The name of the state comes from the name of its capital city, Oaxaca. This name comes from the Nahuatl word "Huaxyacac", which refers to a tree called a "guaje" (Leucaena leucocephala) found around the capital city. The name was originally applied to the Valley of Oaxaca by Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs and passed on to the Spanish during the conquest of the Oaxaca region. The modern state was created in 1824, and the state seal was designed by Alfredo Canseco Feraud and approved by the government of Eduardo Vasconcelos. Nahuatl word "Huaxyacac" [waːʃ.ˈja.kak] was transliterated as "Oaxaca" using Medieval Spanish orthography, in which the x represented the voiceless postalveolar fricative ([ʃ], the equivalent of English sh in "shop"), making "Oaxaca" pronounced as [waˈʃaka]. However, during the sixteenth century the voiceless fricative sound evolved into a voiceless velar fricative ([x], like the ch in Scottish "loch"), and Oaxaca began to be pronounced [waˈxaka]. In present-day Spanish, Oaxaca is pronounced [waˈxaka] or [waˈhaka], the latter pronunciation used mostly in dialects of southern Mexico, the Caribbean, much of Central America, some places in South America, and the Canary Islands and western Andalusia in Spain where [x] has become a voiceless glottal fricative ([h]).
Prehistoric and pre-Hispanic period
Head Brazier (500 BC – 200 BC)
Most of what is known about prehistoric Oaxaca comes from work in the Central Valleys region. Evidence of human habitation dating back to about 11,000 years BC has been found in the Guilá Naquitz cave near the town of Mitla. This area was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010 in recognition for the "earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the continent, while corn cob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize." More finds of nomadic peoples date back to about 5000 BC, with some evidence of the beginning of agriculture. By 2000 BC, agriculture had been established in the Central Valleys region of the state, with sedentary villages. The diet developed around this time would remain until the Spanish Conquest, consisting primarily of harvested corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chili peppers, squash and gourds. Meat was generally hunted and included tepescuintle, turkey, deer, peccary, armadillo and iguana.
The oldest known major settlements, such as Yanhuitlán and
Laguna Zope are located in this area as well. The latter settlement is known for its small figures called "pretty women" or "baby face." Between 1200 and 900 BC, pottery was being produced in the area as well. This pottery has been linked with similar work done in
La Victoria, Guatemala. Other important settlements from the same time period include Tierras Largas, San José Mogote and Guadalupe, whose ceramics show Olmec influence. The major native language family, Oto-Manguean, is thought to have been spoken in northern Oaxaca around 4400 BC and to have evolved into nine distinct branches by 1500 BC.
Historic events in Oaxaca as far back as the 12th century are described in pictographic codices painted by Zapotecs and Mixtecs in the beginning of the colonial period, but outside of the information that can be obtained through their study, little historical information from pre-colonial Oaxaca exist, and our knowledge of this period relies largely on archaeological remains. By 500 BC, the central valleys of Oaxaca were mostly inhabited by the Zapotecs, with the Mixtecs on the western side. These two groups were often in conflict throughout the pre-Hispanic period. Archeological evidence indicates that between 750 and 1521, there may have been population peaks of as high as 2.5 million.
The Zapotecs were the earliest to gain dominance over the Central Valleys region. The first major dominion was centered in Monte Albán, which flourished from 500 BC until AD 750 . At its height, Monte Albán was home to some 25,000 people and was the capital city of the Zapotec nation. It remained a secondary center of power for the Zapotecs until the Mixtecs overran it in 1325. The site contains a number of notable features including the Danzantes, a set of stone reliefs and the finding of fine quality ceramics.
Starting from AD 750 previous large urban centers such as Monte Alban fell across the Oaxaca area and smaller dominions grew and evolved until the Spanish Conquest in 1521. Between 700 and 1300, the Mixtec were scattered among various dominions, including those of Achiutla,
Apoala and Coixtlahuaca. The Zapotecs occupied a large region from Central Valleys region to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. However, no major city state like Monte Albán arose again, with villages and city-states remaining small, between 1,000 and 3,000 people with a palace, temple, market and residences. In a number of cases, there were Mesoamerican ball courts as well. These and larger centers also functioned as military fortresses in time of invasion. Important Zapotec and Mixtec sites include Yagul, Zaachila,
Tejupan, and Teposcolula. During nearly all of this time, these various entities were at war with one another, and faced the threat of Aztec expansion.
While the Zapotec remained dominant in many parts of the Central Valleys and into the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Mixtec were pushing into Zapotec territory, taking Monte Alban. In areas they conquered, they became prolific builders, leaving behind numerous and still unexplored sites. However, the conquest of the Central Valleys was never completed with pressure coming from the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs both allied themselves and fought among themselves as they tried to maintain their lands and valuable trade routes between the high central plains of Mexico and Central America.
