Oaxaca Mexico – Maps, History and Culture

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Located on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico is the region of Oaxaca, which is also made up of the single Mexican state of Oaxaca. Oaxaca covers approximately 36,200 square miles and borders the Pacific Ocean to the south, the Pacific Coast region to the west, Veracruz to the north, and the Chiapas & Tabasco region to the east.

List of Cities

  • Oaxaca
  • Puerto Escondido
  • Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan
  • Juchitan de Zaragoza
  • Salina Cruz
  • San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec
  • Huajuapan de Leon
  • Santa Lucia del Camino
  • Santo Domingo Tehuantepec

Quick Facts

  • Population: ~ 3.9 million
  • Languages: Spanish, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Nahuatl indigenous languages
  • Ethnicities: Mixtec, Mestizos, Zapotec, European-Mexican
  • Capital: Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca

Brief History

Oaxaca has an early prehistoric history that dates back to around 11,000 B.C. It is believed that corn was harvested during this time, which is possibly the first evidence of corn harvesting in the entire region by a civilization. By 2000 B.C., agriculture had expanded to harvesting beans, tomatoes, peppers, cocoa, and other vegetables. Just 1000 years later, ceramic pottery had been invented and used for cooking and food preparation.

Indigenous tribes civilized the region of Oaxaca. These tribes included the Zapotec, the Mixtecs, and the Aztecs. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs were the first to create a civilization, often competing with one another for land. The Aztecs didn’t arrive in the area until around 1250 A.D.

By this time, the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations each had begun to weaken, leaving them vulnerable to Aztec control at this time. The Mixtecs and Zapotecs tried to band together and form an alliance against the Aztecs but were unsuccessful. In 1457, Aztec emperor Moctezuma I invaded Oaxaca and developed integral trade routes to the Pacific coast. The Mixtecs were pushed into Zapotec territory before ultimately being completely driven out.

The Aztecs were stronger than the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, but not strong enough to withstand the Spanish’s impending invasion.

Spanish settlers entered the region during the early 1500s for a variety of reasons. Spanish conquistadors were looking for better trade routes and better ways of life to escape the poverty, war, and disease that plagued Spain. Once arriving in Oaxaca, they discovered just that. There was exceptional potential in the region that had been maximized by the Aztecs, so it didn’t take long for the Spanish to begin bringing more and more Spanish immigrants to the area.

Spain colonized the region during this colonial period beginning in the 1500s. Top leaders of the Zapotecs extended an offer of alliance to the Aztecs to help ward off the Spanish, but it was unsuccessful. Spain, led by Hernan Cortes and Francisco de Orozco, conquered the region by overtaking the Aztecs.

In a calculated move of self-preservation, the citizens of the Zapotec and Mixtec tribes offered not to fight the Spanish in return for allowing their tribes to continue using their native languages and beliefs while ultimately being under Spanish rule.

Only at one point did the Mixtecs attempt to fight the Spanish. This was in 1570, and it was unsuccessful. The Spanish pushed the Mixtecs out of the region, where they fled to the mountains in northern Mexico.

At this point, few Zapotecs remained in the area. Most of the Zapotecs who chose not to succumb to Spanish control fled to neighboring regions. The population of the Zapotecs in the region declined exponentially, while the Spanish grew just as quickly.

The Spanish didn’t just bring themselves and their families to the area; they also brought animals and crops to the region, including horses, goats, sheep, chickens, sugar cane, and tobacco. These animals and crops played a major role in the agricultural development in the region.

The Spanish also took advantage of the goods that Oaxaca had that Spain didn’t have. For example, the cochineal is an insect native to Oaxaca that the Spanish used to dye yarn and fabric for making textiles. The Spanish could export this method of dying during the 17th and 18th centuries, further bringing wealth and growth to Spain.

By the early 1800s, Mexico had become tired of being ruled by Spain. Led by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Spanish Catholic priest, Mexico began the Mexican War of Independence. Much of the regions in Mexico supported this war for independence, but Oaxaca did not. They were loyal to the Spanish and ultimately executed and beheaded Hidalgo when he came to the region to discuss becoming independent.

