Streets of Mexico – September 2022

La Princesa Purépecha

Eréndira, whose name means “Smiling Morning,” was a 17-year old princess of the Purépecha people, Natives who lived in the current Mexican state of Michoacán at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Eréndira’s father, King Tangaxoán II, and her fiancé, the commander of all Purépecha armies, both overawed by the Spaniards’ conquest of Tenochtitlán, had decided to surrender to the apparently invincible invaders. (Cortés subsequently granted Tangaxoán much autonomy, but Nuño de Guzmán later executed him.)

As with the Byzantine empress Theodora, Princess Eréndia was disgusted with her father’s and her betrothed’s cowardice. When she failed to convince them to stand and fight, she, herself, rallied the Purépecha people. “We have seen the Spaniards who came to carry away our treasures and seize our lands,” she cried in an impassioned, inspiring speech, “yet today they seem like beggars who kidnap our children, destroy our gods, and impose upon us a strange religion. What then shall be left to us?”

Riding a stallion she’d stolen from the Spaniards, Eréndia led her people into battle, fighting against even her former fiancé. Alas! Hers was a futile resistance.

Eventually, Eréndia and her beleaguered forces came upon some Franciscans. Recognizing that the monks were peaceful, she spared them. She fell in love with one of the friars and married him. But, since he, ever pious, refused to betray his vow of chastity, she remained pure as well, and went down in history as the virgin warrior princess.

What a great story! If only it were true.

In 1891, Eduardo Ruiz Álvarez, a liberal Mexican politician and historian, popularized the Purépecha Princess Eréndira in his Michoacán: Landscape, Traditions, and Legends. Hoping to provide an alternative to the infamous Malinche, he recounted instead the tale of a strong Native woman who’d fought the Spaniards, valiantly defending her people instead of cravenly betraying them. (Malinche, who, like King Tangaxoán II, actually existed, sure got a bum rap!)

In another, quite different version of the Princesa Purépecha story (there are many), Eréndira, since she was the king’s daughter, had to marry the most courageous warrior in the region. That man turned out to be her father’s most powerful foe. Nonetheless, Eréndira fell deeply in love with him.

When presented with her daughter’s fiancé, the king stifled his anger and decided to simply set the man an impossible and almost certainly deadly task: In order to win his daughter’s hand, the warrior must kill all the realm’s enemy warlords. Not so long later, after the warrior returned victorious, the king stared at him grimly for a while, then replied, “There is yet one more warlord whom you must vanquish. Me!”

Eréndira held her beloved in her arms and cried, “It is hopeless! If you fail, I will lose you forever. If you win, I could never marry the man who’d killed my father.” (The king had been cunning!) So, she banished her lover.

Bereft, in despair, Eréndia wandered to a nearby hill where she sobbed incessant, ponderous tears; so many that they created a great lake, now known as Lake Zirahuén, or “Mirror of the Gods.”

Those gods finally took pity on the miserable Eréndia and turned her into a mermaid. She still swims the lake, surfacing each morning to judge the hearts of evil men.

Which version do you prefer?

A huge mural in the Pátzcuaro library features La Princesa Purépecha, mounted on her horse. President Lázaro Cárdenas named his retirement home in Michoacán “La Quinta Eréndira.” And a 2006 film, Eréndira La Indomable (Eréndira The Indomitable) won four Mexican academy awards.

This is a selection from Ellison’s forthcoming book, Niños Héroes: The Fascinating Stories Behind Mexican Street Names.

September 2022 Issue

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David Ellison
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