A gender-sensitive surname transmission system among Tarascan Indians in colonial Mexico

Readers of joelontheroad my be surprised to learn that during the same time that I’ve been publishing blog articles about abuses in school finance in Michigan 19 years ago and in California right now, I’ve also been conducting research into the colonial history of Mexico.

In 1970-71, I lived in Mexico so that I could do research into the demographic history of Mexican Indians. I focused on the Tarascans of the western state of Michoacan, because that’s where I found a rich lode of church records going back sometimes to the late 1500s.

I returned to the US in 1971 with hundreds of data recovery forms — specially printed sheets of paper designed to receive the dozens of pieces of information for each baptismal notation that I was finding on parish registers of baptism.

I ran into some problems using the mainframe computer at the University of Michigan, and wound up doing other things. One of those “other things” was building schools and a well in northern Togo, West Africa while I was a Peace Corps volunteer. For some 30 years, I was a newspaper reporter.

Now, I’m again working with those by now 40-year-old data recovery forms with information more than three centuries old. I no longer need a mainframe computer. I have my laptop and Microsoft Access, and I’ve been getting excellent help from staff at UM’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Parish registers, I’m learning, contain far more than demographic data. They are amazing barometers of culture, and a shrewd reading of the registers can reveal behavior of not only Indians, but also Catholic priests, that otherwise would be invisible.

Occasionally, I’ll be posting results of my research.  My hope is that people with a general interest in history will look at an unusual way to learn about the past, while specialists in the history of colonial Mexico may find a different way of looking at their area of interest.

Tarascan surnames by gender:

Cuanajo and Tupataro, 1665-1690

Joel Thurtell

Tarascan Indians at least through the colonial period maintained a separate but apparently in their eyes equal dual set of surnames, one for women and one for men. The separate list of female surnames, it would appear, has remained largely invisible when viewed through the window of Spanish civil documents. A recent study[1] of Tarascan elites in the Tarascan heartland of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán based on civil records turned up no female Tarascan names.

The naming practice among Tarascans in western México was very different from the customs that have been reported in central Mexico. Among the Nahuas, a pre-hispanic name-giving system with separate names for men and women appears to have disappeared by the end of the 16th century. Instead, according to the prevailing academic view, Indians were giving babies two Spanish first names, one as a forename and another as surname. An example would be Juan Diego. James Lockhart asserts, “By the end of the sixteenth century, this type of appellation, consisting to all appearances of two Spanish first names, was becoming the norm for ordinary Nahuas (and Indians all over Mexico), and it was to retain that flavor until independence, despite many further complications of the system.”[2]

While the practice reported by Lockhart in Central Mexico of giving Nahua children two Spanish first names also occurred in Tarascan territory in western Mexico, it was far from dominant even by the end of the 17th century in two Tarascan villages whose parish baptism registers I’ve studied. By the late 17th century, giving children a Tarascan surname identical to the surname of the parent of the child’s gender still was the norm among Tarascans in two mountain towns of Michoacán: Cuanajo and Tupataro.

While female surnames did not appear in Spanish civil documents, they were routinely recorded by Roman Catholic priests in registers of the sacraments of baptism and marriage. Thus, parish registers are an invaluable source revealing a previously unobserved custom involving roughly half the Tarascan Indian population, that is, women.

In June of 1971, I worked in the notarial archive of the Santa Maria de la Natividad parish church in Cuanajo, Michoacán in the highlands of western México. I was transcribing data from a register of baptisms the priest, Padre Luis Arroyo, kindly allowed me to use. The leather-bound tome had the hand-lettered title, “Libro de Baptismos delos pueblos de Ganaxo y Tupataro 1665-1690.” In addition, I found a few entries for Cuanajo baptisms in a general register of baptisms in the Basilica church of San Salvador in Pátzcuaro. I interpolated those entries chronologically into my run of data recovery forms. I have in all 467 data recovery forms for 1665-1690 representing the same number of births and baptisms for the two towns which sit about 12 kilometers southeast of Pátzcuaro.

Typically, the priest did not mention the baby’s surname, except in those very few cases where the baby did receive a second Spanish forename, e.g., “Juan” or “Maria” as a second name. Surnames were recorded as part of the names of parents. I found evidence, also, that these surnames were passed from father to son and from mother to daughter. The surnames, in other words, were gender specific.

