Why Go To Oaxaca?
After living in Mexico City for one month, it was time to venture further into Mexico.
The hype about Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wahaka') has to do with its more indigenous feel, since the people who lived there were left isolated for most of the last 500 years, thus their culture and traditions can be seen freely.
While I personally didn't see an epic display of Indigenous culture in the city itself, reading the history of the state makes you appreciate this region on a much deeper level.
The Ancient Zapotec City of Monte Albán, Oaxaca
Most of what is known about the Oaxaca region dates back to about 11,000 BCE (Before Common Era), with early evidence of domesticated agriculture, but nomadic living continued for another 7,000 years.
By 2000 BCE, agriculture had been fully established in the Oaxaca valleys, consisting of corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chili peppers, and squash, along with whatever could be hunted from the areas such as turkey, deer, armadillo, and iguana.
By 500 CE, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs (pronounced Mitsteks) inhabited the region, within a constant state of conflict and war.
Evidence suggest that between 700-1521 CE, the population of the region peaked at about 2.1 million people.
The Zapotecs were the first to dominate the area, founding and controlling the city of Monte Alban from 500 BCE to 750 CE, which supported about 25,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Between 750 CE until 1325 CE, valleys of Oaxaca were occupied by many cities that grew and collapsed over time.
Most towns and cities consisted of about 1,000 to 3,000 people, and had a palace, temple, market, houses and the occasional ball-court.
Each town and city usually acted as a fortress as well, as they would all constantly war against each other.
For hundreds of years, the Zapotecs would ally, and then war against eachother, but by 1325, Monte Alban was captured by the Mixtecs.
By 1457, the Aztec empire invaded the Oaxaca regions, established military fortifications, and demanded tributes, slaves, and sacrifices from the locals.
Yet by 1521, the Spanish Conquest ended the Mixtec control of Monte Alban, and the Aztec Empire altogether.
Oaxaca & The Spanish Conquest
Shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521 (Pre-Mexico City), the emperor of the Aztecs, ‘Moctezuma II' told Cortez the Spanish Conquistador that there was gold in Oaxaca.
Several Spanish captains were sent to the Oaxaca valleys, but instead of resistance, the local tribes and civilizations decided to ally with the Spanish – including the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mazatecas and Cuicatecas.
Only the Mixe peoples resisted, but they were eventually driven out into the mountains, where they live to this day.
The first church in Oaxaca City was founded in 1522 in the valley outside of Monte Alban.
The Spanish conquest completely decimated the indigenous populations through disease, and brutal forced labour. Oaxaca had about 1.5 million people in 1520, which fell to about 150,000 by 1620.
The upper classes of the indigenous empires accepted the Spanish rule, including their religions, in exchange for maintaining their hierarchical positions and status.
But ultimately, the Spanish conquerors simply lumped all indigenous into one category (Indian), with no status at all.
While the rest of Mexico was assimilated much more forcefully, Spanish rule was minimal in Oaxaca due to its largely dispersed cities, thus the peoples of Oaxaca maintained much of their ancient culture and traditions.
Oaxaca in the center wasn't as traditionalist and indigenous as I had expected.
From a historical stand-point, the further out from the main city you will travel (still within the state), the more traditional the culture will become.
Nonetheless though, Oaxaca's culture is vivid in colours, and ultimately the soup that I ate at the end was absolutely amazing.
This state and city is as close as you can get to traditional pre-conquest Mexican culture (perhaps).