Oaxaca The name of “Oaxaca” is synonymous for both the state and the principal city, located in the southwest of Mexico. Along with its southern neighbor, Chiapas, it perhaps constitutes the most concentrated indigenous cultural areas in all of Mexico. The population is heavily made-up of both Zapotec (31%) and Mixtec (27%) along with smaller representation of more than a dozen other distinct cultural entities, i.e., Mazatecos, Mixe, and others. The predominance of indigenous speakers make for a state-wide population where about one third of the population (3.5 million) speak an indigenous language—with half of these not able to speak the national language of Spanish. More than half the population live in rural areas although there have been large scale migrations both to cities to the north and of course to the United States, although the latter as a destination is in decline. Like the shared history of all of Mesoamerica, that of Oaxaca is also a story of once flourishing cultures conquered by Spanish invaders followed by centuries of oppression, exploitation and resulting near extermination of the indigenous people, then independence and resulting political vagaries which continue into the present time.
The earliest pre-historic traces of human habitation can be traced back to the 12th Millennium B.C. in a cave close-by to Mitla. Settled agrarian communities raising such staples as corn, bean, tomatoes, squash, etc. appear in the same Central Valley region dated to about 2,000 B.C. A sketchy historic record begins in the 12th Century B.C. as recorded in the art of both the Zapotec and Mixtec communities. The former held an early dominion over the Central Valleys with Monte Albán serving as a cultural center from 500 B.C, until succumbing first to the rival Mixtecs and the then empire-building Aztecs shortly before the Spanish invasion. Because oppressive Aztec rule that both Zapotec And Mixtec chose to ally themselves to the Spanish. The result proved the adage of “better the devil known”, for by 1650 A.D. the indigenous population declined by almost 90% due to imported diseases and forced labor.
Oaxaca is famous for two of Mexico’s most notable political figures. On one hand the deified, populist and pure Zapotec Benito Juarez and on the other the more controversial Porfirio Diaz who although once an ally of Juarez became a defender of the ruling elites. Oaxaca has the distinction of being geographically among the most rugged Mexican state. Composed mostly of narrow valleys and moderately high mountains. Inhabiting the tropical latitudes, the climate varies greatly according to the altitude, with an average temperature around 65 F. The same geography determines a wide range of rainfall with regional averages from 17 to 106 inches occurring state-wide throughout the summer into early fall. With such variation in environment it follows quite naturally that the state leads the nation in biodiversity with more than 8,400 plants species as well as 738 bird and 1431 land-based vertebrates.