Ostula Culture and Defiance

Modern History

In 1805, an iron and steel works was established in Coalcomán. But since this was soon to supply the insurgent forces throughout southern Mexico, the town was sacked by Royalist forces in 1811 and 1813. The destruction quickly spread to Maquilí, where new furnaces had been set up using iron ore from a mine in Aquila. Military action was followed by famine and the first of a series of earthquakes which added to the devastation of the coastal area during the following twenty years, along with outbreaks of cholera and, in 1856, a plague of locusts. Coahuayana was punished particularly severely for its militancy in the insurgency and did not recover its former prosperity until the end of the 1860s. Although Coalcomán recovered its status as a regional administrative centre and its mines were reopened by the end of the 1820s, from 1834 until the victory of the liberals over the conservative forces led by Santa Ana in 1854, the sierras were dominated by "federalist" rebel groups and plagued by less political kinds of banditry. Due to its geographical isolation, Coalcomán district was again a base of guerrilla operations during the French intervention and the "empire" of Maximilian Hapsburg (1863-1867).

1856 was the year in which the Liberal government in Mexico City promulgated the Lerdo Law, which ordered the disentailment of all corporate property. The principal target was the corporate lands held by the Church and it was the nationalization of all Church property in 1859 that prompted a new civil war and foreign invasion. But the Lerdo Law also sought to transform the communal landholdings of indigenous communities into private property. There were already state laws in Michoacán which anticipated this national legislation, notably La Ley y Reglamento sobre el Reparto de Bienes Comunales of 1851. Radical liberals such as Michoacán's Melchor Ocampo presented the privatization of communal lands as a measure to protect the indigenous people from further abuse at the hands of private proprietors, as a means of rescuing them from their poverty and enabling them to become "free and equal" citizens of a modern nation. The need for such a strategy to avoid social disorder was also stressed by more conservative advocates of liberal land reform, such as the Canon of Morelia Cathedral, Dr. José Guadalupe Romero, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Emperor Maximilian. Romero presented the Emperor with an ambitious plan for the "development" of the Coalcomán region as an industrial centre, and also as a centre for modern capitalist agriculture and timber production. The transformation of Maruata bay, in the communal territory of Pómaro, into an international port was an important part of this strategy. Maruata, already an outlet for contraband trading when Romero published his proposals in 1864, did in fact receive official recognition as a port subsequently, though it had stopped operating by the end of the 19th century. In the final decades of the century its major role was in the export of timber. From 1863 onwards, North American companies were signing contracts with the indigenous communities for the exploitation of high grade timber.

Although political instability prevented the immediate implementation of the Romero plan, the principle of launching the region into a new path of capitalist development was eagerly embraced by the criollo elite which controlled political power in Coalcomán. The non-indigenous population of Coalcomán had steadily increased since the beginning of the century, despite the upheavals, and began to increase at an accelerating pace after the end of Maximilian's empire, due to waves of migration by mestizo ranchers. The ranchers came originally from the region known as the Altos of Jalisco, passing through the lowlands around the city of Zamora in Michoacán to establish themselves in the towns of Cotija and Periban, on the edge of the great depression known as the Tierra Caliente. As well as raising cattle they traded in cattle and worked as muleteers connecting the fertile agricultural plains around Zamora with the estates producing cattle and tropical crops in the Tierra Caliente, and on down through the Sierra de Coalcomán to Colima. The indigenous communities of the coast were part of this vast network of inter-regional trade. The earliest migrants to arrive in Coalcomán from the Cotija-Periban region were simply extending the earlier processes and looking for new land to exploit, although movement was driven by class structures, since migration offered an alternative to having to work as a sharecropper on land owned by someone else. Prospects of building up a substantial herd of cattle as a sharecropper were limited because the landowners demanded the female calves. The complete dispossession of the indigenous commoners made it possible for more mestizos to acquire lands there, but towards the end of the 19th century, the building of railways accelerated the migratory movement as it deprived muleteers of their living in the original regions of settlement. As the population of Coalcomán continued to increase, and newcomers were forced to work as sharecroppers, movement into the territories of the indigenous communities on the coast became increasingly attractive, given that these still possessed undivided communal lands on which cattle were allowed to wander freely.

