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Oaxaca Travel Guide

History of Oaxaca, Mexico

Temples at Monte Alban
Temples at Monte Alban

The history of Oaxaca traces its roots as far back as seven thousand years, when the land was occupied by as many as 18 diverse ethnic groups. Three of the most dominant groups were the Mixtecs, the Mixe and the Zapotecs. The Mixtecs occupied the areas surrounding Sierra Madre and as far as Tutupec, while the Zapotecs moved to the central valleys in the Sierra Norte. The Mixe, meanwhile, did not expand their territory in the upper highlands.

Read more: Zapotec civilization

When the Aztecs came, they settled in the areas around Cerro del Fortin including the area where the Church of Carmen presently stands. They named this central valley Huaxyacac, in reference to the huaje trees that filled the lush landscape.

The Spanish forces, which arrived in the year 1521 and settled in a place known as Segura de la Frontera, found Huaxyacac difficult to pronounce so they renamed it Oaxaca. The settlement was officially named a royal city in the year 1532 and further renamed to Atequera de Guaxaca by the King Carlos V of Spain. It was Alonso Garcia Bravo who did the first mapping of the city. The first mayor, Don Juan Pelaez de Berrio, distributed land to the first 120 families of the Spanish forces and its allies among the indigenous people.

Oaxaca gained prominence in the colonial era due to its ideal location as gateway to Central and South America, as well as its rich, verdant landscape, intricate textiles and rumored gold mines. The Oaxacans are a proud and mighty people and stepped to the forefront during the Mexican War of Independence to struggle for freedom. Oaxaca was declared a free state in 1823, one year before the nation of Mexico was consolidated in 1824.

Nowadays, the State of Oaxaca holds a population of about 4 million, while the capital city of the same name holds about half a million residents.

See where Oaxaca got its name: Oaxaca etymology