Ostula Culture and Defiance

Religious Fiestas

Ostula is best known today for the fiesta of its patron saint, the Virgen of Guadalupe. This culminates on the 12th and 13th of December. On the 12th, the village church is packed with pilgrims and penitants from the surrounding region, including people from non-indigenous communities such as Maquilí, and some visitors come from much further afield. Many of the penitants arrive on their knees. But the fiesta of the Virgin of Guadalupe is only one part of an entire cycle of fiestas during the month of December, beginning with the fiesta of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the original patron of the community in colonial times, followed by the fiesta of the Virgen de los Dolores. In their turn the December fiestas are the culminating point in an annual cycle of religious festivals, in which each month brings a major celebration, although most of this intense ritual life is not witnessed by outsiders. What actually happens in the fiesta of the Virgin of Guadalupe itself completes a ritual process that begins earlier in September with the fiestas of the Virgen de la Natividad (the devotion associated with the old confraternity) and of San Nicolás. which follows on immediately afterwards. The fiesta of the Nativity introduces the dances and ritualised antagonism of the Moors and Christians and San Nicolás brings into play the masked Xayacates, who are themselves divided into "Moors and Christians". Although the fiestas of December also refer back to still earlier moments in the cycle of dances and ritual performances, it is the 13th of December that brings all these elements together in a final, climactic resolution as the Moors and Christians enact their ritual battle, only to be parodied by the repetition of this cosmic drama by the Xayacates, who having brought everything into disorder are finally tamed and given their own Christian baptism.

The 13th of December is one of the clearest expressions of the way in which the people of Ostula indigenized the Christian message and gave it their own meanings, but it is only one of many. In this and the following section of the site, video recordings offer a chance to look at what people do in fiestas, watch dances and listen to various forms of music, including the choral singing that accompanies processions and church services.

The organization of the fiestas

Some fiestas are organized by the fiscal and other "servants of the Church". The fiscal is chosen annually, along with his "cabinet" of helpers, so being in charge of the Church is a "cargo" or form of service. Other fiestas are organised and paid for by other cargo holders (cargueros) who are chosen by the judges of the Church. The ceremony that marks the change-over of Church authorities takes place on the 13th of October each year, during the Fiesta of Santa Teresa, when the old civil-religious cabildo is reconstituted for the day and dancers accompany its envoys to summon the new cargo-holders to the Church. The people who serve for a year caring for other Saint images, and those who make up the bands of Moors, Christianas and Xayacates change at other points during the ritual cycle, but always through a similar ceremony in which the new entrants are crowned and garlanded by the old cargo-holders as they take their vow of service. Many musicians and the members of the choir serve for more extended periods, as they participate in many different fiestas year-in, year-out. In contrast to many indigenous communities, there is little difference in the cost of sponsoring different fiestas, although it is always a considerable amount of money for members of this comparatively poor community. There are some people who do not participate, but the vast majority of community members play some part in the religious life of what is an overwhelmingly Catholic place. Although it is men who fulfil the main religious offices, male cargo holders are accompanied by their wives, while women (and female children) play an important part in the larger group of helpers that assist each cargo holder, with their own ritual functions.

The ritual cycle

All the fiestas of Ostula have a similar basic structure. Before the main day or days of the fiesta there are novenas (nine days of devotion), and the main part of the fiesta begins with a (sung) vespers, followed in the morning by a service of doctrina with a convite or feast, in which all the attendees are fed a meal prepared in a kitchen next to the atrium. This is the major cost involved in a year's service (along with the costs of candles and clothing and adornments for the Saint images). The images themselves are either statues (mostly small) or paintings, and they participate in many of the processions which are another general element of the fiestas. The images are not seen as representations of a being located beyond human affairs in heaven, but as persons with whom humans can establish close relations in their everyday lives.

Traditional religion is, however, subject to new influences. In recent years, nuns have organized Catholic Action groups in the community: Catholic Action is responsible for the fiesta of the Asunción, and during Easter of 2002, the nuns organized a Via Crucis procession in which women and children shared the carrying of the cross and lay members of their groups offered readings on issues of social justice and human rights. Priests celebrate mass on the big occasions such as Easter, Todos los Santos (which includes the Day of the Dead) and the 12th December. But even when priests participate, the organization of the fiesta as a whole remains in the hands of the community's religious authorities. The cycle begins with the fiesta of the Virgen de la Candelaria in February, followed by Holy Week in March or early April.