As I read the register entries, I noticed that the surnames for parents were Tarascan words. Furthermore, it was evident that mothers had different surnames than fathers, and that mothers’ names were distinctly female as fathers’ surnames were distinctly male. Rarely did a mother have a predominantly male name, and vice versa. Thus, Tarascans had two pools of names, one for boys and one for girls.

The priests rarely entered a second name for infants being baptized, a practice that gives no answer to the question of whether Tarascan parents were passing their gender-related surnames to their children. However, in the late 1680s,  a new priest, Padre Carreno, began adding to the notations for padrinos, or godparents, the full names, racial designations and places of residence of both padrinos’ parents. Invariably, in these notations, padrinos’ surnames are identical to the surnames of fathers, and madrinas’ surnames replicate the surnames of their mothers. I interpret this practice as evidence that Tarascans indeed did pass surnames to children in a gender-sensitive manner. Further proof of Tarascan surname transmission is in the contemporary telephone directory, where a search of popular names, e.g., “Cuini” and “Tzintzun,” reveals people with those surnames living today in the United States. In fact, a few 16h century Nahua names from Central Mexico mentioned by Lockhart also can be found in US phone books, suggesting that — despite Lockhart’s dictum that the practice of native surname-giving ended by 1600 — some Nahua names leaked through to the present.

I am researching the meanings of the surnames. A cursory attempt at translation reveals a substantive difference between the meanings of male and female surnames. A common surname for women is “Curinda,” which means “bread.” A common surname for men is “Cuini,” meaning “bird.” My hypothesis is that a thorough effort at translating Tarascan surnames will reveal what I call a “Good Housekeeping” and “Field & Stream” dichotomy – girls got names having to do with household things, while boys got names related to outdoor things. Whether Tarascans in colonial times were aware of these meanings, I don’t know. I suspect the name-giving system dates to pre-Hispanic times and represents a custom rooted in Tarascan religion, though that theory has still to be tested. The system certainly seems to represent a custom that Tarascans were loathe to abandon. I have evidence of and plan to write further about a period when priests actively tried to replace Tarascan surnames with Spanish names and then abruptly abandoned the effort. Were the priests frustrated in the face of  Tarascan resistance?

I’ve entered the data from my paper forms into my computer and I’ve run queries using Microsoft Access, software that uses Standard Query Language. I queried for a list of Indian names by gender. The raw list contains variations in spelling of what amounts to the same name. Sometimes the same name was written differently by different priests, so that I wound up in some cases with two, three, or even six or seven variations in spelling the same name. I’ve consolidated the names and standardized the surnames by selecting the spelling version with the largest number of entries and noting only that version on the following list.

The names I found in Cuanajo and Tupataro are by no means the total number of surnames in use by Tarascans in colonial times. Kuthy-Saenger found 34 elite surnames. It appears that all but two are male. The female names are Hispanic, e.g., “Castilleja,” and therefore not native. I found eight of the male names mentioned by Kuthy-Saenger in the Cuanajo book. If that 1:4.25 ratio is an accurate reflection of the proportion of Cuanajo surnames to the total pool of surnames, then we could expect that multiplying the total number of Cuanajo surnames times 4.25 would show us the total number of  Tarascan surnames everywhere. But the flaw is this: The 34 elite names don’t reflect the true number of female names. In Cuanajo, I found 38 male names and 52 female names. If we used the ratio of 4.25, then the total of Tarascan male names used everywhere would be 38 x 4.25 = 162. The same arithmetic estimates the total pool of Tarascan female names at 52 x 4.25 = 221. This estimate is strictly hypothetical.

Isn’t it interesting that the number of female surnames outnumbers the number of male surnames by a large margin?

The process of consolidation and standardization of surnames is ongoing, and I expect to be updating these figures as I correct my work and come to a better understanding of the historical and linguistic implications.

Here are lists of male and female surnames I found in a 25-year run of baptism data for Cuanajo and Tupataro. I’ve also noted the frequency of occurrence of each name; and if there were a gender cross-over, that frequency has been indicated using “F” or “M.”