The communities that suffered dispossession

The early liberal laws on privatization of communal land, including the Lerdo law itself, were ambiguous on exactly which parts of the communal territory had to be privatized. Fields used for farming were generally used and inherited by individual families anyway, so their transformation into full private property was often uncontroversial. In the case of Ostula and its neighbours even this situation was complicated by a livelihood system in which shifting slash and burn cultivation was important and a "broad spectrum" exploitation of multiple ecological niches central to the welfare of the families of the indigenous community. But here as elsewhere, a crucial issue was what should be done with resources such as woodlands that were truly undivided and used in common. From the capitalist point of view, the indigenous peoples wasted resources that were increasingly valuable for industrial society. One solution was to recalculate the market value as taxable assets of forests and other resources used in common from a capitalist point of view. Since the communities had no way of raising the amounts of money needed, they would either be obliged to sell land or have it confiscated from them for non-payment of taxes. This became a powerful weapon of legal dispossession, since land embargoed by the state was sold to the highest bidder after a brief period.

The 1851 Michoacán Law of Division of Communal Properties included some protection for the indigenous landowners. The land could not be resold immediately and was not supposed to be sold to existing large landowners under any circumstances. But the Coalcomán elite had no desire to protect the rights of Indians. On the contrary, unlike radicals such as Melchor Ocampo, they subscribed to the new ideas about "race" imported from Europe during the 19th century, and saw Indians as incapable of "progress". They formed business relations with foreign capitalists and hoped for more immigration from Europe to their region. When the liberal reform was implemented for the first time in the region at the beginning of the 1870s, in Coalcomán itself, the provisions of the 1851 law were scandalously violated and members of the local elite themselves participated in a land grab at the indigenous communeros' expense. Although the latter protested repeatedly to the state government, under the leadership of Antonio Candido, a community leader who understood the law and had contacts with non-indigenous peasant rebels, neither legal challenges nor armed insurrection brought them redress. Although the land distribution was never officially approved by the state government, it initiated a process that led to the complete extinction of the indigenous community by the end of thecentury. When the defenders of what little was left of the indigenous community did finally appear to be making progress with a new legal challenge at the start of the 1890s, the Prefect of Coalcomán, José Merced García, was able to resolve the problem simply by leading a group of armed guards to massacre them, with complete impunity.

In the cases of Huizontla and Maquilí, fiscal revaluation of undivided communal lands played an important part in the processes that led to the destruction of these communities. But close study of the documents also reveals the way the capacity of the communities to defend themselves was weakened by internal factionalism and the unreliability of some of the non-indigenous apoderados that they paid to represent them. Most of the latter were not real lawyers but underqualified "shysters" (tinterillos), with their own motivations and agendas (though these could make them genuine opponents of the elite in Coalcomán). In the case of Maquilí, while Prefect Merced García continued to support the take-over of community resources by big capitalist investors, a large group of ranchers had settled within communal territory and intermarried extensively with the members of the indigenous community. Although the invaders generally possessed more economic capital than the majority of the Nahuas, many of these families were not wealthy and benefitted from the creation of a land reform ejido under the government of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1936. In Maquilí, a faction opposed to the division (reparto) of communal lands, led by Pedro Aguilar, had initially lost control of the community to a faction backed by Coalcomán but regained the support of the majority of the commoners after presenting evidence of corruption and malpractice on the part of its rivals and the French engineer, Arturo de Harrivel, who drew up the initial plan for the reparto. Yet even this apparently favourable turn of events did not prevent the rapid destruction of the community. The same final survey that distributed the community lands also served as the basis for recalculating their fiscal value. Unable to meet the new tax demands, indigenous families sold their lands to mestizo neighbours and migrated to Colima and other regions to build new lives and identities as rural proletarians.

