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Mention the name Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka) and you’re likely to get a number of reactions from people familiar with the area. Whether it’s relating facts about their colorful indigenous culture, remarking on their recent political turmoil, or complimenting their beautiful beaches and landmarks, Oaxaca is always fodder for a lively discussion of Mexico’s more prominent landscapes.
However, with such a large land mass and population, it’s easy to overlook Oaxaca and cities like it as just another part of the worldwide economic hub, no more and no less. But what makes Oaxaca de Juarez–it’s official title as the capital of the Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca–so unique are the personal touches, a fact you’ll hear echoed by most local residents.
To really understand Oaxaca and its inhabitants though, you have to take a trip back in time to the city’s origin, and look at how it got to be the great city it is today.
The Beginning
There are 16 different indigenous cultures that call Oaxaca home, but the Zapotec and Mixtec are considered the two most prominent ones, their history dating back thousands of years. Though there were occasional conflicts between the civilizations–the Mixteca and Zapotec tried at various points to conquer each other between 1500 BC and Spanish colonial times–the area remained home to them all, and the cultures lived relatively peaceful, developing at their own pace and growing in numbers. Archaeologists have even identified a city called San José Mogote as one of the largest and most prominent Zapotec settlements that existed in the area.
This good fortune wouldn’t last though, as in 1521 the first Spanish expedition arrived in Oaxaca, headed by Captain Francisco de Orozco who entered the land accompanied by 500 Aztecs (the Aztecs had recently been conquered by the Spaniards). Sent by Hernán Cortés under the reign of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles I to search for gold and land, Orozco reported to Cortes that the land of Oaxaca was rich for habitating. Zapotec and Mixtec officials–hearing about the fall of the Aztec empire–decided to try and form an alliance with Cortes and Spain, which resulted in Cortes traveling to the area to oversee it.
Wanting to control the land for himself, Cortes proceeded to exile most of the people in the village of Oaxaca. However, the people of Oaxaca appealed to the crown to be given power over their own village,essentially asking for Cortes’s power to be limited over the region. The request was approved, giving Oaxaca residents more control over how things were run.
Obviously not happy about this, Cortes gained control of every village surrounding Oaxaca after being promoted to Marquise of the Valley of Oaxaca, which gave him the power to heavily tax the area. And even though his power was limited in Oaxaca itself, by controlling the nearby villages, Cortes managed to create bad relations between Oaxaca and all its neighbors and essentially force them into submission.
Oaxaca residents responded by going even further, petitioning the crown to elevate them to the status of a city, which would even further limit Cortes’s power. And in 1532, King Charles granted the petition. Oaxaca became its own city, though still under the jurisdiction of Spain. As a result, 300 years of colonial expansion left many Oaxacan residents impoverished. In the early 1800s–with conditions getting worse and unrest growing in the community–communities in Mexico began to actively rebel against Spanish imposition, culminating in the Mexican War of Independence from 1810 to 1821.
During the war, Oaxaca found itself at the forefront of the revolution, the region’s efforts headed by Bishop Antonio Barbosa Jordan. In one particular battle, a local indigenous soldier named Valerio Trujano held out against Spanish forces for 111 days waiting for reinforcements, eventually winning the battle that would fully return Oaxaca back to its people.
Following the war and Mexico’s independence, Oaxaca became the seat of the municipality–the capitol of the Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca. The city also adopted the full name “Oaxaca de Juárez” after Benito Juárez, a Mexican lawyer of Zapotec origin who would end up becoming a five-term president and victor against later French attempts to conquer Mexico.
On September 27, 1821, Mexico officially consummated its independence (though Spain wouldn’t recognize it until 1836) and Oaxaca became–for the first time in 300 years–truly free.
