During his conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortés declared himself the Marqués del Valle of Oaxaca, claiming province over the state’s rich mineral deposits. Today, Oaxaca has become a top tourist destination thanks to its miles of sandy beaches and fascinating archeological sites. While there are officially 16 indigenous groups in Oaxaca, every group actually has hundreds of subgroups, each distinguished by unique linguistic and social traditions. Oaxaca, like the nearby states of Guerrero and Chiapas, contains a startlingly diverse range of indigenous cultures with roots that reach back many centuries.
Between approximately 1500 and 500 B.C., the Zapotecan city of San José Mogote in what is now the state of Oaxaca was the largest and most important settlement in the region. Historians estimate that during the pre-colonial period, Oaxaca was home to 16 separate cultures, each with its own language, customs and traditions. However the Zapotecas and Mixtecas constituted the largest and most sophisticated societies with villages and farmlands located throughout the region.
San José Mogote, considered the oldest agricultural city in the Oaxaca Valley, was probably the first area settlement to use pottery. Historians also credit Zapotecas with constructing Mexico’s oldest-known defensive barrier and ceremonial buildings around 1300 B.C. The culture also predates any other in the state in the use of adobe (850 B.C.), hieroglyphics (600 B.C.) and architectural terracing and irrigation (500 B.C.).
Skilled in astronomy and excavation, the Zapoteca leveled the top of a local mountain around 450 B.C. and created the ceremonial center now called Monte Albán. One of the most densely populated cities in Mesoamerica, Monte Albán is estimated to have had 18,000 Zapotecan residents at its peak.
Before migrating to Oaxaca, the Mixtecas lived in the southern portions of what are now the neighboring states of Guerrero and Puebla. By the end of the 7th century, Mixtecas established themselves in the western and central parts of Oaxaca, building cities such as Apoala and Tilantongo. During the 13th century, the Mixtecas continued to move south and east, invading the Central Valley and conquering the Zapotecas.
By the 15th century, the Aztecs had arrived in Oaxaca and quickly conquered the local inhabitants, establishing an outpost on the Cerro del Fortín. Consequently, trade with Tenochtitlán and other cities to the north increased, but the basic fabric of living was unchanged by the Aztec presence.
In 1519, conquistador Hernán Cortés set out to conquer central Mexico on behalf of Spain. Two years later, through mass killings and strategic alliances, he succeeded in overthrowing the Aztec Empire. Cortés promptly sent Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval to the Pacific and into the Sierra Madre region in search of gold. On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Orozco took possession of the Central Valley in the name of Cortés. The arrival of de Orozco prompted the construction of housing for Spanish newcomers under the administration of Cortés’ brother-in-law, Juan Xuárez. On July 6, 1529, Charles V, Emperor of Spain, awarded Cortés the title Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca and presented him with lavish gifts, including a large tract of land in the area.
In Oaxaca, the comparatively few natives who survived the invasion returned to their remote villages and continued to cultivate the land and labor in the mines. Some found work on haciendas, large estates granted to Spanish nobles who were settling in the region.
During the 300-year colonial period, a rigid class hierarchy ensured that the best government posts were filled by Criollos (Spaniards and their descendants). Only near the end of the colonial period were Mestizos (citizens with both European and indigenous ancestry) allowed to hold public office. Under Spanish rule, the region’s social practices, politics and religion were Europeanized. Schools and churches were erected for the Indians, Mestizos and Criollos alike. However, with all the power and wealth concentrated in the hands of the Spanish landowners and clergy, most Oaxacans remained impoverished.
When the movement to free Mexico from Spanish rule began, Oaxaca was at the forefront. Bishop Antonio Barbosa Jordan encouraged Oaxacans to take up arms against the Spanish crown. In 1811, Valerio Trujano initiated guerilla action against Spanish forces and won several important victories. Besieged at Huajuapan, Trujano held out for 111 days until he received reinforcements sent by the revolutionary leader José Maria Morelos. With the help of the extra troops, Trujano won the battle of Huajuapan, giving the revolutionaries control of Oaxaca.
Two Oaxacans played an integral role in Mexican history during the late 19th century. Benito Juárez became Mexico’s first Indian president in 1858 and served several terms, one of which was interrupted by the French occupation from 1863 to 1867 after he refused to continue paying long-standing debts owed to France.The second major Oaxacan figure of the 19th century was Porfirio Díaz, who contended for the presidency several times before assuming power in 1877. He ruled initially from 1877 to 1880 and again from 1884 to 1911.
When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Oaxaca, like many southern states, rallied around the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who proclaimed that the land belonged to the workers. This rhetoric resonated with Oaxacans, since many of them were being exploited by the large landowners.
After Díaz was removed from power, dissension among the revolutionary leaders continued to divide the people of Mexico. Venustiano Carranza, who opposed some of Zapata’s populist positions, seized control of the federal government and eventually triumphed over the armed forces of Zapata and Pancho Villa. With Carranza in power, the relationship between Oaxaca and the federal government deteriorated. Oaxacans disliked the new president so much that Carranza’s brother was assassinated in Oaxaca. The period from 1916 to 1920 was filled with constant struggle for control of the new government; in the end, federal troops won out.
