingual, with Nahuatl, Otomí, and P’urhépecha speakers often struggling for resources and political leverage, as shown across the pages of archival records. By the onset of the colonial period, the Uanacaze ruled over communities described by the Relación as enemies conquered during pre-Columbian times. Furthermore, the Spanish conquest and colonization efforts had fomented the relocation of indigenous populations, many of which had traveled with the Spaniards as allies in the war of conquest.
Colonial documents attest to mixed populations within individual towns but also to Nahua and Otomí settlements whose populations were homogeneous. People with Nahuatl names abound in court records: they are listed as caciques (chiefs), noblemen and noblewomen, sculptors, interpreters, and employees of the church. Many of them played key roles during the early colonial period and formed powerful, yet shifting, alliances. It is not always easy to decipher the tensions that existed among these groups because the Spanish Crown had ordered, although this was not always observed, that no legal procedures were to take place among the indigenous peoples. The latter, in turn, often preferred to keep the Spaniards out of their affairs.
To make matters even more complex, Spaniards sometimes appointed indigenous town authorities from different ethnic groups, thus altering preexisting hierarchies. Spaniards also encroached on indigenous lands and placed pressure on limited resources and labor. Indigenous nobles from different groups found themselves having to form unexpected alliances both among themselves and with some Spaniards to fight other Spaniards. The Relación provides a unique view on how some of these alliances played out during the colonial period and on how ethnic identities were represented and mobilized.

The circumstances that first brought the Spanish viceroy to Michoacán speak to the context in which the Relación was conceived. According to the historian J. Benedict Warren, the viceroy presumably commissioned the manuscript on December 31, 1539, during his first visit to Tzintzuntzan in order to settle an intense legal dispute involving the Spanish Crown, Spanish settlers, the newly appointed bishop, and several members of the indigenous nobility of Michoacán. This dispute, several years in the making, was centered on the distribution of encomiendas (allocations of indigenous labor and its products), which often brought to the forefront the interests of various Spaniards and the indigenous nobility.
Tzintzuntzan, which was also called the City of Michoacán and the City of Uchichila in sixteenth-century documents, was at first the encomienda of Hernán Cortés, but in 1528 it passed into the hands of the Crown. Encomienda distributions were based on geopolitical units (i.e., towns, barrios [wards], etc.), but little is understood of the City of Michoacán’s geographical limits. The indigenous nobility and their Spanish supporters would argue that it covered the entire lake basin and its islands and had been the Uanacaze ruler’s señorío (kingdom). On the other side, Spanish encomenderos (holders of an encomienda grant), who were quickly encroaching on the basin and its islands, would argue that the indigenous settlements around and on the lake were independent of the city and therefore part of their own encomiendas. The conflicts between the indigenous nobility and the encomenderos escalated over the years, even leading to armed conflict and the trial and execution in 1530 of the Uanacaze ruler Zinzicha Tangaxuan. Under Cortés’s administration, Tangaxuan had been allowed to continue as lord of the region as long as he did not collect tribute for himself. Under the Crown this arrangement was kept, since, at least in principle, the Crown respected the privileges and territory of indigenous rulers, although it reserved jurisdiction for itself. Yet when Nuño de Guzmán, president of the Primera Real Audiencia (First Royal Audience), the highest judiciary body in the colonies, took Tangaxuan and other nobles prisoner for the purpose of obtaining their gold, the encomenderos took advantage of the nobles’ absence by extending their own encomienda boundaries. Eventually, they would accuse Tangaxuan of obstructing their work, and in 1530, the First Royal Audience would convict Tangaxuan of idolatry, sodomy, collecting tribute, interfering with the work of Spaniards, and even killing some of them. Nuño de Guzmán sentenced Tangaxuan to death and seized his land and worldly possessions to pay for the trial, allocating the remainder to the Spanish Crown.

After Tangaxuan’s death, the Islander Don Pedro, who had provided the most incriminating testimony against Tangaxuan in his trial, became governor of the city, as previously mentioned. This unprecedented situation would create many tensions between Don Pedro and the Uanacaze heirs. Nevertheless, they had to come together to defend common interests. Regarding territorial claims, Don Pedro would have to defend the integrity of the physical boundaries of the City of Michoacán to maintain his own privileges as its governor. To keep the basin and its islands together, he and the Uanacaze nobles would call it Tangaxuan’s señorío in order to keep it under the jurisprudence of the Crown.
By 1539, thousands of court folios had been produced around these conflicts. All sides had presented witnesses, paintings, and legal arguments. In October of that year, the conflict escalated almost to point of an armed confrontation between a particular encomendero by the name of Juan Infante and the indigenous nobility supported by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga. The viceroy had traveled to Michoacán in hopes of settling this dispute and most likely during this visit commissioned the Relación. To the indigenous nobility and its supporters, the making of the Relación presented a unique opportunity to speak directly to the viceroy and present their claims of legitimacy as rulers over the region.
This book explores how the Relación’s indigenous contributors made use of such an opportunity. Chapter 1 examines how the manuscript was made and what this process reveals about the relationship between the viceroy, the friar, the indigenous nobility, and the indigenous painters. The Relación contains several emendations, including images inserted where none was originally intended. These emendations reveal the aspects of the narrative that the friar and artists sought to highlight, as well as the discrepancies among some of their intentions.
Through the analysis of court documents, I have been able to determine that indigenous artists enjoyed many favors from the Uanacaze family, such as paid servants and free goods. Not surprisingly, in return artists painted maps representing land limits, genealogies, and historical events that were used in colonial courts to defend the privileges of the indigenous nobility. This relationship of mutual dependency joined the interests of the Uanacaze to those of the artists, making visual imagery the political medium by which the former legitimated their interests.

