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Oaxaca : culture
 Page updated on 03.10.2015
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A little bit of geography

mixtecs with white blanket and nice color on topOaxaca (pronounced wa-xa-ka) is the most diversified state in Mexico. The mountains are more than 3000 m high. The caves, the nice forests, the sunny valleys and the beaches make this state a very important tourist attraction. Every year, thousands of sea turtles land on the coast, close to the tourist areas of Puerto Escondido and the Huatulco Bays. Here tourists come from all over the world to spend holidays in the warm waters of the state.
Oaxaca is also rich in traditions and customs because of its diverse ethnic population. Oaxaca is divided into seven regions : La Cañada, La Costa, La Sierra (Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur), La Mixteca, El Papaloapan, El Istmo, and Los Valles Centrales. In this last region, the capital of the state, Ciudad Oaxaca de Juárez, is really worth the visit.
The physical presence of the Indigenous population, with sixteen ethnic groups, 22 languages and 150 dialects is an unquestionable asset for the preservation of the traditions in this state.

Oaxaca State is located south-east of Mexico, over a surface of 95 364 km2 or 36820 square miles (4.8% Mexico’s surface. It is surrounded by the states of Puebla and Veracruz in the northern part of the state, the state of Chiapas in the eastern part of the state and the state of Guerrero at the west.
It has about 3, 230,000 inhabitants (more than 408,000 in the capital and 701,000 with the suburb (data 2007).

   Picture above : mixtecs with white blanket and nice color on top

The name of the state "Huaxyaca" means "close to the place of the acacias".

Oaxaca market The climate in Oaxaca State is diverse because of the topography. It is hot and dry in the Pacific coastal region, with some moisture coming from the sea. Inland, it is mild but cold above 2 000 m.

Average yearly temperatures :
1. Spring: 25°C or 77°F
2. Summer: 28°C or 82°F
3. Fall: 22°C or 72°F
4. Winter: 16°C or 61°F

The Oaxaca coast, where the tourist destinations of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco Bays are, has an average temperature of 27°C (81°F). The capital, located in the Central Valley, has an average yearly temperature of 22°C (72. °F)

     Right picture : Oaxaca market

There are 570 municipalities; among them 418 have an indigenous predominance. One third of the state speaks its own language. Most of the units of rural production of the state are collective; 44.1% are under a common régime, 27.0% under the ejidal and only 28.5% in private property.

A little bit of history

The state of Oaxaca has two sites declared world heritage by UNESCO : the archaeological site of Monte Albán and the historic center of Oaxaca. This Pre-Hispanic and colonial wealth are unique in Mesoamerica.
Monte Albán was already a first rate cultural center and a city inhabited by sages, warriors, astronomers and farmers at the beginning of the Christian era. The Zapotecs thought that man and nature together formed the maximal divinity, an inseparable link whose relation was mutual respect and appreciation. They developed a solar calendar of 365 days to mark the years and seasons. They also developed a ritual calendar of 260 days to cipher the secrets of life as well as the periods during the world was destroyed and renewed as if it was shaken by a cosmic purifying fire.

girls at the market of Oaxaca The decline of the Zapotec culture was followed by the arrival of the Mixtec and then the Aztecs. However, the Zapotec culture remained. The people from these cultures built ceremony centers, citadels and burial centers. The archaeological sites of Monte Albán, Mitlá, Yagul, Lambityeco, Dainzú and Zaachila, in the Central valleys, are easy to visit.
Under Moctezuma I’s reign (1440-1469), there was a garrison and the government was carried out by a Tlacochtecuhtli (military officer) and a Tlacatecuhtli (civil governor).

Left picture : girls at the market of Oaxaca

When the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, they found a mosaic of cultures. The different groups were devoted to their rituals and traditions. They lived on a highly uneven terrain. In 1524, Hernan Cortés complained in a letter to the King of Spain, about the obstacles that stood in the way of the accomplishment of the Conquest.
"This land" in reference to the valleys and mountains occupied by the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs "is so mountainous that you can’t cross it even walking”. Cortés said that "he sent troops twice against the Indigenous without winning due to the violence and weapons of the Indigenous".
A few years later, Cortés, delighted by Oaxaca, confessed his passion «for these same lands that first appeared so rugged and wild».

Shortly after the conquest of Mexico City, in 1521, Diego de Ordaz set a fortified station called "Antequera". In 1529, the small Spanish city was promoted to “villa” by Charles Quint and Cortés became Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. His descendants kept the concession of the lands until the Revolution.
During this colonial period, Oaxaca played a predominant role in the development of New Spain.

cattle market in Oaxaca region The large flock of sheep supplied the wool for the weaving looms of Puebla; the haciendas grew sugar cane used to make the most famous sweets in the Viceroyalty; the best horses are raised there; they fund gold; they made huge profits from the dye made from the cochinilla du grana (cochineal); the harbors of Huatulco and Salina Cruz received the treasures from Peru, Guayaquil and Guatemala as well as the silks, textiles and spices from the Philippines.
The development of the cities, the harbors, the sugar mills and the industries at the time of evangelization didn’t change the old system of beliefs and the way of life of the indigenous communities. They integrated their old values, barely modified, to the new religion.

