It was a long, bumpy ride across the Atlantic from Spain to New Spain in 1531, so cleric Vasco de Quiroga had plenty of time to wade through Thomas More's epic best-seller of the day, Utopia. In it, More created a paradise on earth full of commune-like craft villages in which everyone pitched in to make different kinds of goods and shared the rewards of their labors.
Little did Quiroga know that just five years later he'd be able to put much of More's concept of a perfect society to work in a still-thriving culture in western Mexico – to the delight of tens of thousands of tourists who now pass through there each year.
Known as a champion of the peasants during his early years in Spain, Quiroga quickly earned a similar rep in Mexico City. So it was no surprise that in 1536 he was named bishop of the newly formed diocese of Michoacan about 150 miles west of Mexico City – with the mission of making peace with a tribe of rebellious Indians.
A whole lot of peacemaking was needed, because the Indians, the Purepecha, had been butchered by the troops of a Spanish Darth Vader named Nuño Beltran de Guzman.
Many of the Purepecha had fled to the nearby mountains when Guzman conquered their lands. He'd been arrested and jailed in Mexico City by the time Quiroga showed up, but the Indians, afraid he'd somehow find a way to come back, didn't want to leave their hideouts. The new bishop's job was to get them to go back home, and then turn them into a bunch of happy campers.
Quiroga's strategy – borrowed in large part from More – was to set up all kinds of craft villages in which everyone would pitch in to make a town specialty, such as pottery, woven goods, baskets or carved wooden figures (while at the same time converting to Christianity).
His first success was at the little village of Santa Clara del Cobre, where coppersmithing had been the town's claim to fame for centuries. “In pre-Hispanic times,” notes Mexican historian Jaime Capulli, “the Santa Clarans were the tough kids on the block because this area was one of the few spots with the ore needed to make metal weapons.”
Quiroga sparked the resurrection of coppersmithing there – this time, for peaceful goods – by granting the villagers the exclusive right to produce the country's widely popular copper casos (doubled-handled cooking bowls). Some 400 copper shops are now scattered around the city selling everything from broaches to bathtubs.
The bishop went on to teach craft skills in the surrounding villages. Á la Thomas More, family units in Quiroga's Eden were set up to crank out pottery, baskets, chairs and the like under the supervision of Purepecha bosses, who in turn (again, á la More) reported to a prince-like super-boss appointed by the top brass in Mexico City.
You can see Quiroga's legacy today during tours of the region. Heading south from the state capital at Morelia, the tours typically make a bee-line to the copper shops at Santa Clara. Along the way, lacquerware fans can load up at Uruapan. And pottery lovers can buy up all kinds of colorful bowls and plates at Tzintzuntzan. Looking for furniture? You'll get great deals at Cuanajo. How about a guitar? Elvis would have loved Paracho.
A tip to tourists: Save more than a few pesos for yet another stop on your tour at Patzcuaro, the region's main marketplace and home of the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga.
1536 turned out to be a busy year for Quiroga. Besides planting the seeds for the Shangri-La of New Spain, he found time to sit on a panel of judges for the trial of Guzman in Mexico City. Found guilty, Guzman was dragged back to Spain in chains. He died in 1558, a broken man.
Quiroga died seven years later, still the champion of the little guys.
Staying there: Serious shoppers can opt to spend a night at a handful of tourist-class hotels around the craft villages. Most visitors stay over in Morelia, where they have a choice of a dozen or so upscale boutique hotels in the city's picture-postcard colonial district or at the posh Villa Montana on a hillside overlooking the town.
Getting there: Tourists can fly to Morelia's international airport from U.S. gateways such as Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago-Midway. Goods bought at the craft villages can be hauled back to the airport at Morelia to be flown home or shipped directly from the shops.