The communities that survived

Pómaro, with its rich woodlands and strategic position from the point of view of Coalcomán's access to the sea, was the next target for liquidation. But although it lost some land as a consequence of its inability to meet escalating tax demands and was forced into a series of concessions to the Pacific Timber Company, this pattern of development was cut short by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. By the end of the 19th century, new state laws had made it obligatory to privatise all former communal landholdings and denied indigenous communities legal personality, so in legal theory, no indigenous community as such now existed in the zone. But de facto, the communities survived in a kind of legal limbo, which only ended in 1940 when the new Agrarian Code established provisions for the Recognition, Confirmation and Titling of Communal Property. Pómaro's integrity as an indigenous community was, however, still threatened by the continuing invasions of mestizo rancher families.

Coalcomán became one of the strongest centres of the Cristero Rebellion against the posterevolutionary state's anti-Catholic policies during the period 1926 to 1929. The strength of the Cristeros in this region in fact limited the power of the national government locally for decades afterwards. Although the indigenous communities did not participate actively in the rebellion, they did lend it passive support. The Cristero general Gregorio Guillén established his base in Pómaro territory and subsequently became the political boss (cacique) of the community with the collaboration of its indigenous authorities, until his assasination in 1959. Guillén mediated between mestizo settlers and the indigenous people of Pómaro, and it appears that the Pómaro indígenas had regarded Guillén and his people as their allies in their struggle to retain their lands, accepting the mestizos as full members of the indigenous community itself. Nevertheless, relations deteriorated after Guillén's death. After 1964 no further mestizos were accepted as comuneros. But this did not stop the continuing infiltration of new mestizo settlers and by the 1990s, the indigenous people of Pómaro controlled less than half the territory officially recognized as their communal property by the government in the 1960s.

There was also a significant infiltration of mestizos into the communal territory of Coire. These families came from the area known as El Salitre de Estopila, embargoed by the state treasury for non-payment of taxes in 1914, and they seem to have squatted there illegally. By 1930s, they had moved into the central village of Coire with large herds, dedicating themselves to commerce and usury and taking control of the offices associated with the municipal government, with the connivance of indigenous authorities. Once, however, it became clear that the mestizo authorities planned to take control of more communal land, a majority of comuneros decided to expel them, provoking a violent response that left 15 indigenous people dead. But President Cárdenas was not willing to tolerate massacres and sent the army in to complete the expulsion. For the next decade they tried to emulate the settlers in Maquilí and gain an ejido, but ironically finally had to settle for becoming second class members of the indigenous community of Coire after it received official recognition in 1958.

Pómaro and Coire thus survived as indigenous communities but could not avoid the permanent settlement of outsiders within their territories. Although a smaller group of mestizos also settled in Ostula , in contrast to later events in Coire they were expelled quickly and peacefully as soon as their intentions to work against the communal property regime became clear. Thereafter Ostula rigorously forbad intermarriage between indigenous women and mestizos (obliging those who did choose such a union to live elsewhere) and refused membership of the community to the tiny group of mestizo families settled on the margins of the community on the borders with Aquila. It appears that these invaders had entered Ostula's territory by force of arms and with the backing of Aquila's mestizo "political chief" in 1928: the community subsequently refused to recognize the validity of any agreements reached with them under coercion.

In effect, during the early 1930s, while Pómaro was becoming the seat of a regional cacicazgo dominated by a mestizo, Ostula became a "closed corporate community" and henceforth proved extremely strategic in protecting its communal territory from further threats of invasion. In 1950, for example, the current settlement of La Ticla on the coast was recolonized after it became known that a group of farmers from the area of Manzanillo in Colima had asked the government to install an irrigation system to support their planned colonization of the area. In 1948, the French historian, François Chevalier, had visited Ostula during the Fiesta of Corpus Cristi. He was received with the characteristic courtesy of the community but also firmly informed that it had established a "law" (actually a revival of colonial practice) that no outsider could remain within its boundaries for more than two days. Chevalier also recorded the difficult situation of the local lighthouse keeper, who had to be supplied by sea as the authorities in Ostula would not permit him even to cultivate a little garden, "because its bees will need the whole communal forest".