Tourism is the principal industry in Oaxaca. With more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) of Pacific Coast beaches, archeological ruins, colonial architecture, mountains, valleys and a mild climate, Oaxaca attracts visitors from around the world.
A poor and underdeveloped state, Oaxaca relies mainly on the commercial value of its forestry products, fruit and vegetable crops and handicrafts created by indigenous artisans to support its economy. Past mismanagement has squandered some resources, and poor transportation systems have hindered the movement of produce and raw materials. In some cases, disagreements among indigenous cultures have prevented the development of the region’s resources.
In recent years, Oaxaca has experienced considerable political and social upheaval. Governor Ulises Ruiz, accused of fraud in the 2004 elections, was subjected to protests and guerilla-style attacks during the summer of 2006, and federal forces were sent to quell the protests. Tension still exists today among several segments of society, notably the teacher’s union, which has allied itself with the agricultural union in an effort to remove Ruiz from power.
Facts & Figures
- Capital: Oaxaca de Juarez
- Major Cities (population): Oaxaca de Juarez (266,033) San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec (144,555) Juchitlan de Zaragoza (85,869) Salina Cruz (76,219) Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan (65,873)
- Size/Area: 36,275 square miles
- Population: 3,506,821 (2005 census)
- Year of statehood: 1824
- Oaxaca’s coat of arms features a red background that commemorates the many battles that have been fought in the state. The top of the design is adorned with an eagle holding a snake atop a cactus, Mexico’s national symbol. Seven silver stars represent the state’s seven geographical regions: Istmo (isthmus), Costa (coast), Papaloapan (river basin), Sierra (mountains), Mixteca (Mixtec territory), Valles Centrales (central valleys) and Cañada (woodlands). The emblem’s central oval is bordered by the phrase “Respect for the rights of others will bring peace.” At the bottom of the oval, two hands are breaking a chain, symbolizing Oaxaca’s struggle against colonial domination. On the left is an indigenous symbol for Huaxycac, the first Oaxacan region settled by the Spanish conquistadors. To the right are the Mitla Palace and a Dominican cross, representing Oaxaca’s indigenous history and its ties to Catholicism.
- The diversity of Oaxacan cuisine is suggested by its nickname, Land of the Seven Moles. Each of the state’s seven regions produces a unique variation of the spicy mole sauce.
- Prominent natives of Oaxaca include Benito Juárez, Porfirio Díaz, José Vasconcelos (a writer who greatly influenced the Mexican Revolution), famed painters Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo and baseball hero Vinicio (Vinny) Castilla.
- An unusual Oaxaca delicacy is chapulines, a dish consisiting primarily of barbecued grasshoppers.
- Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast, which surfers call the Mexican Pipeline, is known for its large, consistent waves.
- The city of Oaxaca celebrates the festival of Guelaguetza on the last two Mondays of July. Guelaguetza honors the diverse cultures that contribute to Oaxaca, giving communities from around the state the opportunity to share their music, traditional costumes, dances and food. The main event takes place in the city’s open-air amphitheater located on Cerro del Fortín, a nearby historic hill.
- One of Oaxaca’s best-known products is mezcal, an alcoholic beverage similar to tequila but distilled from varieties of cactus other than the blue agave, which is used for tequila. The plant must be six to eight years old before it can be harvested. Most bottles of mezcal include a worm, a practice that originated in the 1940s when Jacobo Lozano Páez accidentally discovered that a worm enhances the flavor of mezcal.
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a Dominican church founded in 1575, is located just north of Oaxaca City’s main square. The interior walls and ceiling of the Baroque church are adorned with gilded ornamentation and colorful frescoes.
Monte Albán, which was the capital of the ancient Mixtec-Zapotec empire, is the most important archaeological site in the state. The city came to dominate the Oaxacan highlands and engaged in commerce with other major settlements in the area, such as Tenochtitlán.
Mitla (meaning place of the dead) is a town in Oaxaca known for its unique ancient architecture and tile mosaics traceable to Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. Just over 15,000 people still live in Mitla, which is a short distance from Oaxaca City.
Huatulco Beach (Bahías de Huatulco) features nine bays and more than 30 beaches. A very calm beach removed from the noise and congestion of major cities, Huatulco is a favorite among families with children.
Puerto Escondido has two main beaches, Playa Principal and Zicatela, as well as several smaller ones. Zicatela’s strong waves make Puerto Escondido a world-class surfing spot. Often compared to Hawaii’s famous surf, the waters of Zicatela have been nicknamed the Mexican Pipeline.
Oaxaca - HISTORY
Today, Oaxaca de Juarez, simply referred to as Oaxaca, is the capital city of the State of Oaxaca.
About 11,500 years ago, man left his lands in search of a better climate to survive and he arrived in Oaxaca. Thousands of years later, the climatic conditions in the world changed and the great floods forced the natives to seek refuge in caves, such as those located in Mitla, Oaxaca where human remains have been found from 7,000 years ago.
The Earth and man evolved and with the discovery of the agriculture the sedentary communities were born. In Oaxaca the inhabitants of Monte Albán discovered corn in a small pasture called Teozintle, for what is now known as the mother of corn, food for all Mexicans.
Toltecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs inhabited the Oaxacan territory, the first began the construction of Monte Albán or Montaña Sagrada in 500 BC and for 1,300 continuous years they inhabited it and continued the construction of this great sacred center.