Mexico gained independence in 1810, and the region of Oaxaca was split between Spanish loyalty and Mexican loyalty. Because the territory was so divided, the economy suffered and ultimately led to the start of the Reform War, a Mexican civil war that lasted from 1857 to 1860. When the Reform War ended, Mexico’s wealth and the economy continued to suffer, causing Mexico to be unable to pay debts owed to France. This led France to invade the region for some time.

In the late 1800s, Mexico was ruled by President Diaz, who led the country in developing lighting, transportation, and cultivation. These infrastructures lasted until the mid-1900s when a string of powerful earthquakes rocked the region and damaged much of the created systems, causing them to be recreated once again. Fortunately, technology had evolved, so Oaxaca built improved structures and systems, including the Oaxaca-Mexico City highway later in 1994.


Spanish is the primary language of Oaxaca, but the indigenous languages of Nahuatl, Zapotec, and Mixtec can be heard throughout the region at any given time. This is because of how the indigenous tribes negotiated their way to remain in the area once Spain arrived. If not for this, the native languages may have easily been completely eradicated in the area.

One influence that the Nahuatl language had on the region is how the region of Oaxaca got its name. Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl word “Huaxyacac,” referencing a type of tree abundantly seen throughout the region.

Even though Spanish is the primary language spoken and taught throughout the region, native indigenous languages can still be heard in Oaxaca.


The primary religion practiced in Oaxaca is Roman Catholicism. This is because of the number of Spanish settlers that relocated to Oaxaca and practiced evangelism, the act of teaching, and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. This led to the growth of Roman Catholicism throughout the region, ultimately leading to approximately 85% of the region practicing Roman Catholicism today.


Oaxaca is a coastal Pacific region covering approximately 36,200 square miles of southwestern Mexico, making up only 5% of the entire country. Although it is a small territory, it packs a large amount of diverse landscapes and landforms.

The mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, and the Sierra Altrasevada make up the mountainous areas of Oaxaca. These mountains create steep ridges and grassy valleys that combine to serve a multi-functional purpose. The rigid mountains provide both defenses from invaders and a refuge for indigenous tribes to flee when the Spanish settlers arrived.

Because Oaxaca is in the southwestern quadrant of Mexico, it has a tropical climate. This climate is ideal for the agriculture and livestock farming that was established in the region. By bringing in various crops and animals from Spain, the Spanish and Mestizos created a thriving agricultural industry in the region.


The indigenous tribes of the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Aztecs played a major role in forming the Oaxacan culture. These tribes focused on incorporating art, pottery, and mosaics into their lifestyle. Relics that have been found in the region have been put on display and preserved to represent how advanced these tribes were.

The Oaxacan culture also honors the successful agricultural industry developed in the region by hosting harvest festivals every year. These harvest festivals portray a dance known as the “La Pina”, representing the region’s pineapple harvest.

Immigration and Migration Patterns

Oaxaca was a desirable area for Spanish immigrants to colonize. It offered many geographical and economic opportunities because of the advancements made by the indigenous tribes. This led to thousands of Spanish settlers permanently relocating to the area and beginning a new life, most often with members of the indigenous tribes. This created a new mixed-race known as the Mestizo, a combination of Spanish and indigenous people.

Immigration also occurred within the region. Some members of the indigenous tribes of Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Aztecs relocated to the mountains in Oaxaca, while others stayed in the region and lived under Spanish rule.

The last group of immigrants to arrive in Oaxaca were the French. French immigrants relocated to Mexico because there was an open opportunity to do so. Mexico had come under French control for a brief period of time during the 1800s, which led to a number of French immigrants settling in the area.


The genealogy of the Oaxacan people has the strongest genealogical connection to Spain because of the number of Spanish immigrants that settled in the area. Spanish traits include dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin, which is abundant among Oaxaca residents.

Because some French immigrants relocated to the area during the 1800s, there can also be French heritage connected to the Oaxacan people. While the chance of French heritage is slimmer than Spanish, it can’t be completely ruled out as a possible heritage. The race of Oaxacans with French genealogy is the European-Mexican, which represents the heritage of the European countries (including France) that have mixed with the Mexican race.

Caleb Pike
About the author

Caleb Pike is an avid hiker and nature lover, with a passion for exploring the great outdoors. He's a writer, photographer, and adventurer, always seeking new trails to blaze and peaks to conquer.