The state and defence of territory in Ostula

Although Ostula adopted defensive measures to protect its territory, it also pursued active strategies to eliminate any future challenges. These culminated in the petition for Certification and Titling of Communal Property made to the Agrarian Department of the Federal government in 1952. Although Ing. Antonio I. García Coria was sent to Ostula to carry out the preliminary survey work in July 1959, the issuing of a Presidential Decree recognizing Ostula's land rights was delayed until 1964 because of an internal political crisis in the community which resulted in the removal of its agrarian representative and the election of a new leadership. The crisis involved accusations of abuse of power and torture of dissidents by federal soldiers brought in to intimidate them. Although its resolution involved the intervention of higher authorities, who insisted that the backstage role of the traditional "cabecillas" in community government be brought to an end, it was the determination of the rest of the comuneros not to accept the arbitrary exercise of power that forced the authorities to intervene in the first place. This crisis, along with further conflicts of equal severity during the following three decades, also reflected the way that past structures of power and authority were destabilized by the growing involvement of existing and aspirant community leaders in wider political networks, against a backdrop of important social changes. The emergence of bilingual schoolteachers born in the community as political actors has made a particularly important contribution to a recent history of lively factional conflict. Nevertheless, the political history of the community during the whole second half of the twentieth century also shows that efforts to form closed groups to dominate the community's affairs ultimately failed in Ostula and that leaders were unwise to forget that the communal assembly remains sovereign.

Although President Adolfo López Mateos signed the decree confirming Ostula's right to possess 19,032 hectares in April 1964, the community has never received definitive possession of its land, as it has refused to accept the boundaries established by the provisional act of possession carried out later that year. The problem of boundaries was not resolved by a number of subsequent visits by engineers sent by the government in response to campaigns by the community, in part because officials sometimes showed a clear favouritism towards non-indigenous interests, but mainly because there has always been a significant discrepancy between an intimately known and lived-in indigenous concept of "territory" and the abstractions based on lines projected between geographical features that engineers produce in their offices. Whatever the political differences between factions within the community, all agree on the imperative of continuing to preserve an absolute control over the communal territory and all its resources. The people of this region conceptualize their "community" as an organized group of people with a unique identity enjoying exclusive dominium over a territory. This kind of understanding remains very different from the official view of Ostula as a postrevolutionary "agrarian community" defined by the allocation of 19,032 hectares to 591 individual persons whose rights to land are recognized by the state.

Link to François Chevalier's Memoir of his visit to Ostula (in French) This document is on an external website and opens in a new window.

Database of transcriptions of the Hijuelas del Distrito de Coalcomán (in Spanish)

The Nahua Indigenous Communities
before the Liberal reform

Map of Indigenous Communities


Jose Guadalupe Romero (1814-1866)
Geographer and Canon of Morelia Cathedral

Lithograph of Jose Guadalupe Romero


José Merced García (1866-1906)
Prefect of Coalcomán

Photo of Prefect of Coalcoman and his wife


Plan of land holdings of Maquilí prepared
by Ing. Arturo Harrivel, 1900

Plan of Maquili


1906, telegram from Pedro Aguilar, Representative of the Ex-Community of Maquilí, requesting suspension of auction of land embargoed for non-payment of taxes (from Hijuelas de Coalcomán)

Telegram requesting suspension of auction of embargoed land


Informational plan of communal territory of Ostula for process of Certification and Titling
of Communal Property, 1959

Informational plan of Ostula territory


Presentation from 1979 by the Náhuatl
Supreme Council on how Ostula's boundary problems resulted from the behaviour of the oficial responsible for the act of possession in 1964, also signed by the Comisariado de Bienes Comunales of Ostula, José de la Cruz Crisóstomo (Document from the archives of the National Agrarian Registry, RAN, Mexico City)

Document on Ostula Boundary Problems


Act of Communal Assembly agreeing that some mestizo families can continue to live within communal territory as renters of community land but confirming that they will never be accepted as full members of the indigenous community (hijos del pueblo)

Act of Assembly on Mestizos Rights in Community

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