Continuing their expansion plan, the Mexicas arrived in Oaxaca to seek control of the territory. Little by little they were getting it, and in 1486 a group of Aztec soldiers settled in a guajes forest and called the place Huaxyaca or “place of the guajes”.
In 1521, just a few months after achieving the conquest of the Aztec empire in Tenochtitlán, Hernán Cortés sent Gonzalo de Sandoval, Francisco de Orozco and Pedro Alvarado to explore and conquer the southwest coast of the country in search of gold and new routes to the East. After overcoming the indigenous resistance, the Spaniards took control of the region and founded the settlement of Tepeaca on the site of the indigenous settlement of Huaxcaya. A few years later, they named the city Antequera, meaning “very noble and loyal city”, by King Carlos V of Spain, through the royal decree signed on April 25 in Medina del Campo, Spain.
This name was replaced in 1821 by “Oaxaca”, a word derived from the Nahuatl language Huaxyácac which means “In the nose of the huajes”.
In 1872 the city received it’s current name “Oaxaca de Juárez”, today commonly known simply as Oaxaca, that capital of the State of Oaxaca.
The first Catholic missionaries to arrive in Oaxaca were the Dominicans in 1528, followed years later by the Jesuits, then the Mercedarians, the Felipenses, the Juaninos, the Carmelites and the Augustinian Recollects. Carrying out the work of evangelization and civilization of the Oaxacan Indians.
With the struggle for independence, Oaxaca saw several of its rebels die as the authorities defended the Spanish government with great loyalty. Some Oaxacan heroes are José María Armenta, Miguel López Lira, Felipe Tinoco, Catarino Palacios, and Valerio Trujano.
With the triumph of Independence, the new country begins a long and painful path towards democracy. The struggle between realists and liberals was violent and reached every corner of the country. In January of 1531 in the Dominican convent of Cuilapa in Oaxaca, the insurgent hero and former President of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was executed by the army.
Dominican convent of Cuilapa in Oaxaca overlooking the site where Vicente Guerrero was executed.
Continuous economic crises, epidemics such as cholera and great droughts decimated the Oaxacan population during the 19th century.
In 1847 the Oaxacan politician Benito Juárez was elected governor of Oaxaca. Indian at heart and great promoter of education, the great politician of humble extraction little by little began to gain fame in the political arena, having to suffer sometimes major setbacks, as in 1853 when the already weakened dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna sent him to exile to the island of Cuba. In 1858 he became President of Mexico, dealing with the power struggle between liberals and conservatives, and against the French invaders, thus beginning his history as the “errant president”. A president who in spite of the political, economic and social difficulties that he had to overcome, never forgot his Oaxacan origin or the needs of the people.
Today, anyone who visits the state of Oaxaca, has an obligatory visit to its capital, a city full of color, originality and genuine religious feeling.
Oaxaca de Juarez is one of those places that remain in the mind and heart of those who visit it. The memory of having walked through its streets, its squares and markets, accompanied by a rhythmic music, leaves us with that feeling of wanting to return.
History and Culture of Oaxaca
Words are not enough to describe this majestic sun-kissed paradise. A city constructed from beautiful cantera stone, embraced by majestic mountains, vibrant and full of color and welcoming to every traveler. Oaxaca is an enchanting place to visit and its magical atmosphere takes you in and before you know it you feel like you’re at home.
The state of Oaxaca is located in the southeastern region of Mexico, bordered to the north by the states of Puebla and Veracruz, to the south by the Pacific Ocean, to the east by Chiapas and to the west by Guerrero. It is a privileged entity due to its biological and socio-cultural richness, and Oaxaca boasts the greatest biodiversity and ethnolinguistic diversity in the country. The complexity of ecosystems (composed of at least 26 types of vegetation or plant associations) and of cultural groups with their respective schemes of social and political organization, makes Oaxaca a unique place in Mexico and the world.
It is also important to mention that Oaxaca has the largest number of speakers of indigenous languages, which represent 34.2% of its total population. The original languages are part of the intangible heritage of Mexico, in addition, they represent one of the most important connections that we have with the original cultures that inhabited the Mexican territory in pre-Columbian times.
Due to its geographical, political-economic and social characteristics, Oaxaca’s territory is subdivided into eight regions: Cañada, Costa, Istmo, Mixteca, Papaloapam, Sierra Norte, Sierra Sur, and Valles Centrales . These regions are made up of various communities that house cultures and traditions closely related to native cultures and our roots.
Oaxaca City (also the state’s capital) is located in the Valles Centrales region, which is composed of a set of three river valleys: to the northwest the Etla Valley, to the east the Tlacolula Valley and to the south the Zimatlán-Ocotlán Valley or Valle Grande . These valleys are mostly made up of Zapotec communities, which in addition to conserving an integral part of their original culture, traditions and customs, they have preserved and honored their relationship with their territory and nature.
At Coyote we are fortunate to be able to learn, belong and flow with the abundance and energy of this land and we believe that a responsible and sustainable tourism is possible. Most of our experiences seek to enhance the natural surroundings and essence of each place we visit, in addition, they generate employment opportunities for women and young people. Our journeys also help to reinforce cultural heritage and add value to the communities and people with whom we collaborate.