   Right picture : cattle market in Oaxaca region

The Pre-Hispanic past is passed on from father to son, century after century. It lasts and always appears in celebrations, markets, music, dances, clothes and fantastic food.

They still give a huge importance to the community work, the rituals of exchange, the reciprocal help and the close relation between the everyday life and the sacred rituals.

During the wars of Independence, Oaxaca was temporarily occupied by the troops of Morelos.
Morelos founded his first canon factory, there.

Benito Juárez was born in Oaxaca State (in Guelatao) as well as Porfirio Díaz. The amazing life of Benito Juárez started like a fairy tale : once upon a time, there was a little Zapotec shepherd who herded the sheep in the hills of Guelatao, small village located 80 km from Oaxaca. Normally, he would have spent all his life among the rocks and agaves of the hill, but a priest noticed him. He brought him home as a servant and educated him in order to turn little Benito into a seminarian. It is one of the many ironies in history : Juárez, born on March 21st, 1806 and educated by a priest, was later the main leader of the movement that fought the Catholic Church. He soon left the seminary and went to Law School. He became a judge and went into politics. He became governor of the state. He sought the highest positions and he succeeded in being elected first Chief Justice of Mexico and then President of the Republic. When the last Viceroy left, the only structured power in Mexico was the Catholic Church; it remained the most efficient institution during the first half of the nineteenth century. The politicians constantly quarreled and the Church improperly used its real power. Around 1850, it was the most important landlord in the country and was in command of the only educational institution.

Playing cards and having a nap when returning from the market The liberals during this time, with Juárez as a leader, understood that the Church needed to lose its power in order to let Mexico progress and develop. Juárez was the inspiring main writer of the Constitution of 1857 and the laws that withdrew most of the lands from the Church. He also limited the immunity enjoyed by the clergy that ruled the authority of the ecclesiastic tribunals. The Bishops encourage the Conservatives to rebel and the troubles that followed are known in History as the "War of Reform". Juárez, then Chief Justice, is named President of the Republic, covering for Miramon who resigned because he was opposed to the reforms. The conservators are haggard but they didn’t give up. Juárez had to face a delicate financial situation after four years of troubles : he declared a moratorium on foreign debt payments.

Left picture : Playing cards and having a nap when returning from the market

France and Napoléon III used this as an excuse to interfere. They send an expeditionary force to Veracruz to invade Central Mexico. Supported by the Mexican conservatives, Napoléon III offers the crown of Mexico to Archduke Maximilian. For a short period, Maximilian believes he is governing because of the presence of French army. Juárez withdrew with his followers on the other side of Rio Grande, in the border city named after him.
Juárez was an inflexible man, with no sense of humor. He had a quasi religious respect for legality; so, he refused to submit to the sovereignty of Maximilian. He considered this man as a usurper. He finally triumphed. When the Civil War ended in the United States, the Americans send Philip Sheridan and 50,000 soldiers to the Mexican border. Napoléon decides to bring back his expeditionary force and Maximilian, noble and tragic hero, ended facing a firing squad one night in Querétaro. Juárez returned to the capital and the Republic was reestablished. The house where Juárez was a servant from 1818 to 1828 was converted into a museum (Museo Casa de Juárez, Garcia Vigil #609) consecrated to this great patriot. Juárez died in the course of duty in 1872; four years later, Díaz became President of the Republic. He remained more than 30 years as Head of State. His authoritarianism led to the big Mexican Revolution whose important leaders were Zapata and Villa.
Porfirio Díaz was a hero of the “War of Reform” and the fights against the French expeditionary force. He never showed the least respect of legality; true obsession of Juárez. Knowing that he couldn’t have enough votes to be elected, he took the Presidency of the Republic by force. He was undoubtedly a tyrant. He didn’t destroy the opposition only because it didn’t come forward. He brought stability to Mexico and stability led to progress. It is under Díaz’s Presidency that the big haciendas experimented the golden era. The country diversified the cultures and added coffee, sugar cane and bananas to the corn. Europe and North America were asking for more of these foods.
The foreign business men were warmly welcomed during the "Porfirism". The British left the business of railroads and oil wells to the Americans and French. The Mexican paid a high price for this development. They were second class citizens in their own country. The haciendas prospered thanks to the exploitation of the peons, truly Indian serfs put under the yoke by a terrible rural police serving the big landlords. In the cities, the foreign people are kings. The workers were on the verge of revolt but Díaz had the final say on the Trade Unions... Finally, the popular explosion arrived in 1910. Porfirio Díaz had to leave the power and flee. He has been discredited for many years but he is now known for having started the economic foundations of a modern nation.

