Ostula Culture and Defiance


is an indigenous community on the coast of the state of Michoacán in Mexico. This was the first area to be colonised by the Spaniards after Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. What is remarkable about Ostula and the neighbouring Náhuatl-speaking communities of Coire and Pómaro is that they have succeeded in maintaining unbroken control of their communal lands from the colonial period until the present day.

This website describes the society and culture of Ostula and summarises the history of the community and its region. It contains video clips with sound as well as pictures and text, along with transcriptions (in modernized Spanish) and photographs of some of the original historical documents used in the study.

more about Ostula today

"Today" on this site refers to the years 2002 and 2003. Since then Ostula has become involved in new struggles against powerful external interests, which have now cost many lives. In some ways present conflicts repeat past historical experiences, although within a twenty-first century environment of paramilitary violence that government at all levels has allowed to operate with impunity. Click here for more information

Movie clip of the masked ritual performers called Xayacates
Xayacates, December 13th, 2001. Click in the picture to start the video.


Although the main point of this site is to enable more people to get to know about Ostula, its people and its traditions, the community is playing its part in the movement for indigenous rights and autonomy. Since the coastal region suffers severe problems of poverty and social exclusion, the stakes are high.

At the forefront of indigenous peoples' demands for justice in many countries is the right to exercise autonomy or self-determination in managing their own resources and deciding on their own futures. Because Ostula has been unusually succesful in defending its autonomy in the past, it has much to contribute to the debate within the broader indigenous movement.

more about indigenous rights


The indigenous people of this region successfully reconstructed their society and culture during the 17th century after a catastrophic first century of colonial exploitation. There were originally more Náhuatl-speaking communities in the area, but those of Coalcomán and Maquilí had ceased to exist before the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Understanding why and how Ostula defended its territorial integrity more succesfully than any other community is a central part of the historical analysis of this project. Two other communities, Huizontla and Aquila, were temporarily extinguished but recreated later in the 20th Century.

more about history


Ostula not only successfully defended its exclusive control of virtually all the lands that made up its ancestral territory but has remained a religious centre for the whole region. Although it is best known today for its celebration of the fiesta of the Virgin of Guadalupe in December, there is a major religious festival in the community every month. This website enables you to watch videos of many of these and appreciate the community's rich traditions of music, choral singing, dance and ritual theatre. An important element of these cultural traditions is the way they express a spirit of defiance against both the spiritual and secular domination of Europeans, criollos and mestizos.

more about culture

Dance of the Apaches Community Assembly
Dance of the Apaches
Community Assembly


Photo of Santa Maria Ostula
Santa Maria Ostula




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I gratefully acknowledge the support provided to this research by the Mexican Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) and by the UK Economic and Research Council (ESRC).

This site is a complementary resource to a book published by El Colegio de Michoacán in 2004, Cultura y Desafío en Ostula: Cuatro Siglos de Autonomía Indígena en la Costa-Sierra Nahua de Michoacán.

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I am also grateful to Lucio Jaimes Sánchez, who worked as my research assistant on the ethnographic study of Ostula, and to Elena Calvo González, who translated the original English text of this site into Spanish. Juan Manuel Mendoza Arroyo helped me with the transcriptions of the Hijuelas de Coalcomán and some of the other archival research.

Content John Gledhill (john.gledhill@man.ac.uk)