Facts about Oaxaca, Mexico
Here are 15 interesting facts in order to wrap up my coverage of this city and state:
1. Most of the municipalities in the state are governed by a customs and traditions system with recognized forms of self-governance. This is a place where “modern” laws seem to have no place.
2. Oaxaca contains 18 indigenous groups who retain their languages and traditions (Zapotecs and Mixtecs are the most populous). Since the state is very rugged, these cultures survived better than in other states.
3. The name of the state comes from the name of its capital. The name comes from the Nahuatl, “Huaxyacac”, which refers to a tree.
4. Monte Alban, located close to Oaxaca City, is considered the first great city of Mesoamerica. Experts estimate its foundation in 500 BC.
5. Benito Juarez, arguably Mexico’s most famous president, was Zapotec. It has been the only Mexican president with indigenous ascent.
The pools are over the big waterfall (cannot be seen from this point). The small waterfall is to the right.
6. Huatulco is the premier beach resort in the state. Puerto Angel and Puerto Escondido are also popular with crowds looking for surf and sand.
7. Oaxaca is divided into 8 regions.
8. It is the state with the most biodiversity in Mexico (even though it is the fifth state in terms of size).
9. Unfortunately, Oaxaca is the third most marginalized state of Mexico. Infrastructure, housing, and education are below federal minimums.
10. The state is known as “The Land of the Seven Moles.”
11. Oaxaca’s gastronomic fame also extends because of its chapulines, quesillo, chocolate, mezcal, and herbs such as pitiona, hoja santa, and epazote.
12. The state is a leading producer of world-renowned handcrafts. There are entire towns dedicated to the creation of alebrijes, barro negro pottery, green glazed pottery, carpets, huipiles, ponchos and blankets.
13. Each year the indigenous cultures of the state are celebrated in an event called La Guelaguetza. Groups from the 8 regions come together to celebrate in an event believed to have pre-Hispanic beginnings.
14. The Night of the Radishes is celebrated every 23 rd of December. Craftsmen carve all sorts of figures in a large type of red radish. This competition attracts big national and international crowds.
15. Oaxaca’s primary industry is tourism. The state has been greatly affected by the recent wave of violence in Mexico (even though the state is safe).
I put a lot of effort into documenting a great part of what I experienced in Oaxaca. Here is a summary of all my posts about the state in case you missed one:
Oaxaca - HISTORY
Oaxaca culture is as fascinating as the land’s natural and cultural beauty and the diversity of its landscapes and people. From its fertile lands comes a huge variety of agricultural and fishing products. Oaxaca has a unique charm and is the state with the greatest biodiversity in the country.
Its capital was designated Cultural Patrimony of the Humanity by UNESCO in 1987 for all its artistic and architectural treasures, where different ethnic groups converge creating the unique Oaxaca culture.
In its main streets you can admire its beautiful museums and religious temples that protect virreinal religious art. The Zócalo, also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, is surrounded by old buildings, whose portals are full of cafes and shops, where people gather to listen to the live marimba. There you can visit the Museum of the Oaxaqueños Painters and the Cathedral, which stands out for its beautiful facade of green quarry.
In addition to its artistic treasures, the greatest wealth of Oaxaca culture lies in its people, who keep alive the traditions that have existed for thousands of years in the Valley of Oaxaca.
Dances such as La Pluma and La Zandunga, the celebrations of the patron saints, the change of civil authorities, weddings, parties of the dead and carnival make the state of Oaxaca a permanent festival, but it is undoubtedly the famous “Monday of the Hill” or “Guelaguetza”, celebrated annually on the last two Mondays of July, is the one that has gained international fame and celebrates Oaxaca culture.
Folk art, pottery, textiles, basketry, goldsmithing, wood carving, metalwork, toys and leather goods are some of its best known works. The black clay of San Bartolo Coyotepec and textiles dyed with natural dyes from Teotitlán del Valle are the best known Oaxacan crafts worldwide.
Oaxacan cuisine is a staple in local culture, where the famous mole is one of its greatest representatives of local food the pan de huevo (egg bread), called “marquesote”, the chocolate, the cheese and the cecina enjoy national fame.
Alebrijes are whimsical carvings depicting animals, people, objects, and imaginary creatures painted with intense colors and intricate patterns. Although these distinctive cultural artifacts are often assumed to represent a long established, tradition of Mexican folk art, they only began to appear in the 1940s.
Click here to jump to the list of alebrije galleries. Click here to download a brochure about the exhibition of alebrijes in William T. Young Library at the University of Kentucky. Click here to listen to a podcast in which Dr. Francie Chassen-Lopéz and Dara Vance from the University of Kentucky Department of History talk about alebrijes.
After the Mexican Revolution, intellectuals and politicians began to reinvent a national identity that would unify a population that had suffered ten years of violent civil war. Rejecting European aesthetic ideals that had been dominant before the Revolution, they began to recognize the value of Mexican arts and crafts. They sponsored various exhibitions of arts and crafts from all over Mexico as part of a new Mexican aesthetic. The state of Oaxaca had long been an area of accomplished wood carvers who produced masks and utilitarian objects. One such wood carver was Manuel Jiménez of the town of Arrazola. In the 1940s, Jimenez saw the opportunity to capitalize on the demand for local crafts. He began to carve animals and figurines to sell in the street markets. Until the mid-1960s, Jiménez basically maintained a monopoly on alebrije carving in his village. However, the alebrije vendors he supplied found him unreliable. Craft marketers looked elsewhere for a source of alebrijes and encouraged men in neighboring villages to carve them.