So, here is Oaxaca, city, valley, State, country of the Gods, birthplace of statesmen, refuge of intellectuals. However, Oaxaca remains a favorite holiday place where people like to stroll in the quiet streets and spend time in the ruins that remind a majestic past.

Traditions and dances

The dances are different depending on the region and the community. Their rhythms are strange and profound. The specific music was possibly born in Mérida , Durango, Naples or Saragosse. The masks help the dancer take the personality of a bull, a tiger, a European or the Devil himself! The costumes are the pride and joy of their owners. They delight not only the dancers but all the indigenous communities of Oaxaca.
The traditional cloth is both surprising and capturing. The weavers mix the colonial techniques, the Indigenous symbols, the magic and the colors imported from the Orient to design and color the fabric. Most often, the colors are naturals: red comes from the grana cochinilla, an insect that lives on the cactus nopal leaves (once boiled, it supplies sixteen shades of red); blue comes from the fermentation of the indigo tree; black comes from the fruit of huizache (a thorny tree); yellow comes from rock moss; purple comes from caracol púrpura, a sea snail that was once captured, treated and was released back to the sea after its essence had given the magic color purple. (It is now a protected species).

Maxima fiesta de los oaxaqueños: es la guelaguetza, la cual se celebra en el mes Julio . Este es el baile del las chinas oaxaqueñas (www.oaxacan.com.mx)

The famous Oaxaca celebration, La Guelaguetza del Lunes del Cerro (Mondays on the Hill), is an institutionalized form of celebration in the Indigenous communities. On the two Mondays following July 16th (July 21st and 28th, 2014), the representatives of seven regions of the State celebrate (in Oaxaca City) this fiesta whose name means “gift, offering or participation” in Zapotec language. Through signs and codes, this celebration expresses the Pre-Hispanic tradition with music, dances, harvest and food from each region. The pineapples, mangos, serapes, baskets, bread and coffee beans are there as a symbol of general good mood, sharing and exchange. The cultural heritage of these seven regions is carried through dances. The artists dance to the sound of joyful music and songs. They wear sumptuous gala clothes symbolizing each of the respective villages. You can attend to the famous Zapotec “dance of the feathers".

Pineapple dances in Cuilapan The Guelaguetza brings together 16 ethnic groups from seven regions of Oaxaca (dances and traditional songs to honor Centeotl, Goddess of corn). The Guelaguetza is celebrated in a place Oaxaca called ” Lunes Cerro", or "Mondays on the Hill”, during the two Mondays following July 16th. Every community of the Oaxaca State sends its representatives to celebrate their diverse traditions and cultures. Oaxaca State has 16 different ethno-linguistic groups. The dancers wear traditional clothes and execute the folklore dances proper to their region. At the end of the dance, they throw produce from their region to the crowd. The word Guelaguetza means offering, gift in Zapotec language and its meaning goes beyond the festival.

     Right picture : Pineapple dances in Cuilapán

In the Oaxaca traditional villages, at any occasion (baptism, wedding or Village Patron Saint Day), people bring the needed gifts for the celebration : food, alcoholic drinks, etc. The "guelaguetza" allows a reciprocal exchange. It reinforces the social links through the time.
The festival Guelaguetza is made nowadays as a mix of the Pre-Hispanic celebrations with the Goddess of corn, Centeotl, and the Catholic celebration of Our Lady of Mont Carmel on July, 16th.
The auditorium Guelaguetza : The festival Guelaguetza is held on the Fortin Hill in Oaxaca (del Cerro Fortin) in an 11,000 seat auditorium. The spectators have a wonderful view of the city.
Centeótl : Every year, a young woman from one of the communities of the state of Oaxaca is chosen to play Centeótl, Goddess of corn. It is not a beauty contest : they look for a girl who knows the traditions of her community.
How to attend the festival Guelaguetza : You can buy the tickets at Ticketmaster. The seats of the auditorium are very close to the stand where the dancers perform. The seats are not numbered. It is best to arrive early to get a good seat. Since 2005, there are two shows a day, at 9 AM and at 5 PM. If you attend the morning show, don’t forget your hat and sunscreen. The sun is very strong there and there is no shade. If you attend the evening show, bring a raincoat because it often rains during the July performances.

Other festivities : there are many other events in Oaxaca during the two weeks of the festival Guelaguetza, among them, concerts, expositions, conferences and a mezcal fair where you can taste the different brands of this alcoholic drink. There are also celebrations independent from the Guelaguetza in several villages of the valley of Oaxaca. You can go to Cuilapán and enjoy a more traditional celebration.

Guelaguetza during the year : If you can’t go there in July, you can attend a Guelaguetza show + diner at the Casa Restaurant Cantera or at the Camino Real, every Friday night.

