Tarascans - Sociopolitical Organization and Ritual

Tarascan sociopolitical organization and ritual reflect the complex and intertwining power relations of mestizo and Tarascan coexistence over the centuries. With the Mexican constitution of 1917, rural, regional, and local social, institutions had to contend with a nationalist postrevolutionary socialism and a policy of agrarian reform. This constitutional affirmation of an exclusively secular basis for community properties and their government (ejidos and Indian communities) conflicted with the traditional religious-communal organization of the Tarascan homelands.

Traditionally, each town's cabildo was composed of the members of the community who had carried out a series of costly ritual obligations organized around the annual calendar of religious celebrations. With the exception of the Catholic sacraments, the cabildo designated or ratified all local civil and religious functions and served as the supreme community-level body for adjudication. In the first half of the twentieth century, a purely civil institutional order was implemented and the cabildo lost all real political authority. In this context, asymmetrical relations between Tarascans and mestizos became politically explicit by rejecting the political legitimacy of native religious authority. By 1950, with the exception of the municipio of Cherán, all Tarascan villages and hamlets came under the control of mestizo townships or municipios. Most communities were divided by prolonged local conflicts depicted in Purhépecha oral tradition as a struggle between the conservative followers of Tarascan Catholic tradition and its institutions, on the one hand, and radical agrarian "atheists," on the other.

Currently this political-religious dichotomy is fading. Now, different groups of Tarascan professionals seek both to consolidate a general pan-Tarascan regional identification among Tarascan towns and to achieve institutional recognition of this unity through electoral redistricting. These aims have inspired a revisionist revitalization of the Tarascan heritage. The cabildo, now seen as a council of elders, is being actively promoted in several communities, and a pan-Tarascan version of the cabildo and cargo system is present in the celebration of the Phurhépecha New Year (P'urhépecherhi Jimpanhi Wéxurhini). Since 1982, this event has been organized both to revitalize Tarascan custom and ethnic pride and to promote local consciousness of the homeland. The celebration is organized at the regional level along lines similar to the local religious cargo systems. The celebration rotates annually among the Tarascan towns of the subregions of the homeland. The representatives of the host town are responsible for the recently created pan-Tarascan national symbols, the Phurhépecha flag and the ta'rhésÏ (a stone on which is engraved the emblem of each town that hosts the New Year's celebration). After the celebration, each town's representatives become part of a council of elders, a pattern that is reminiscent of the former cabildo system.

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