In 1967, Martín Santiago, of the village La Unión Tejalapan, signed a contract with Enrique de la Lanza (one of Jiménez’ patrons) to produce alebrijes. Santiago taught the craft to his brothers and developed a successful family business. In 1968, the production of alebrijes spread to the community of San Martín Tilcajete. By this time, alebrijes were becoming very popular among tourists as an indigenous artifact, despite the fact that they were actually commodities of recent origin. The director of Mexico’s National Tourist Council learned of Isidoro Cruz’ work in San Martín Tilcajete and arranged for his alebrijes to be viewed in an exposition in Mexico City and Los Angeles.
Much of the success of the sale of alebrijes can be attributed to improved infrastructure and communication within Mexico. Ease of communication via telephone, cell phone, and the Internet enhanced the ability of both marketers and crafters to obtain materials as well as to accept and complete orders. However, the alebrije trade is dependent upon the demand for indigenous craft by the middle and upper class in the United States, Canada, and Europe (Chibnik, 19-35).
Copaleros collect the wood, which is then dried, and pieces are selected for carving. The shape of the branch often dictates the figure to be carved. Intricate, twisting shapes are desirable for carving lizards, cats, and dragons with interwoven tails. The figures are sanded and painted with a base coat of paint. The final painting is done meticulously with intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Originally, alebrijes were painted with water-based paint that faded or rubbed off, but now producers have switched to latex based house paint. The pieces are rarely sealed or treated for insects. According to Michael Chibnik, it is not uncommon to find a pile of sawdust around an alebrije, resulting from a wood-boring insect eating the alebrije from the inside. Chibnik recommends freezing the alebrije for a couple weeks to kill any unwelcome critters (Chibnik, 94-111).
Gender and Signatures
There is gendered division of labor in the production of alebrijes. Males, both men and boys, gather and carve wood, since wood gathering and carving is a long established tradition in rural Oaxaca. The sanding of the alebrijes is a monotonous job that is usually relegated to children or unskilled labor. Women typically paint the alebrijes, with the most talented painters creating the most intricate and complex patterns (Chibnik, 94-111). One way of telling which is a superior alebrije is by looking at how the eyes are painted.
Some alebrijes are signed. Because tourists highly value the signed pieces, this has been incorporated into the ‘tradition’. However, the alebrije may have had many hands contribute to its making, but only one person signs it. Often the person who signs the alebrije is the person who is the most well known in the family or the workshop. For instance, a son may carve an alebrije in his father’s workshop. A grandson may sand it and a daughter may paint it. But if the father is the most well known carver, it is signed with his name (Chibnik, 94-111).
Alebrijes are carved from the copal wood. The tree referred to as copal is native to Mexico and has many uses beyond alebrije carving. The sap or resin can be used for a variety of medicinal purposes including treating scorpion bites, relieving cold symptoms, headache, and acne. The fruit and foliage of three produces aromatic linaloe oil used in making lotions, essential oils, and soaps. The resin of the tree is also burned in churches during religious services and produces a fruity, earthy fragrance (Peters et al., 431-441). Interestingly:
Wood carvers in La Unión Tejalapan refer to two types of copal: male and female. The female (hembras) are better for carving because they are softer and have fewer knots, while the male (machos) are lighter in color, and contain more hardened knots. Botanists agree the distinction is not based on the sex of the tree, but are two different types of copal: Bursera bipinnata (hembra) and Bursera glabrifolia (macho). (Chibnik, 94-95)
Chibnik, Michael. Crafting Tradition: The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Peters, Charles M., Silvia E. Purata, Michael Chibnik, Berry J. Brosi, Ana M. Lopez, and Myrna Ambrosio, “The Life and Time of Bursera glabrifolia (H.B.K.) Engl. in Mexico A Parable for Ethnobotany,” Economic Botany Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter 2003): 431-441.
Exhibits assembled by Dr. Francie Chassen-Lopéz. Text by Dara Vance. Both from the Department of History at the University of Kentucky
Conquest and Colony (1521-1810) to Independence (1810-1910)
By 1530, the Spanish had conquered the valleys and established the city of Antequera (Oaxaca) on the site of the Mexica garrison (Esparza 1993), without realizing that they were in the shadow of the abandoned city of Monte Albán. The conquest did not extinguish indigenous cultures. Indigenous nobles continued to influence land use and held large extensions of tribute-bearing land, for example, in Cuilapan, through the sixteenth century. Indigenous peoples resisted taxes, labor levies, tribute, and other forms of extraction of wealth by the state, by large landholders and by the church (Romero Frizzi 1988:118). These struggles continued until the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1921 brought the formal breakdown of the hacienda system of controlling land and labor, paving the way for industrialization and wage labor. They continue today.