Tianguis or markets

The markets are the place of exchanges. They are called « tianguis ». The people exchange firewood, blankets, eggs, tomatoes, etc… The barter is a way of contact and negotiation and in most cases better than money.
The tianguis in the Central Valleys are held every day in a different village :

oaxaca market
On Sundays in Tlacolula, Mondays in Miahuatlán, Tuesdays in Ayoquezco and Santa Maria Atzompa, Wednesdays in Etlá and Zimatlán, Thursdays in Ejutla and Zaachila, Fridays in Ocotlán, San Bartolo, Santa Ana del Valle and Santo Tomás Jalieza, and Saturdays in Oaxaca.

The displays are organized by produce, custom or family. The women wear their nice clothes, the huipiles (tunics). Everyone usually sells one kind of produce. So, you need to walk the whole market to have an idea of what is sold.

Left picture : oaxaca market

Cortés liked the Oaxaca markets. They might have started with the celebration of the first harvest. The market was held on the main plaza in Monte Albán. The Spanish built the city of Oaxaca along a central axis where they set houses for civil government, religious groups and markets (places for selling, buying, exchanging and meeting).


Oaxaca is the land of seven moles (a spiced sauce including chocolate), quesillo (stringy cheese enveloped in balls), meat cooked in the soil, the most delicious tamales in Mexico, wonderful sweets, el chocolate atole (a drink made from ground corn and cacao beans), el café de olla (coffee traditionally prepared in earthenware pots with cinnamon), a bread cooked with egg yolk - el pan amarillo ) and any kind of food made from corn.
The anthropologist Kent Flannery thinks that the Valleys of Oaxaca are maybe the first place in America where corn grew. The history shows that Oaxaca food can be explained through a mix of Spanish food, Indigenous traditions, Aztec food and baroque colonial traditions.
Every Oaxaca dish represents many hour of cooking. For example, the tamales need to be washed, roasted and soaked. The chilis need to be grilled and ground; the corn needs to be shelled and cooked in the soil, then stuffed. The tamales are folded, tied and cooked before being served.

chilis on the market The Oaxaca mole needs at least thirty one ingredients. Years ago, it was prepared with grilled coriander, roasted garlic, pepper, cinnamon and pasilla (dried chile). It was grilled with butter and 16 kinds of peppers. They grinded the preparation, delicately fried it and served it with pork, chorizos (sausages) and chicken. It was garnished with ajonjolí tostado (grilled sesame beans). It was a big job. Today, there are two hundred varieties of this sauce.


      Right picture : chilis on the market

Art and craft

Art is not outdone here : Talented painters such as Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo and Rodolfo Morales participated in the cultural expansion of the city.

Indian women weavingRufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo and Rodolfo Morales are considered as the great Oaxaca painters of modern painting (Twentieth century). Tamayo was born in Oaxaca in 1899. He lived in Mexico City and New York. He died in 1991. He is one of the most important Mexican artists of the twentieth century. Morales, “villages builder", was born in Ocotlán (1925-2001). He first traveled with his expositions through Europe and everywhere in America. He then settled back in Ocotlán where he left a spectacular production of universal and unique paintings. Toledo was born in Juchitán. He went to school in Paris. Like Morales, he promoted the magic of Oaxaca around the world through his creative imagination and poetic work.
Many young Oaxaca artists went in the footsteps of these three exceptional painters. They show, through their work, the Oaxaca landscape, the traditions and the myths. They all share pride of their cultural heritage. A huge part of the work of the local painters and young artists is displayed in the city as well as in Mexico City. In the museum, you can discover artists coming from all over the world to draw their inspiration from the treasures of Monte Albán and the cultural richness of the State.

   Above picture : Indian women weaving

The gold and silversmiths, potters and weavers of Oaxaca are the distant descendants of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. The Zapotecs built Monte Albán on a hill that overlooks the actual city. The Mixtecs settled in Mitlá, forty kilometers (22 miles) further, as well as in Yagul, Dainzú, Lambityeco and Zaachila. The visit of the ruins justifies a trip in the region. Until now, nobody could explain where the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs came from. However, the archaeologists say that the Zapotecs were profoundly influenced by the Olmecs. The Olmecs settled in the Gulf Coast about three to four thousand years ago. The steles figuring the dancers and the hieroglyphs attest of this influence. The Regional Museum of Oaxaca has an extraordinary collection of Zapotec and Mixtec art objets made of gold, jade and turquoise from the tomb VII of Monte Albán.

The State has more than 500,000 artisans who give free rein to their talent and creativity while respecting the traditional techniques. Visit the different workshops in the villages around Oaxaca (not further than 30 km/20 miles). You will be able to watch the fabrication or the production of ceramics, potteries, textiles, wood work...etc.

Map of the state :

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