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Visit Oaxaca

History and Culture Oaxaca

Don't be fooled by the many modern and cosmopolitan guises of the city of Oaxaca, it is without doubt a city with a past, and an interesting one at that. If you are thinking about Oaxaca as a possible destination for studying Spanish then you could defnitely be in for a treat. The name 'Oaxaca' is Aztec in origin as they referred to the city as 'Huaxyácac', meaning literally 'In the nose of the squash'. The Aztecs arrival in the area in the late 15th century changed dramatically the face of Oaxaca as an area and set up the base of the modern day city that was to be developed by the Spaniards when they arrived, but the historical tribes and groups and the cultures that have influenced what you will see as the Oaxaca of today, started to make their mark long before the Aztecs got there.

Pre-Colonial Oaxaca


In pre-Colombian times, initially it was the Zapotecs that moved up to the Central Valleys from the South of Mexico and evidence of their time spent their and their industry can still be seen today in the ancient settlement remains of Monte Albán and Mitla, nowadays both popular tourist attractions. Monte Albán has ben discovered to have been at its economic peak between 300 and 700AD, during which time Agriculture was the main way of life and form of survival. The Zapotecs lived well off the richness of the land.

In the 13th Century the Miztec tribe moved in on the Oaxaca area and settled there. Despite taking over various Zapotec strongholds such as Monte Albán, there was a relatively peaceful co-existence between the two tribes and what resulted was a cultural richness from the intertwining of the two groups.

It was then, in the late 15th Century, that the Aztecs arrived. The base of their Empire was to be found in the powerful city of Tecnochtitlán, meaning that the Zapotec and Miztec settlements, such as Monte Albán, lost a lot of their significance. The centre that the Aztecs made for themselves in the Central Highlands was called 'Huxyacac'....and by now you know exactly what this became...

The Colonial Influence

The seemingly unstoppable Spanish established the city of Oaxaca in 1529, taking over from the Aztecs and transforming the face of the city with a style of architecture that was both aesthetically pleasing and also practical in terms of navigation and protection from earthquakes. The centre of the city, built up round the central zócola that already existed, is now a protected UNESCO world heritage site. However, any good that you could say the Spanish did in terms of the building up and developing of the city was possibly undone by the effect they had on the indigenous population still residing there. The Spaniards had the proverbial dollar signs before their eyes, they could see the gold and silver reserves and wanted to get their hands on them. In order to do this, they sent the local people down into the mines in terrible conditions and many never returned. They also brought new diseases that started to kill off the indigenous population. Within a very short time almost two thirds of the original indigenous population had ceased to exist.

Independence and a Political Hero


Following independence from Spain in 1821, many parts of Oaxaca were deemed unlivable due to the large-scale deforestation that had taken place. This triggered a fall in the available income from the industry of agriculture and much migration to Northern Mexico and to the United States.

Enter local hero, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec citizen who rose to be state governor in 1847 until 1852. He made many reforms and increased the opportunities of the people Oaxaca, improving education and citizen rights. However, this period of advancement and contentment, especially for the forgotten indigenous people of Oaxaca, was to be short-lived, as a turbulent political past meant that when a new Conservative Government came into power in 1853, he was forced into exile for a period of 18 months. Upon his return he took up his good work again and as Minister for Justice he set to work freeing the people from the ever-increasing influence of the Church, followed by a stint between 1861 and 1863 as President, when he succeeded in temporarily dissolving all national debt. He had to take a leave of absence yet again when Napoleon sent a new Archduke to be Emperor of Mexico in an attempt to revive the Mexican monarchy, but he became President once again in 1867 until his death in 1872. All in all you might say he was some pup, but his latest efforts to continue to achieve peace and harmonious living in Mexico largely failed. He is a figure who is remembered for his dedication to democracy and human rights and every year in Mexico on the 21st March he is commemorated and his actions celebrated. He was an inspiration for those who came after him, especially those precursors of the Mexican Revolution.

Modern-Day Oaxaca

Recent decades have seen the population in the city of Oaxaca soar due to a fall in the agricultural trade in the countryside combined with a tourism and industry boom. Despite two major earthquakes (in 1854 and 1931) destroying large parts of the city, Oaxaca has rebuilt itself and come back fighting and the larger area is still home to many different tribes of indigenous origins, together adding to the cultural richness and charm present in the region. However, some unrest in recent years has arisen, originally over a peaceful teachers' strike that ended with the police opening fire and developed into a protest against the Méxican Government in general and specifically the governor of the Oaxaca region. Nowadays, if you are perhaps heading in the direction of a Spanish language school in Oaxaca, you can rest assured that you will find Oaxaca nothing but a pleasant city and a haven of historic delights, stunning architecture and friendly people.