Examples of resistance to Spanish domination abound. Many beliefs, symbols, and practices persist, transformed and transforming at the same time. These include language, beliefs and practices about water, rain and agriculture, building style, agricultural practice, crafts, and market structure. Early on, conflicts between conquerors, including Cortés, other Spanish groups and indigenous nobles arose. The (unnamed) cacica (female chief leader) of Cuilapan was arrested and hung upside down in chains for allegedly robbing gold from graves. The first alcalde mayor (judge) of Oaxaca, Juan Pelaez de Barrio, was convicted of having intimate relations with Iñesico, an indigenous woman (Esparza 1993). These struggles for power weakened the indigenous nobility.
Indigenous elites tried to hold on to their privilege and assets using the discourse and laws of the conquerors. Where Post-Classic documents established rulers’ legitimacy through genealogies, post conquest ones focused on land rights (Romero Frizzi 2003). Male as well as female progenitors were important for the validation of inheritance, illustrating the cognatic structure of the kinship system (in which the ancestor with the highest rank is recognized). This pattern was different from the Spanish system that favored patrilineal descent and primogeniture (Whitecotton 2003:329).
As the indigenous nobility disappeared, the Spanish filled the vacuum at the top end of the social scale, but not without creating new social groups, mainly through marriage to indigenous women, because few Spanish women came over in the first century after the conquest. Academics call this new population mestizo—mixed American (indigenous), African and European. Most Mexicans today refer to themselves as mexicanos and classify themselves according to intricate color, not racial, scales. Language largely determines racial or ethnic classification, but skin color is also an important criterion, creating Mexico’s own brand of racism (Montes 2002).
The conquest caused a demographic holocaust: the pre-conquest valleys population of 350,000 declined to 45,000 by 1630 (Romero Frizzi 1988:136)—a 94% decline in 100 years. Not all the decline was due to war—epidemics accomplished what conquest did not. Acuña (1984:170) records that half of the 2,000 indios in Teitipac had died by 1580 because of disease and pestilence. Population decline meant that many communities became ghost towns. The Crown’s congregación policy consolidated these reduced communities into concentrated settlements near a church for easier control and conversion. Resettlement fueled conflicts, many of which continue today.
Up-rooting people from their historical settlements finished off what was left of Post-Classic social organization, memory, and knowledge (Romero Frizzi 1988:145). Contemporary communities are not long-standing historical entities many or most are the results of colonial resettlement. Barrios, or named neighborhoods, may be the remnants of two or more blended communities. In the community of San Lucas Quiaviní, barrios are not residential units, but sound like clans in which everyone knows which barrio they belong to, regardless of where they live (Padrón Gil 1992).
Conflict between indigenous elites and commoners and between both of these and Spanish colonists continued (Romero 1996:117). Of 52 land disputes recorded in the valleys in the seventeenth century, 37 (71%) were between communities, and 13 (25%) between communities and haciendas (landed estates) (Taylor 1972:83). Many conflicts were between the richest communities and their neighbors. For example, Tlacochahuaya, a community in the valley of Tlacolula with rich land and high water table, extended its borders from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Almost all communities continue to have border conflicts today (see Dennis 1987).
Indigenous communities did not disappear, but changed in many ways. Their internal political structure changed as political office opened to commoners rather than only nobles (Romero Frizzi 1988:172). Economic changes weakened communities, as dependence on external markets transformed the list of products with exchange value as new tributary structures demanded. Before the conquest, flint, maize, quetzal feathers, and cotton cloth were important tribute products. Some of these remained important, but the Spanish colonists introduced new products, including wheat and cochineal. New products, and money as a medium of exchange, as well as horse drawn carts accelerated communication and changed commerce in the valleys without altering forms of production (Romero Frizzi 1988:119-125), which continued to be based in the household. Some marketplaces rose and others fell in importance (Appel 1982:140), but this goes on today, as new highway routes isolate some pueblos, and put others on the map. Changes in land tenure law that encouraged privatization also weakened community control of resources (Romero Frizzi 1988:169). Indigenous communities became more homogeneous as indigenous elites lost power and status and everyone became an ‘indio’ (Reina 1988:183).
The Spanish system did not replace indigenous forms of organization and belief. Often indigenous people accepted Spanish forms while giving them indigenous content. For example, the colonial convent in Cuilapan has a cornerstone dated in both the Mixtec and the Gregorian calendar. Indigenous peoples resisted the Spanish both physically and passively. They quickly learned to use Spanish laws and rhetoric to their advantage. For example, in 1799, a Zapotec “insolently” cited the Recopilación de Leyes de Indias that supported his right not to pay when a representative of the church tried to collect a tithe (Romero Frizzi 1988:178).
The Spanish introduced and often imposed new products market forces and the need for money reinforced these changes. Cochineal, gold, labor and agricultural products such as wheat created the wealth that built the ornate churches and monasteries seen today in Oaxaca City and throughout the valleys. Demand for dyes—cochineal, indigo, púrpura—and other products strengthened ties between Oaxaca and European markets in the colonial period (Hamnett 1971). The case of cochineal production illustrates how political conflicts over land and women’s labor relate to global economic demand (see p 53ff).
Haciendas needed workers in order to produce wealth. Spanish hacienda owners met their labor needs through encomiendas, or forced labor grants, from the Spanish Crown. They recruited workers from all over, and Spanish became the lingua franca on haciendas. Today, communities formed around former haciendas speak Spanish (for example, Tilcajete, La Compañía, Villa Rojas de Cuauhtémoc), and communities that were never part of haciendas (mainly in drier areas) speak Zapotec. Contact is the main predictor of contemporary indigenous language use, not resistance to domination or remoteness: In Teotitlán only twenty minutes from Oaxaca City, Zapotec is the lengua franca, while in Sosola, which is hours away but on a colonial trade route, no one speaks an indigenous language.
