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Oaxaca History

Seven thousand years ago, the land was occupied by more than 15 different native ethnic groups (even today, the state of Oaxaca contains more speakers of indigenous languages than any other Mexican state). The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs were the two prevalent tribes fighting over the land. In the 15th century, the Aztecs came and dominated the land for the trade routes to Central and South America.

Agriculture and textile production were the main bases of the economy during Spanish colonial times. Many older women in the surrounding areas still do their weaving the old fashioned way, and seeing the textile museum is a popular tourist attraction today. In the 1700s, the city became rich thanks to exports of a red dye called “cochineal” made from insects living on the prickly-pear cactus.

The Spanish conquered Oaxaca in 1521 and gave the area its current name because they couldn’t pronounce “Huaxyacac,” the name given to the area by the Aztecs. The land was distributed by the Spanish to the families of the conquistadors and to their indigenous allies. The Oaxacans have always been a proud people and stood up for their land during the Mexican War of Independence. Oaxaca even became its own free state one year before Mexico won its freedom in 1824. Again, the Oaxacans were one of the first to rise during the Mexican Revolution.

In 1861 one of the country’s most beloved Presidents, Benito Juárez, was elected after serving two terms as Oaxaca’s state governor. Being a Zapotec, he was from Oaxaca, and the first indigenous President of Mexico. Tourists can still visit a small house where Juárez worked as a boy. When the French occupied Mexico, Oaxaca was a site of a significant triumph for Mexico in October of 1866.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, Oaxaca continued to rely on agriculture and textile production. As it modernized, roads and railways connected it to Mexico City and the rest of the developing areas of Mexico. Oaxaca grew because its location was considered the “gateway” to Central and South America. However, a major earthquake in January of 1931 wiped out about half of the city during this era of its development.

Despite the political upheaval in 2006, Oaxaca is welcoming tourists by the busload. Oaxacans are still having some disagreements with the government and the police, but not to the extreme it was a few years ago. Tourists flood to Oaxaca City and the coast areas, giving Oaxaca its economic base of tourism. The success of Oaxaca’s main industries – tourism, cheese called “quesillo,” mezcal, which is a distilled liquor (not tequila) made from the agave or maguey plant, and chocolate – has caused Oaxaca proper to expand into nearby villages over the last 25 years, effectively doubling its size to today’s population of roughly a half million.

Tourists today can still see the ruins of Monte Albán, the Pre-Columbian Zapotec archeological site which holds residential and civic ceremonial structures as well as burials. The area was inhabited from 500 BC to 1000 AD, and still contains artifacts from various time frames in that period.

By Emily Kerr-Riess
I love to travel, I love language, I currently live in Mexico teaching English as a second language. I love...
15 Dec 2008

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