Oaxaca Today
With such a rich and hard-fought history as a people, it’s no wonder then that Oaxaca’s primary economic resource today is tourism. Over 300 miles of beaches–including Huatulco, a popular one among families due to its seclusion from the busy city life–brings hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world each year to Oaxaca. Add to that the 3.5 million state residents–266,000 within the city of Oaxaca itself–and you can see why today’s Oaxaca is both similar and very different from the Oaxaca of the past. Imperial independence is no longer an issue, but many of the customs and habits of the indigenous cultures haven’t changed, and neither has the mark their ancestors left on the land.
Take one of Oaxaca’s most popular sites: Monte Albán. Ancient Oaxacan cultures were as intelligent as the other indigenous cultures of pre-colonial Mexico, and as a result they studied many subjects, such as astronomy. Monte Albán remains a prominent symbol of the society’s intelligence; a local mountain with the top dug out to create what was then the social, political, and economic center of Zapotec culture. It’s part of the reason the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) deemed both Oaxaca and Monte Albán World Heritage Sites in 1987, a designation that recognizes the world’s areas of cultural significance.
Aside from Monte Albán and the beaches, Oaxaca is also known for its celebration of the Festival of Guelaguetza, a month-long religious gathering in July that has its two main events on the last Mondays of the month. Other popular landmarks in Oaxaca also include the Iglesia de Santo Domingo–a Dominican church founded in 1575–and Plaza de la Constitución (aka Zócalo), and various other churches and museums.
The Real Oaxaca
Aside from the landmarks though, Oaxaca’s real claim to fame comes from the dexterous skills of its indigenous peoples, who are world-renowned when it comes to their textile manufacturing habits. Known mostly for their handwoven goods–many of which are made using what’s known as a back strap loom–Oaxacan culture utilizes several different techniques for creating textiles, based on several methods from the various indigenous groups in the area.
Hand-spun from cotton, silk, or other locally-produced material, Oaxacan textiles also utilize dye made from local sources, such as cochineal (which is how Oaxacans produce the bright red colors used frequently in their products).
Traditional textile clothing include: the huipil, a women’s blouse that displays several panels and flowery colors; the ceñidor, a Mazatec sash; the paño, a Chinantec head covering; and the red faja, a woven sash worn around a woman’s waist to protect against evil.
Staples of indigenous design also included the Mazatec tendency to include images of butterflies. Butterflies carry a special place in Oaxacan culture, as they believe the presence of butterflies signifies the soul leaving the body. In this same vein, souls are allowed to visit their family once a year–on “All Saints’ Day” or “Day of the Dead”–which is the day butterflies are most concentrated in the area. As a result, it’s considered a sin to kill them.
In this regard, a lot of the textiles religious sub-context is very straight-forward, but other customs are a little more ambiguous, especially in regards to color. Associated from pre-colonial days with the cardinal directions, basic colors have a very specific meaning in Oaxacan textiles: yellow for east, red for north, blue or green for west, and white for south.
The types of textiles produced also vary from region to region as well, depending on which indigenous culture is producing it. In Teotitlán del Valle, Mitla and Tlacolula, residents are known for their blankets, ponchos, rugs, and mats. Mitla and Santo Tomas Jalieza residents are known for their blankets, women’s clothing, handbags, napkins and tablecloths. San Antonino Castillo is known for its silk dresses and blouses, as are the people of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, while Tlaxiaco, Tuxtepec and Huautla de Jimenez are well-known for their pre-colonial indigenous specialty outfits, the aforementioned huipiles amongst other garments.
The overall theme throughout all of this textile production is the same though: Oaxaca and its indigenous residents are not only extremely proud of their long-held culture, but have embedded some of the most important traditions in the material they produce on a daily basis.
Oaxaca and Malaquita
With so much history behind the handmade garments that Oaxaca produces, the decision by certain parties in the fashion industry to focus on promoting awareness of these cultures and their style is both noble and intelligent. Which is why companies like Malaquita have been at the forefront of a movement to not only raise awareness about Oaxacan communities but sell their products through the use of fair trade and a business model focused on both a savvy fashion sense and cultural identity.

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