Oaxacans did not take to forced resettlement or work for haciendas and tried to get away whenever they could. Haciendas meted out harsh physical punishment to recalcitrant workers and used debt slavery and other kinds of chicanery to turn peasants into sharecroppers (Reina 1988:202-3), resulting in a number of revolts and protests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indigenous forms of organization stymied the colonial government’s attempts to punish and control. They could not find leaders to punish because of the indigenous government by consensus. The local priest blamed one uprising in Zimatlán in 1772 on their “perverse style of government” in which “everyone governs, including women and children” (Reina 1988:204). Women led at least one fourth of the uprisings (Taylor 1972:176). Most protests were against abuses, tribute, taxes, tithes, forced labor, and punishment by hacienda owners to force women to process the important export crop, cochineal, especially in 1770-1780 (Reina 1988:205). Spanish control of New Spain weakened and the nation of Mexico was born in 1810.
Creole (Spanish-born) land holdings continued to increase in extension after independence, until, by the end of the nineteenth century, their haciendas held almost half of the land in the valleys. In 1889, a new law ordered municipios to divide the land among residents, including widows and unmarried men, in taxable lots valued at $200 pesos. Communities generally refused to divide their common lands and resisted attempts by outsiders to take over (Esparza Camargo 1988:281-2).
Peasants continued to protest throughout the independence period, but they were not successful at stopping the growth of haciendas, commercial production, and taxes. Conflicts between state, church, landowners and peasants increased, especially as the population recovered from the conquest holocaust. Landlessness increased, partly because of land privatization reforms in the mid nineteenth century, promulgated by Oaxacan Benito Juárez, the Zapotec president. Conflicts between communities also increased, especially where there was good land and more economic activity. Over 40% of the conflicts in the state were in the valleys (Reina 1988:206-7). These conflicts may have contributed to the re-emergence of community autonomy in the nineteenth century (Reina 1988:240) which is one of the reasons why Oaxaca, especially the valleys, has more municipios than any other state—almost a quarter of the total number of municipios in Mexico. Almost every community forms its own autonomous municipio, and most have some kind of boundary dispute with their neighbors, making it difficult to forge regional alliances against the haciendas. Oaxaca’s municipios represent the extremes of atomization, not just of land, but also of political structure.
Without land, the only alternative for many was to sharecrop. Hacienda residents exchanged their labor for various combinations of housing and land. For example, Manuel Mimiaga y Camacho, the owner of the Hacienda El Vergel, did not charge his lucky hacienda residents for the land they lived on, for grazing their domestic animals or for the firewood they collected, but they had to work on his ranch. In Yaxe, mineworkers could live on the hacienda in exchange for 24 days of work per year. In La Compañía in Ejutla, sharecroppers paid for seed and did the work, and the owner harvested and kept half the harvest (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:350). As a result, there were conflicts between hacienda owners and workers over debt, water, and land. The fact that any communal lands in the valleys survived hacienda encroachment is partly because they did not want scrubland, but also because campesinos continued to use resistance, sabotage and lawyers to defend their interests (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:354). In Yogana in Ejutla, sharecroppers burned the forest. Residents of Magdalena Ocotlán complained about the abuses of the hacienda of San José la Garzona. Some owners, like the magnanimous Manuel Mimiaga y Camacho first mentioned above, were ‘hard-liners’ who recommended kicking complainers off the land and drafting them into the army (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:353). These conflicts continued to grow in the early twentieth century, setting the stage for the Mexican Revolution.
OAXACA'S HISTORY IS LINKED TO ITS LUSCIOUS CHOCOLATE
Throughout Oaxaca's markets the aroma of chocolate mixed with cinnamon and almonds tempts young and old.
Freshly roasted cacao beans, mounded in burlap bags, await noisy grinding machines. Nearby, lumpy white sugar, reedlike cinnamon and heaps of almonds undergo purchasers' scrutiny.
At Chocolate Mayordomo, considered the state of Oaxaca's premier chocolate company , the four ingredients are blended into sweet and bittersweet versions. Once mixed, the components are ground in huge electric machines.
At the factory just outside the city's Benito Juarez market, customers line up to purchase Mayordomo's chocolate-filled red and white boxes. Clerks offer samples of the warm, freshly ground mixture-resembling black mortar at this point-from a shiny metal pan. The dollop intoxicates with its powerful chocolate flavor, haunting aroma of cinnamon and soft, gritty texture. Before cooling, the paste will be shaped into hockey puck-size discs or mounded into plastic bags.
Mayordomo's chocolate is not meant for out-of-hand eating-despite how good it tastes. Instead, its destination is a frothy, hot, rich beverage usually served from a tall, green-glazed pitcher. Oaxacans drink chocolate at all hours of the day: early in the morning, at a break from rigorous marketing, after a meal and at fiestas.
Elaine Gonzalez, a nationally known chocolate artist from Chicago with a special interest in chocolate's historical roots in Mexico, says if you are looking for the soul of chocolate, you must venture to Oaxaca and nearby cacao-growing state of Tabasco.
