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date: 26 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

In February 1943, a small but powerful volcano emerged from a cornfield in the vicinity of Uruapan, Michoacán, México. A stunned farmer, Dionisio Pulido, alerted the nearby town of San Juan Parangaricutiro, and a group of villagers went to investigate the growing mound in Pulido’s field. The new volcano, named Parícutin by Mexican scientist Dr. Ezequiel Ordóñez, emitted smoke, ash, and lava until 1952. The ash fall and lava flows severely changed life in five of the surrounding villages. Most villagers in the affected areas were reluctant to move, but the ash fall made it nearly impossible to cultivate their crops, polluted the air and water sources, and made their animals sick. In the end, two villages completely evacuated with the help of the national government.

A few days after the volcano emerged, scientists from México and the United States flocked to the area for the unique opportunity to study a volcano from its birth. They recorded lava flows, eruption patterns, ash fall, and damage to the surrounding agricultural land. A significant relationship blossomed between a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, Carl Fries Jr., and a local Purépecha man, Celedonio Gutiérrez. Although Gutiérrez had only a minimal education, his knowledge of the environment and the local people proved essential to foreign academics studying the volcano. Working together, the two men published at least eight scientific articles in the U.S. weekly magazine Eos, based on daily observations of the volcano.

Parícutin fascinated people from México and the United States since the moment it grew into a cinder cone. Artists such as Dr. Atl used the volcano for inspiration, producing countless sketches and paintings, some of which were published. Reporters, tourists, and artists from around the world visited Parícutin, excited at the possibility of seeing an active volcano up close. Authors and illustrators also expressed the fascinating story of the volcano and the affected Purépecha community in children’s stories. In the 21st century, Parícutin remains a popular tourist destination.

A half-buried church in what was San Juan Parangaricutiro is all that remains of a once lively village and stands as a testament to the strength and reach of Parícutin. Despite the destruction, the eruption serves as a reminder of the importance of volcanoes in Mexican culture and provides a lens to examine the long-established relationship between people and volcanoes. The study of Parícutin fits into the wider scholarship of Latin American environmental history because it highlights the connections between culture and environment. This story demonstrates the interplay between the perspectives different groups of people had of the volcano and how landscape affects the social and cultural history of a place and its people.

Keywords: Parícutin, Michoacán, volcano, natural disaster, Purépecha, Tarasco, indigenous, folklore, Dr. Atl, U.S. Geological Service, environmental history

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