Ostula Culture and Defiance

Colonial History

One reason why the Spaniards arrived early in the coastal region of Michoacán was that Hernán Cortés intended to use Zacatula, at the mouth of the Balsas River, as his base for exploring the Pacific. But the P'urhépechas living in the interior of Michoacán, not yet conquered by the Spaniards, also told the invaders that the coast was rich in gold. The first prospecting in what became known as the province of Motines de Oro began in 1524, but the mines were virtually abandoned by 1536. There was considerable indigenous resistance to forced labour. Rebellions occurred in 1526-28 and 1530-32, and there was a good deal of spontaneous migration and resettlement to escape forced labour. Ostula dates its foundation to this period. The story goes that Cortés organised squads of indigenous people to look for gold, and that the community of Ostula was founded in 1531 by people from Pómaro, Maquilí and Ixtlahuacán (another Náhuatl-speaking community in Colima state) who entered the valley looking for a better place to live. 1531 happens to be the same year that the Virgen of Guadalupe supposedly appeared to Juan Diego in Tepeyac (according to sources that actually date to the mid-17th century). The community's foundation myth may therefore express an identity that it acquired later, when it became part of a broader reconstructed colonial world of Náhuatl-speakers, but it also conserves a memory of a traumatic time of displacement associated with this early gold rush.

The people of the Michoacán coast did not speak Náhuatl at the time of the conquest. Even in the early 17th century, a variety of mother-tongues were still spoken along with Náhuatl in the communities. Individual settlements contained people speaking diferent languages, a reflection of the "congregation" of people from different ethnic groups in compact settlements where they could be more easily controlled and converted to Christianity. But Náhuatl became the lingua franca of the entire region, and had displaced the original languages entirely by the end of the 17th century.

The age of cacao and the encomenderos

The gold reserves of the region were in fact of mediocre quality, and as the region was unattractive to Spanish settlers, the costs of mining operations were increased by the need to employ supervisors. Few of those who did settle there possessed sufficient capital to switch to slave labour. Cacao cultivation offered higher returns on much lower costs, and the market for cacao expanded in the second half of the 16th century because its precolonial use as money continued in the colonial period. The indigenous people were forced to work on Spanish cacao plantations and also to deliver the beans as tribute. They often accused Spaniards of usurping their lands and associated work in the humid cacao plantations with the rising tide of sickness and death that decimated the precolonial population. Demographic collapse proved so serious in the coastal hotlands of Colima and Motines that Viceroy Velasco sent Lorenzo Lebrón de Quiñónes to make an official inspection in 1551. He reported widespread abuse of the indigenous population and denounced many of the Spaniards exploiting them as controlling land and tribute-payers illegally. Yet despite Lebrón's humanitarian intentions his own enthusiasm for the policy of "congregating" the indigenous people also contributed to the death toll by magnifying the impact of epidemics.

In the early years of the conquest, the Spanish imperial government had delegated responsibility for the administration and christianization of the indigenous population to individual encomenderos (persons to whom the Indians were "entrusted"). Although this was intended as a stop-gap measure, and the granting of new encomiendas ended officially with the promulgation of the "New Laws" in 1544, this region remained remote from the centres of imperial power, which helps us to understand why illegal enslavement of indigenous people, illegal extraction of tribute and illegal take overs of indigenous lands were so frequent. Some of the legal encomiendas lasted into the 17th century. Ostula remained part of an encomienda until after 1618, although the neighboring community of Maquilí reverted to Crown control in 1560 and became the seat of a Crown-appointed corregidor responsible for the collection of tribute and administration of indigenous labour. Coalcomán, Pómaro, Ixtlahuacán and Aquila reverted to Crown control even earlier, between 1530 and 1560. In 1580, the encomendero of Ostula and Coxumatlán, Juan Alcalde de Rueda, the mestizo son of a Spanish conquistador who settled in Colima and an indigenous woman wrote a report to the Spanish King Felipe II on the region known as the Relación de la Provincia de Motines. This contains our earliest detailed information about Ostula. Juan Alcalde became encomendero in 1551, when he was 23 years old, by marrying a widow, Maria López de Robles, and, unusually, lived close to his cacao orchards.