"I don't think we can fully appreciate what chocolate means to Oaxaca and to its people without going to its roots," Gonzalez said in October during the International Association of Culinary Professionals International Mini-Conference in Oaxaca.
Speaking to 100 food and wine professionals, Gonzalez said, "From the historical point of view, once it begins to be fabricated, the history of all chocolate is in Oaxaca. It's an unbroken chain-they are still doing things-growing, harvesting and eating the chocolate-in the same way they did hundreds of years ago. It's living history-the root is still in the ground and has never been severed.
"The first shipment of chocolate to Europe in 1502 came from Oaxaca, the area in Mexico that always used it the most. And Oaxacans still feel about chocolate the same way they did so long ago. It's even still used in wedding dowries in some villages."
"One of the most wonderful things about cacao is the myths and stories surrounding it," Gonzalez said. For example, some people believe that chocolate was named after the "choco, choco, choco" sound the molinillo (a wooden beater) makes while frothing a cup of the hot chocolate. Others believe the foam that floats on a cup of properly made chocolate embodies its spirit.
In pre-Columbian Mexico, chocolate was part of religious ceremonies and served in special gold cups only to the noblemen of Montezuma's court.
In Tabasco, Gonzalez said, folk wisdom says that if you have a friend who talks too much, you should serve him chocolate in a porcelain cup so he will burn his mouth.
In ancient times, only a charcoal-heated metate (a grinding stone) was used to grind the cacao beans. Today, many Oaxacans-at least those who live in urban areas-purchase cacao beans at the market and then take them to chocolate-makers, such as Chocolate Mayordomo, to be ground in a large electric grinder. Custom blending of the cacao, sugar, cinnamon and almonds ensures each family its preference. Other shoppers purchase the already-blended versions.
Rather than dissolve the discs of flavored chocolate in milk, most Oaxacans prefer boiling water for a base. About 1 ounce of chocolate is used for every 6-ounce cup, the standard size,-but it's really a matter of taste, says Gonzalez. Once the chocolate is melted, the molinillo is rotated between the cook's palms in a rapid motion ("in prayer," the Mexicans say) to froth the drink.
Traditionally, says Gonzalez, chunks of pan de yema (a rich egg bread) are dunked into the frothy cup-the hotter the chocolate the more bread you might use.
Once you've tasted a mugful of Oaxacan hot chocolate it's easy to understand why chocolate ranks as a favorite beverage for the living. But Gonzalez said it's also considered a favorite among the dead.
She was referring to the traditional Day of the Dead feast in early November. On this holiday, the Mexicans believe the spirits of their deceased family members return to visit. Favorite foods-especially chocolate-are set out on elaborate altars as enticements.
While Mayordomo chocolate is available only in Oaxaca, other brands of Mexican chocolate can be found in Hispanic markets and large supermarkets with ethnic food aisles. Lacking a molinillo, use a whisk, then froth and enjoy.
Credit: Sergunt | Thinkstock
The city of Oaxaca – officially Oaxaca de Juárez – is the capital and largest city of the state of Oaxaca. It is located in the Valles Centrales foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur at the base of Cerro del Fortin, the highest point in the city and its symbol.
Oaxaca extends beyond the banks of the Atoyac River to the site of Monte Alban to the west, north to San Jacinto Amilpas, east to Santa Cruz Amilpas and south to Animas Truijano. Its elevation is just over 5,100 ft. and it is located at latitude 17 North and longitude 96 West, approximately 300 miles southwest of Mexico City.
The state of Oaxaca is bordered by the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Guerrero and Chiapas and the Pacific Ocean. It has the most diverse variety of flora and fauna of all the states of Mexico, including seven of the nine types of terrestrial plants in existence on earth. The state also has about 30,000 species of vegetation, which make up 5 percent of the total plant species in the world. Mountain ranges and terrain make up as much as 90 percent of the state.
Oaxaca lies on the boundary where the Cocos Plate is subducted beneath the North American Plate, which results in frequent seismic activity, including a 7.2 earthquake in 2018.
Notably, less than 20-minutes from the city of Oaxaca by automobile is Monte Alban, the most important and well-preserved archaeological site in the Oaxaca Valley.
Oaxaca is in the Central Standard Time zone and observes daylight saving time beginning the first Sunday in April and ending the last Sunday in October of each year.
A cultural colossus fit to rival anywhere in Latin America for history, gastronomy and colorful manifestations of indigenous culture, Oaxaca is a complex but intensely attractive city whose majestic churches and refined plazas have deservedly earned it a Unesco World Heritage badge. Lovers of culture come here to indulge in the Mexico of Zapotec and colonial legend. Flowing through handsome yet tranquil streets, life pulsates with an unadulterated regional flavor. See it in the color palate of historic boutique hotels, a meet-the-producer artisan store or an intentionally grungy mezcalería (plying locally manufactured alcoholic beverages). But what makes Oaxaca especially interesting are its undercurrents. While largely safe and attractive by Mexican standards, snippets of political protest in recent years have lent the city a grittier edge. It bubbles up in satirical street art, bohemian bars and been-around-forever street markets. Trust us: there’s far more to this city than just pretty churches.