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Oaxaca History

Aerial view of Monte Alban Ruins in Oaxaca, Mexico
Credit: Madrugada Verde | Shutterstock

Between approximately 1500 and 500 BCE, Oaxaca was the Zapotecan city of San José Mogote. It was the largest and most important settlement in the region. During the pre-colonial period, Oaxaca was home to 16 separate cultures, each with its own language, customs and traditions. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs, who had villages and farmlands throughout the region, constituted the largest and most sophisticated societies.

The Zapotecs – known as the “Cloud People” – established Monte Albán as their first capital. Skilled in astronomy and excavation, they leveled the top of a local mountain around 450 BCE and created the ceremonial center now called Monte Albán. One of the most densely populated cities in Mesoamerica, Monte Albán had an estimated 18,000 Zapotecan residents at its peak.

The Aztecs conquered the Zapotecs in the15th century and established an outpost on the Cerro del Fortín, the highest point in the valley. Trade with the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán and other Aztec cities increased, but day-to-day life was unchanged by their presence.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs on behalf of Spain. On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Orozco took possession of the area for Cortés and founded the town of Antequera, which he named after a Spanish city in the Andalusia region of Spain.

After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the city became the seat of a municipality and the name of both the city and the municipality became Oaxaca. The name Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl name, Huaxyacac, which then became Guajaca, and later Oaxaca. In 1872, “de Juárez” was added to the city and municipality names to honor Mexico president Benito Juárez, who began his legal and political career in Oaxaca. The city today is more commonly called just Oaxaca or Oaxaca City.

Oaxaca is the capital of its namesake state with a metropolitan area population of an estimated 675,000 people. The city relies heavily on tourism based on its many colonial-era buildings as well as the Zapotec and Mixtec archeological sites. Monte Albán was named a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1987.

The city is also home to the Guelaguetza, a month-long cultural festival that features Oaxacan dance, music and a beauty pageant for indigenous women. About 50 percent of the city’s population is indigenous.