By Stephanie Mendez
"This is the legacy of our people," my uncle said as we gazed at the pyramids. We were not in Egypt, but rather in the town of Tzintzuntzan, in Mexico's south-western state of Michoacán. The pyramids, or yácatas, looming in front of us were uniquely round and made of volcanic stone – perhaps the most intact relics of the P'urhépechas, a pre-Hispanic indigenous group that once reigned here, but that most people have never heard of. In fact, I'd never heard of them either until a few months ago, when I found out that I was a direct descendant.
Born and raised in California, I grew up unaware of this part of my heritage as it was lost in my family after my grandfather passed away in 1978. My grandmother was left with five kids and no income, but after saving up, she brought my dad and his siblings to the United States in 1983. Under pressure to assimilate, my father disconnected from our P'urhépecha culture, and it was only recently, when I began to be curious about my identity, that I started questioning him about our past. So in 2021, at the age of 31, he brought me to Michoacán for the first time. That's when I met my uncle Israel, and he revealed that not only were we P'urhépecha, but that my great-grandmother, Juana, was still alive and living in the small pueblo of Urén nearby.
When people think about Mexico before Hernán Cortéz, they automatically think about the Aztecs, but what they don't know is that the P'urhépecha existed at the same time – and they were such a mighty kingdom that they were the only indigenous group in Mexico that the Aztecs failed to conquer.
In fact, that's the most common thing people in Mexico know about them, said Fernando Pérez Montesinos, assistant professor of indigenous environmental history at the University of California, Los Angeles. "That's a very usual [way] of referring to the P'urhépechas and their history, but that's because we know that the P'urhépechas were as powerful as the Aztecs," he said, explaining that the Aztecs tried to fight the P'urhépecha in battle, but couldn't defeat them.
Standing tall and strong at 4ft 10in (about 1.4m), my P'urhépecha great-grandmother is an elder of the community and lives in a weathered building made of cement walls and humble commodities. She can speak the endangered language, which is a fading trait in a country where Spanish is the official language. (Out of Mexico's estimated population of 128.9 million, 124.8 million are native Spanish speakers – whereas only 175,000 speak P'urhépecha, and they all live in the state of Michoacán.)