The celebration of Easter in Ostula involves a number of unusual ritual elements which are more "expressive" of what it means to be an indigenous Christian than European-style "representations" of bible stories as enacted scenes or tableaux vivants of the kind employed by the Franciscan evangelists. These include the song of the gallos, in which cocks are made to "sing" in the procession of Christ in his coffin, and the presence of "soldiers". As the hour of Christ's passion approaches, the images are covered and the Church bells silenced (a rattle is used instead of bells to summon people to Church and mark important ritual moments). The theme of betrayal is a prominent motif throughout the first part of holy week. The care that is lavished on Christ's body (another image that can be attached to and detached from a large cross, which is an image in its own right) expresses the claims of the indigenous community to be the true and loyal servants of the Lord, sharing in his sufferings and protecting the faith. In the early hours of Sunday morning, the choir bursts into an astonishingly beautiful series of glorias to celebrate the resurrection and a palpable sense of joy accompanies the unveiling of the images. The celebrations continue with the "race of the virgins" in which young men and girls run between two images until they reunite and re-enter the Church for the final service of thanks and celebration.

In May, the fiesta of Corpus Cristi includes the playing of the Nahua drum, the Teponaztli, and dances of young men (accompanied by a young woman) that belong to a genre known as La Monarca and La Malinche. In June Ostula celebrates the fiesta of Saint John the Baptist, when the Dance of the Apaches is performed. Both these types of dances make reference to the Spanish Conquest and Colonialism. In the case of the Apache dance, two trickster figures parody the Franciscan evangelists of the region, while the dance as a whole (which also involves a small boy) refers to the Christianization process in several different registers. The "Apaches" are people who speak but cannot be understood (like the Indians of the region before their conversion and adoption of Náhuatl) and all the dancers have bows and arrows (the weapons used by the old indigenous militias). The way the people of Ostula enact their experiences in these ritual performances seems to assert their value as true Christians and defenders of the Faith by separating them from the world of the Spanish conquerers.

Moors, Christians and Xayacates

In the case of the Moors and Christians cycle, which begins after the fiesta of Santa Ana in July, it is often said that indigenous people in Mexico and other parts of Latin America are able to translate a cosmic battle of universal significance into terms that also resonate with their own experience. The "Moor" had no place in indigenous experience: he is a distant fantasm. By adopting this European rite, indigenous people could express their own feelings about the Conquest in a non-confrontational way, and transform the meaning of their experience from defeat into victory under the new standard of Christianity and their new protectors, the Saints. Yet by introducing the Xayacates as another level of dualism into the European Moors and Christians model, the people of Ostula were able to express much more complex ideas.

Xayacates menace onlookers

Xayacates menace onlookers

The Xayacates are agents of disorder. In the first stages of their performance the two bands roam around the village, stealing produce from stalls, invading cantinas, and pelting each other with lemons in battles in the streets, shadowed by patrols of Christians and Moors. They then move into the atrium and continue their pranks, trying to trip each other up with lassos and subjecting members of the public to further indignities. This part of the Xayacate performance also seems to be about mocking powerful outsiders. Their current style of dress turns them into parodic versions of the neighbouring non-indigenous rancheros, whereas in the past they wore different outfits made of palm leaves. In the next stage of the performance, the Xayacates set about disrupting the dances of the Moors and Christians, as shown on the next page. But after all this chaos has been created, the Xayacates are transformed into ordering agents, finally being "tamed" and taking their own place as soldiers of Christ in the battle against the Moors. The ultimate message seems to be that the indigenous people prove themselves authentic Christians and defenders of the faith, able to administer themselves in both secular and religious affairs and capable of controlling any force threatening deviation from the faith or the disintegration of the community itself. The Moors ride on horseback while the Christians walk on foot, and during the nocturnal processions they circulate as a menacing presence in the shadows, moving in the opposite direction to the main procession and peridocially clashing swords and machetes with the Christian soldiers.

Battle of Moors and Christians

Battle of Moors and Christians

After the battles of the Moors, Cristians and Xayacates, the fiesta of the 13th December ends with the "game" of the greased pole, in which a team of young men cooperate in a dangerous climb up a huge tree trunk to release gifts for the children below. The final close of the annual ritual cycle comes with the pastorelas in January, which involve pilgrimages between all the settlements making up the indigenous territorial community. This is a counter-part of the pilgrimages of December, which converge on Ostula centre. This time there is an outward movement in which the whole is once again reintegrated.

Todos los Santos in Ostula

The people of Ostula do not simply celebrate the Day of the Dead. The Todos los Santos fiesta begins with vespers on the 31st of October and people go to the cemetery on the morning of the 1st November to be with the souls of children who have died, before the adult dead return in the evening. On the night of the first, the choir and musicians visit the houses of individual families, and this is the one remaining fiesta in which Latin is still used, although all Church singing was still in Latin until the 1960s.

Video Clips of Ostula Fiestas


Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe with national flags

Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Procession, Holy Week

Semana Santa Procession

Vigils, Holy Week

Vigils during Semana Santa

Via Crucis organized by Acción Católica, Holy Week

Photo of Via Crucis

Caring for Saint images

Dressing images

Readorning image


Pastorela procession

Pasterela participants

The dance of the Moor

The Dance of the Moor

Moors patrolling the streets at night

Moors patrol the streets

Dance of the Christians

Dance of the Christians

Xayacate Moor

The Xayacate Moor

The Xayacates disrupt the dance of the Christians

Xayacates disrupt the Christian dance

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