Chapters 2 through 6 are organized thematically around a selection of images from the Relación. They investigate how indigenous artists used representations of justice and history to re-create the identity of the indigenous nobility during the colonial period. Since much of the Relación focuses on the Uanacaze conquering and overcoming other indigenous ethnic groups, the construction of ethnic identity is central to the manuscript.
Chapter 2 explores paintings of the administration of justice in the Relación and the function of the body in sixteenth-century Michoacán. In these images, the artists used the body to represent the individual’s relationship to society. Punishments focus on specific body parts to mark transgressions against the Uanacaze social system. In these scenes, the Uanacaze, with a governor as their intermediary, penalize crimes such as adultery and witchcraft, which were strongly condemned in the eyes of Spaniards. In this way, these scenes present the Uanacaze as the moral choice for rulership in the region, while including the non-Uanacaze governor (i.e., Don Pedro) within that judicial hierarchy and justifying his post.
In Chapter 3, I study the visual representation of landscape in part 2 of the Relación, which narrates the conquest of the region by the Uanacaze and their allies. In these scenes, the artists represent landscape by combining European Renaissance conventions for realism, such as one-point perspective, with indigenous pictographic conventions, such as toponyms. In this way, the artists presented a landscape that was readable to European eyes and simultaneously evoked a sense of authenticity and insider knowledge. Through this valuable visual strategy the artists represented the Lake Pátzcuaro basin as a unified region while tying it specifically to the Uanacaze and their allies’ rise to power. Ultimately, this visual strategy legitimized the indigenous administration of the region while countering the interests of Spaniards.
Chapter 4 studies the Uanacaze reconstruction of their identity to conform to a Christian paradigm. The artists included images that represented the Uanacaze’s Chichimec ethnicity in terms of Christian motifs and Christian values. Many of the traits generally associated with Chichimec behavior, such as hunting and an austere life, were reconstituted to be aligned with the new Christian norms. The viceroy could have easily recognized the moral qualities required of rulers in the Uanacaze lineage. Furthermore, the artists carefully selected scenes in which the new Chichimec identity could be contrasted with the lax behavior of non-Uanacaze peoples. In order to explain the place of Don Pedro in this moral/ethnic dichotomy, however, he had to be defined as a servant to the Uanacaze’s interests and as an intermediary between the ruler and the new colonial order.

In Chapter 5, I analyze the image in the Relación based on the European Tree of Jesse, a common European motif used to diagram the genealogy of Christ, to demonstrate that indigenous artists used European prototypes in their capacity not only of encoding indigenous beliefs but also of serving the nobility’s political needs. By using a European motif, the artist could communicate clearly and effectively with the manuscript’s European audience. The artist substituted the Uanacaze genealogy for that of Christ, presenting their heirs as the legitimate rulers of the region.
Chapter 6 analyzes the ethnographic image depicting a ruler’s funeral. My research shows that contrary to what at first may seem to be an objective and generalized representation, this painting responds to a specific circumstance, that is, the death of the Uanacaze ruler at the height of Uanacaze political domination in the region. In this image, the artist made careful use of body paints and clothing to differentiate the ancestors of the Relación’s collaborators. While the Uanacaze ancestors are dressed as upstanding Chichimec warriors, have their bodies painted in black pigment, and are represented as the unmistakable successors to the throne, Don Pedro’s ancestors sport yellow body paint and are sacrificed to serve the Uanacaze ruler for eternity. In other words, while Don Pedro, a non-Uanacaze nobleman, had come to occupy the highest political post after the death of the Uanacaze ruler in the aftermath of the conquest, the artist shows that the rightful successor should have been a member of the Uanacaze family, more specifically, the ruler’s son. Upon the death of Don Pedro Cuiniarangari, a year or two after the Relación was completed, the viceroy gave the governorship of the area to the Uanacaze heirs.

The way the manuscript was made, the selection of images, and the relationship of the images to the text reveal the collaboration between the Spanish friar and the native narrators and artists in creating knowledge for this region. In the course of representing the past, the artists became agents in constructing the new colonial order. They transformed a vision of the past to present the Uanacaze as the preferred choice for rulership over all of the other ethnic groups in the region. At the same time, they justified the Islander Don Pedro’s position as governor in order to present a united indigenous front before colonial authorities. By carefully selecting and adapting European and pre-Columbian motifs, the artists made their claims in ways that would have been understandable to the manuscript’s European audience, particularly Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. They used the images to counter the interests of those Spaniards who were encroaching on the ways of life and resources of people living in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin.

Informations pratiques

  • Éditeur : Austin, Tex. : University of Texas Press
  • Date de parution : 2015
  • Description matérielle : 1 vol. (XI-269 p.-[16] p. de pl.) : ill. ; 24 cm
  • Bibliogr. p. [233]-256. Index
  • ISBN 978-0-292-77138-3 (rel.) : 65 USD. – 978-1-477-30239-2 (br.)


  • AUBERVILLIERS-Campus Condorcet
  • MADRID-Casa de Velázquez
  • PARIS-Médiathèque MQB

Citer ce billet
Olivier Jacquot (2020, 2 avril). Parution : The Relación de Michoacán (1539-1541) and the politics of representation in colonial Mexico. Amoxcalli. Consulté le 28 février 2024, à l’adresse

Olivier Jacquot

Chargé de collections : manuscrits des fonds américains, Service des manuscrits ORientaux (SOR), département des Manuscrits (MSS), Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF)

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