The first Aztecs arrived to the Oaxaca area in 1250, but true expansion into the region began in the 15th century. In 1457, Moctezuma I invaded the Tlaxiaco and Coixtlahuaca areas, gaining control, demanding tribute and establishing military outposts. These were Mixtec lands at first, pushing these people even further into Zapotec territory. Under Axayacatl and Tizoc, the Aztec began to take control of trade routes in the area and part of the Pacific Coast. By this time, the Zapotec were led by Cosijoeza with the government in Zaachila in the latter 15th century. Under Ahuitzotl, the Aztecs temporarily pushed the Zapotecs into Tehuantepec and established a permanent military base at Huaxyacac (Oaxaca city). The Aztecs were stopped only by the Spanish Conquest These conquests would change most of the place names in parts of Oaxaca to those from the Nahuatl language. In 1486 the Aztecs established a fort on the hill of Huaxyácac (now called El Fortín), overlooking the present city of Oaxaca. This was the major Aztec military base charged with the enforcement of tribute collection and control of trade routes.
However, Aztec rule in Oaxaca would last only a little more than thirty years.
Very soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), Spaniards arrived in Oaxaca. Moctezuma II had informed Hernando Cortes that the area had gold. In addition, when Zapotec leaders heard about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, they sent an offer of an alliance. Several captains and representatives were sent to the area to explore the area, looking for gold, and routes to the Pacific to establish trade routes to Asian spice markets. The most prominent of Cortés' captains to arrive here were Gonzalo de Sandoval,
Francisco de Orozco and Pedro de Alvarado. They overcame the main Aztec military stronghold only four months after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Their reports about the area prompted Cortés to seek the title of the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca from the Spanish Crown.
The valley Zapotecs, the Mixtecs of the Upper Mixteca, the Mazatecas and the Cuicatecas, for the most part, chose not to fight the newcomers, instead negotiating to keep most of the old hierarchy but with ultimate authority to the Spanish. Resistance to the new order was sporadic and confined to the Pacific coastal plain, the Zapotec Sierra, the Mixea region and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Mixes put the most resistance to intrusions on their lands. They not only resisted during the first decade or so of Spanish occupation, like other groups, but through the rest of the 16th century. The last major Mixe rebellion came in 1570, when they burned and looted Zapotec communities and threatened to destroy the Spanish presidio of Villa Alta. However, this rebellion was put down by the Spanish, in alliance with about 2,000 Mixtecs and Aztecs. From this point, the Mixe retreated far into the mountains to isolate themselves, where they are found today.
The first priest in the territory was Juan Diaz, who accompanied Francisco de Orozco and built the first church in what is now the city of Oaxaca. He was followed by Bartolome de Olmade and others who began the superficial conversion of a number of indigenous people, including the baptism of Zapotec leader Cosijoeza. In 1528, the Dominicans settled in the city of Oaxaca, forming the Bishopric of Oaxaca in 1535, and began to spread out from there, eventually reaching Tehuantepec and the coast. Other orders followed such as the Jesuits in 1596, the Mercedarians in 1601, and others in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization had a devastating effect on the native population, due to European diseases and forced labor. In some areas the native population nearly or completely disappeared. It has been estimated that the native population of the region declined from 1.5 million in 1520 to 150,000 in 1650. Eventually, this would prompt the Spanish to import African slaves to some regions of the state, mostly in the Costa Chica. This poor treatment of indigenous and African populations would continue through the colonial period. Initially, the Spanish did not change native power structures and allowed nobles to keep their privileges as long as they were loyal to the Spanish crown. However, all indigenous people were eventually lumped into one category as the Spanish halted warfare among the city-states and created the official category of "indio" (Indian).
Settlers arriving from Spain brought with them domestic animals that had never been seen in Oaxaca: horses, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, mules and oxen. New crops such as sugar cane, vanilla and tobacco were introduced. However, landholding still remained mostly in indigenous hands, in spite of the fact that only 9% of Oaxaca's terrain is arable. Spanish officials and merchants tried to take indigenous privileges due to their social status, but this was resisted. While some of this was violent, the dominant response was to resort to the administrative-judicial system or yield. Violence was reserved for the worst of situations. One native product to reach economic importance during the colonial period was the cochineal insect, used for the making of dyes for textiles. This product was exported to Europe, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. The use of this insect faded in the 19th century with the discovery of cheaper dyes.
For much of the colonial period, the state (then an intendencia or province) was relatively isolated with few roads and other forms of communication. Most politics and social issues were strictly on the local level. Despite Spanish domination, the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca have maintained much of their culture and identity, more so than most other places in Mexico. Part of this is due to the geography of the land, making many communities isolated.
By 1810, the city of Oaxaca had 18,000 inhabitants, most of whom where mestizos or mixed indigenous/European. During the Mexican War of Independence the government of this area remained loyal to the Spanish Crown. When representatives of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla came to meet with them, they were hanged and their heads left out in view. Some early rebel groups emerged in the state, such as those led by Felipe Tinoco and Catarino Palacios, but they were also eventually executed. After 1812, insurgents began to have some success in the state, especially in the areas around Huajuapan de León, where Valerio Trujano defended the city against royalist forces until José María Morelos y Pavón was able to come in with support to keep the area in rebel hands. After that point, insurgents had greater success in various parts of the state, but the capital remained in royalist hands until the end of the war.