Name                          Frequency                   Gender cross-over


1. Amume                                12


2. Bahitzi                                    1


3. Bazquis*                                  1


4. Boxas                                       1


5. Chara                                       1


6. Chasa                                        1


7. Chaxa                                        1


8. Chzichzui                                  1


9. Cuiristan                                   1


10. Cuini                                     155


11. Cuixis                                        5


12. Cumu                                        1


13. Cuni                                           1


14. Cuiris                                        10


15. Cutequi                                      1


16. Czucu                                         1


18. Gaysean                                      1


19. Goma                                         1


20. Hatzi                                        20


21. Inune                                          1


22. Ni                                                1


23. Nuri                                           3


24. Onche                                      12


25, Pagua                                         1


26. Pao                                             1


27. Paqui                                          7


28. Paua                                           2


29. Roxas*                                       6


30. Sirangua                                   30


31. Tzintzun                                   53                                              1


32. Tzitzuiqui                                 45                                             8


33. Tzunequi                                    2


34. Tzupequi                                    2


35. Tzurequi                                 130                                              2


36. Uapean                                     30


37. Zahpean                                     1


38. Zua                                              1


* Possibly Spanish




Female surnames


Surname                         Frequency                          Gender cross-over


1. Baraxas                                        2


2. Barba*                                         1


3. Bustos*                                         1


4. Cana                                            2


5. Canana                                        1


6. Cani                                             3


7. Catahcu                                       8


8. Chziqui                                        1


9. Chzipagua                                   10                                               1


10. Cioui                                            1


11. Ciquipa                                         1


12. Claxa                                            1


13. Condahu                                      1


14. Cuatacua                                      1                                              1


15. Cuchunda                                   38


16. Cuctaorida                                    1


17. Cugan                                            1


18. Cutagua                                         1


19. Cuna                                              1


20. Cunda                                            1


21.  Cundahue                                     8


22. Cuni                                                     1


23. Cura                                                     1


24. Curi                                                       1


25. Curinda                                               71                                               3


26. Cuta                                                       2


27. Cutacu                                                    1


28. Cutagua                                                    4


29. Cutza                                                        1


30. Cutze                                                         1


31. Cuxa                                                          7


32. Naqueti                                                       1


33. Nispu                                                           9


34. Putaqua                                                       1


35. Ponce*                                                         1


36. Purequa                                                        1


37. Putzequa                                                     39


38. Quentzi                                                       40


39. Seta                                                                1


40. Tzihqui                                                           31


41. Tzipaqua                                                    211                               1


42. Tzitaqua                                                         1


43. Tiringuis                                                          2


44. Turan                                                               1


45. Turari                                                               6


46.  Ube                                                                  1


47. Veuma                                                              1


48. Xaloma                                                             2


49. Xara  ?Xari                                                       2


50. Xarichu                                                             1


51. Xaxi                                                                   2


52. Yrigua                                                               14




* Possibly Spanish

[1] Maria de Lourdes Kuthy-Saenger, “Strategies of Survival, Accommodation and Innovation: The Tarascan Indigenous Elite in Sixteenth Century Michoacán,” Michigan State University doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, 1996. See Table: “Presence of the Tarascan Elites in Historical Documents,” p. 82 and charts: “Geographical Distribution of Tarascan Lineages,” pp. 85-86.



[2] James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1992, pp. 117 ff.

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One Response to A gender-sensitive surname transmission system among Tarascan Indians in colonial Mexico

  1. Teri says:

    This is so interesting!

    It appears they had a slightly shorter alphabet than us: no F’s, J’s, K’s or W’s. I take it the town of Cuanajo was renamed later by the Spanish?

    The beginning of their names seem to start with fewer letters too. They exclude: D’s (which only appear in in the middle or the end of female names before an A), E’s, L’s (actually there are only two female name with an L anywhere in the name), and M’s.

    There are only two names with B’s – one of the female names (possibly Spanish) and the name Ube.

    It appears that when the letter P is anywhere but the beginning of the name, for the most part in the male names it goes, ‘paen’ and for the most part in the female names it goes ‘pa’.

    Except for one female name, S’s are only at the beginning or end of a name.

    More male name start with or contain the Tz combination than the females, which have more Ta’s. Is this in connection to royalty?

    Finally, there is only one letter V in a name, which happened to be at the beginning of a female name.

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