During the past seven centuries, the Phurhépecha or Tarascans have inhabited and defined a territorial homeland that territory corresponds roughly to the physiographic region known as the Tarascan Subprovince in the Neovolcanic Axis of west-central Mexico. It is now a cultural mosaic of Tarascan-Mexican and Hispano-Mexican (mestizo) towns, but the Tarascan ethnic core is still predominant in three contiguous subareas of the zone—the island and shoreline communities of Lake Pátzcuaro, the highland forests to the west of Lake Pátzcuaro (called the Sierra Phurhépecha or Meseta Tarasca) and a small valley of the Río Duero to the north of the Sierra Phurhépecha (called "La Cañada de los Once Pueblos" in Spanish and "Eráxamani" in Phurhépecha).
The term "Phurhépecha" referred to "the commoners" in ancient Tarascan society and is a counterpart to the Aztec term macehualli. The term "Tarascan," in contrast, probably entered into use during contact with the first Spanish soldiers in the sixteenth century, displacing the Aztec term, michoaque (possessors of fish, sing. michua ), which in the locative form was the Aztec name for the ancient Tarascan empire. Michoacán (Aztec: michi, "fish," plus atl, "water," plus kan , locative) is still the name of the state where the Tarascan homeland is situated.
It remains commonplace for older-adult generations, especially in peasant villages, to refer to themselves as "Tarasco" or "Tarasca" (Tarascan) or forego any identification beyond the name of the central Tarascan town of their township. In contrast, the younger-adult generations, especially young professionals who live—or have resided—in regional or national urban centers, use the term "Phurhépecha." The entire population shares a common reference for significant others (especially their mestizo neighbors), who are called "Turísïcha."
The Tarascan Subprovince of the Neovolcanic Axis is located in the area demarcated by the coordinates 19°20′ to 19°55′ N and 101°00′ and 103°00′ W. The Neovolcanic Axis is a unique east-west range of volcanoes in central Mexico. It forms a central to west-central belt of highland plateaus and forests of great climatological and ecological diversity that drain precious water into a stairway of lake basins branching to the northwest along the Lerma-Santiago riverway and due west to the Balsas River Basin. This belt is often referred to as the "Tarascan-Aztec System," a label that refers to the two pre-Hispanic state empires that controlled the Central Volcanic belt and surrounding areas during the two centuries prior to the Spanish Conquest.
The inhabited areas of Tarascan Subprovince are between 1,700 and 2,400 meters in elevation. During the rainy season (May or June to October or November), moist air rising from the Pacific precipitates on this volcanic mountain range and filters through the porous rock into the Duero River Basin in the north and northwest, Lake Pátzcuaro in the east, and into the region of Uruapan and the Tecaltecatepec River Basin in the south.
The Tarascans are for the most part highlanders. Approximately 70 percent of the Tarascan-speaking population lives between 1,700 and 2,300 meters above sea level. The rest of the homeland population occupies the valleys and slopes on the perimeter of Tarascan Subprovince approximately 1,500 meters in elevation.
The Mexican national census of 1990 reported 87,088 Phurhépecha speakers above the age of 5 years in the state of Michoacán. This figure is approximately 50 percent lower than a 1994 estimate (which includes children under age 5 as well as emigrants) by the Mexican Institute of Indigenous Affairs. Accordingly, Tarascan speakers probably number between 125,000 and 185,000. Contemporary Tarascan speakers are overwhelmingly bilingual, with Spanish as their second language. Defined in terms of ethnic identity rather than language use, the Tarascan population is certainly larger and, perhaps, growing in response to increasing local awareness and pride in the Tarascan heritage.
The linguistic affiliation of Tarascans has not been established. Affiliation with Macro-Mixtecan has been proposed, but convincing comparative evidence is lacking. Although considerable phonological and lexical variation exists, all dialects of Tarascan are mutually intelligible.