The state was initially a department after the war ended in 1821, but after the fall of emperor Agustín de Iturbide, it became a state in 1824 with Jose Maria Murguia named as its first governor.
During the 19th century, Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico was split between liberal (federalist) and conservative (centralist) factions. The political and military struggles between the factions resulted in wars and intrigues. Vicente Guerrero, a liberal, was executed by firing squad in Cuilapam in 1831. Liberal Manuel Gomez Pedraza became governor in 1832 but was opposed by General Estaban Moctezuma. He and commandant Luis Quintanar persecuted liberals in the state, including Benito Juárez. The constant warfare had a negative effect on the state's economy and those in the Tehuantepec area supported a separatist movement which was partially successful in the 1850s.
Two Oaxacans, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz were prominent players in the Reform War. It is difficult to overstate Juárez's meaning to the state. He was born on March 21, 1806 in the village of San Pablo Guelatao and was full blooded Zapotec. He began his career studying to be a priest then a lawyer. In 1847, Juarez became governor of Oaxaca, but still faced stern opposition from conservatives such as Lope San Germán. With the success of the Plan de Ayutla, Juarez became governor again, and worked to remove privileges and properties from the Church and landed classes. The Constitution of 1857, was ratified in Oaxaca city, and Juarez left the governor's position to become President of Mexico. He was president during one of Mexico's most turbulent times, fighting invading French forces and conservatives. As a liberal, he imposed many of the reforms which remain today including those in education and separation of church and state. He is also considered to be a legend and a symbol for the indigenous population of the state.
Porfirio Díaz was Juárez's ally through the French Intervention. French imperial forces took Oaxaca city, which was defended by Porfirio Díaz, landing the latter in prison. The capital was later recaptured by the liberals under Carlos Oronoz. However, soon after Juarez took back the presidency, Porfirio Díaz declared rebellion against him from Oaxaca in 1872 under the Plan de Tuxtepec. Juárez died in office. Diaz would succeed in obtaining the presidency and did not relinquish it until the Mexican Revolution.
Late 19th century to present
Protesters in Oaxaca, 2006
During Diaz's rule, called the Porfiriato, a number of modernization efforts were undertaken in the state such as public lighting, first with gas then with electricity, railroad lines, new agriculture techniques and the revitalization of commerce. However, most of the benefits of these advances went to national and international corporations and workers and indigenous farmers organized against the regime.
After the Mexican Revolution broke out, Diaz was soon ousted and the rest of the war was among the various factions that had power in different parts of the country. Various leaders such as Francisco I. Madero, Victoriano Huerta and Venustiano Carranza came to the state during this time. However; the most important force in the area was the Liberation Army of the South under Emiliano Zapata. This army would ally and fight against the previous leaders, especially Venustiano Carranza, and hold various portions of the state until 1920. At the end of the Revolution, a new state constitution was written and accepted in 1922.
Workers campaigning in the historic 2010 state government election.
A series of major disasters occurred in the state from the 1920s to the 1940s. In 1928, a series of earthquakes destroyed many of the buildings in the capital. A much larger earthquake in 1931, was the largest in the state's history, devastating a number of cities along the coast. The 1930s brought the Great Depression, which along with the disasters, prompted wide scale migration to Mexico City. In 1944, torrential rains caused massive flooding in the Tuxtepec region, causing hundreds of deaths.
In the 1940s and 1950s, new infrastructure projects were begun. These included the Izúcar-Tehuantepec section of the Panamerican Highway and the construction of the Miguel Alemán Dam. From the 1980s to the present, there has been much development of the tourism industry in the state. This tourism, as well as the population growth of the capital, prompted the construction of the Oaxaca-Mexico City highway in 1994. Development of tourism has been strongest in the Central Valleys area surrounding the capital, with secondary developments in Huatulco and other locations along the coast. This development was threatened by the violence associated with the 2006 uprising, which severely curtailed the number of incoming tourists for several years.
On February 12, 2008, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake was recorded in Oaxaca.
From the Mexican Revolution until the 2000s, the ruling PRI party held control of almost all of Oaxacan politics from the local to the state level. Challenges to the rule were sporadic and included the student movements of the 1970s, which did bring down the state government. Teachers' strikes had been frequent since then, culminating in the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca city, which brought in groups protesting the heavy marginalization of the poor. The PRI lost its 80-year hold on the state government in 2010 with the election of the PAN gubernatorial candidate Gabino Cué Monteagudo. This has led to speculation of major changes for the state.
In 2017, a series of earthquakes brought death and destruction to parts of Mexico, including Oaxaca. According to the US Geological Survey, early on September 23, 2017, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake shook Matías Romero, about 275 miles southeast of Mexico City. The epicenter was about 12 miles from Matías Romero and centered approximately between the two even more violent earthquakes felt by Mexico earlier in the month, and is considered an aftershock. On September 8, an 8.1 magnitude quake had struck off of the southern Pacific coast, near Chiapas state. Mexico City, on September 19, then endured a 7.1 magnitude quake, which also marked the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 earthquake, in which more than 10,000 people had been killed.