The Franciscans pioneered the process, but little is known about this early pastoral work, apart from a few brief accounts of the forty year labours of Fray Pedro de Las Garrovillas, who traversed the entire region from Zacatula to the present-day Colima border on foot. Ostulan rituals do, however, incorporate figures that appear to be friars, portrayed somewhat ambiguously as tricksters. But the encomenderos also paid salaries to secular priests, heavily criticised by Lebrón de Quiñónes for paying more attention to their economic interests than their religious duties and for failing to make any effort to learn indigenous languages. Lebrón attributed this sorry state of affairs to the long absence from the diocesis of its famous reforming bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, who was stung into an energetic effort to improve matters in the 1560s, appointing a Náhutal-speaker as vicar of the newly created parish of Maquilí. Even so, the indigenous communities of the province of Motines failed to conform to Vasco de Quiroga's vision of a new "Republic of Indians" that would lead indigenous people towards the civilised virtues of the European urban world on the model of Thomas More's Utopia. The region's priests spent the next century complaining about the poverty of their indigenous parishioners and the miserable living that service in the area offered to them. Communication difficulties meant that their visits to the different communities outside the parish centres were infrequent. This situation created the conditions under which the indigenous communities themselves were able to take charge of their daily devotions and achieve a substantial degree of autonomy which allowed them to "indigenize" the religious practices introduced by the Franciscans and parish priests. The result was a complex process of "transculturation" in which Ostula eventually emerged, during the 17th century, as a regional centre of indigenous Christianity, combining radically transformed versions of European rituals with a tradition of choral singing in Latin. Sung masses were the principal service for which the indigenous communities paid local priests during the 17th and 18th centuries.

A landscape of poverty and protests

In an extraordinary passage of his Relación, the encomendero Juan Alcalde tells the king of Spain that it is impossible to make the Indians work and accept Spanish mercantile values: even though they possess property, they respond to coercion simply by running away to suffer misfortune or death somewhere else. Yet in fact the indigenous people did try to participate in the mercantile economy (and needed money to finance their religious life). The communities constantly complained to higher colonial authorities that the encomenderos and Crown-appointed officials who were supposed to protect them robbed them of their produce and forced them to buy Spanish products at inflated prices. In 1581 and 1604, all the indigenous communities of the region joined together to denounce the local officials of the colonial administration. In the protest of 1604 they accused the Alcalde Mayor and Corregidor of Coalcomán not only of abusing his position in the ways just mentioned but of owning a tavern, run by his wife, which caused immense social problems by fostering drunkenness. Yet by 1630, cacao production in this region had become unprofitable even with forced labour and forced deliveries of cacao collected by the indigenous people themselves. The production of a liquor made from coconuts (vino de coco) had already replaced cacao in Colima, where the sharp demographic decline of the indigenous population had led to the importation of black and filipino labour. Some of the Filipinos moved into the areas occupied by the indigenous communities on the Michoacán coast and cultivated their own small plantations (as did some indigenous families). In 1631, a report by the parish priest in Maquilí lists a number of Spanish properties alongside those of indigenous people and Filipinos ("indios chinos"), but also mentions that the costs of celebrating the cult of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in Ostula were met from the proceeds of a small cacao orchard.

The small number of Spanish residents had previously played an important part in financing the chapels of the parish, but their economic fortunes were now waning. Before the end of the 17th century, the Filipinos and Spanish residents (vecinos) had disappeared, setting the stage for a new beginning for the surviving indigenous people of the region.

Autonomy and recovery

While the parish priests saw the indigenous people as poverty-stricken, they in fact controlled an abundance of resources that they were now free to exploit in their own fashion. The extreme demographic losses caused by disease and over-exploitation meant that the region probably did not recover its precolonial population levels until the twentieth century. In 1765, the parish priest of Maquilí reported that Ostula had a population of 76 married Indians, slightly higher than that of Maquilí itself, where only one non-Indian family now resided (and even that had gone before the end of the century). Ostula's mid-18th century population was more than three times that reported in 1631, but still small relative to the territory the community controlled. In the 17th century the indigenous people practiced a "broad spectrum" system of exploitation, each family having access to multiple ecological zones. There was an intensive exploitation of marine as well as forest resources, alongside agriculture (which included cultivation of cotton, vegetables, fruit trees and coconut stands, with some small-scale irrigation, as well as maize cultivation and animal husbandry). Apart from hunting and collecting, the forest was also a site of "cultivation": the communities produced copal incense and wax candles on a commercial scale, trading these products, along with what was perhaps the most important regional product, salt, with the outside world. Some trade was with muleteers arriving from other regions, but there was also a web of commerce between indigenous communities themselves over a wide area including other Náhuatl-speaking communities in the modern states of Colima and Guerrero. Trade routes were also routes of religious pilgrimage and interchange of cultural innovations and ceremonial practices. In the 18th century we also find indigenous families from the Motines region migrating to the Spanish-owned landed estates around Zacatula and renting land that these owners had virtually abandoned to grow cotton on their own account.

Ostula now had a confraternity, devoted to the Virgin of the Nativity, which possessed the largest herd of cattle in the entire area, some 280 head. Young men performed religious service looking after the animals in the area that eventually became the modern settlement of Cofradía de Ostula. Religious organization appears to have been more hierarchic than today, with certain ritual activities restricted to older men holding specific religious offices (and women were excluded from certain devotions until recently, although there were always specific roles for women in the ritual organization, reflecting the principle of gender parallelism common to the entire colonial Nahua world). The chief religious authority was the fiscal and a group that staffed the main Church, accompanied by a prioste and mayordomos responsible for the confraternity and the cult of the Virgen de los Dolores. The choir master and other singers (cantores) also possessed prestige and authority. As time went by the cults of the saints became more extensive and elaborate as new images and devotions were added to the foundational cult of the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity and other early cults, such as that of Saint Nicolas, who was a christianised version of an older fertility deity. But this was not a situation of "failed conversion" or "idols behind the altars". What developed in Ostula was an indigenized version of Christianity which differed radically from pre-Christian models in its underlying logic and practice. It was a system largely run by and for indigenous people. One of the most striking features of the ritual process that emerged was its parodying of non-indigenous culture. The people of Ostula asserted their autonomy by symbolically rejecting of the claims to superiority of the Spaniards, portraying indigenous people as the true defenders of the faith.

Civil and religious government were combined in the town-council or cabildo of the indigenous communities. This was another European model that became thoroughly indigenized. In Ostula, status and authority was not based simply on age, since the holders of public offices were "advised" by a small group of influential elders (called cabecillas in Spanish) who represented an inner circle of power. Members of this group were masters of rhetorical Náhuatl, who might also perform functions such as "speaking" for the family of the groom in marriage negotiations (the tlahtolero). The cabildo system survived until the end of the 1930s in Ostula. Although it had changed over time (particularly following the introduction of municipalities as the basic unit of local government after national independence), Ostula's form of civil-religious organization was more complex than that of its neighbours because of the greater complexity of its religious life and organization.

The End of the Colonial Era

In 1786 the indigenous communities of Coire, Maquilí, Ostula y Pómaro were authorized to form militias of archers to guard the coast from attacks by pirates. This further enhanced the autonomy that the communities enjoyed in managing their civil and religious affairs (subject to their payment of the tribute required by the Spanish colonial regime). In 1778, the vicar of Ixtlahuacán wrote that the fact that the Indians were armed with bows and arrows was a constant source of anxiety to the local priests. After Father Hidalgo raised the banner of insurrection against Spanish rule in 1810, the indigenous militiamen of Ostula (alongside those of Maquilí and Ixtlahuacán) joined the non-indigenous forces of the nearby commercial centre of Coahuayana in the movement to secure national independence by force of arms. This shows us that although the indigenous communities were jealous of their autonomy and uncompromising in their defence of their territories they were in no sense closed communities isolated from the wider regional society. It also suggests that their leaders were attracted by promises of a new society in which the old distinctions between racial "castes", arbitrary government and colonial economic monopolies would be abolished. Ostula in fact developed its own idiosyncratic civic rituals for celebrating national Independence Day long before school teachers brought the modern civic culture of the state into the community after the Mexican revolution. But although Ostula and other Nahua communities in the region fought to end the colonial order, they also used the legal institutions of that same colonial regime to compete with each other for control of territory. Ostula and Coire spent the last decades of the colonial period locked in bitter battles with each other to take control of territory that had previously belonged to their neighbour Huizontla. The fortunes of Huizontla had continued to decline during the 18th century, and the community had also lost land to non-indigenous ranchers and landed estate owners, backed up by the district authorities in Coahuayana, some of whom were active participants in efforts to dismember the weaker community. Although these processes were interrupted by the effects of the independence wars and subsequent political instability in the region, new and yet more serious threats to the territorial integrity of all the indigenous communities were to emerge in the last decades of the 19th century.

Report on Maquilí Parish 1631

Report on Maquilí Parish 1765

Relación Geográfica of Ixtlahuacán Parish 1778

Report on from Subdelegado of Coahuayana on Jurisdiction of Motines 1791


Hernán Cortés

Painting of Hernán Cortés

Cacao beans

cacao beans

Shaman Figure, 250 AD

Photo of Shaman Figure Colima

Map of Franciscan Province, 16th Century

Map of Franciscan Province

Fiscal of the Ostula Church
garlanding incoming
cargo holders

Photo of Ostula fiscal

Photo of cargo holder with garland

Choirmaster and members of the cabildo, fiesta of Santa Teresa, Ostula

Photo of Choirmaster and members of cabildo

Report on the Jurisdiction of Motines

First Page of Report on Motines Jurisdiction

Indigenous family from the Michoacán coastal communities, 19th century

Drawing of coastal indians in 19th century

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