Our Small World sticks with the Spanish dialect theme this month as we venture from Havana, Cuba to our next destination, Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is both the name of a Mexican state, as well as its capital which is this month’s focus for Small World. The state of Oaxaca resides in the southwestern portion of Mexico, surrounded by the states Guerrero, Puebla, Veracruz and Chiapas. It is also known for its beachfront property courtesy of the Pacific Ocean. The city of Oaxaca de Juarez resides in the Centro District near a valley created by the Sierra Madre del Sur and Sierra Madre de Oaxaca ranges, and is also near the Atoyac River. The name Oaxaca comes from the Nahautl word Huaxacac which means “the nose of the squash.”
The original inhabitants of the state were from the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations. Mixtec is loosely translated as “cloud people,” and Zapotec as “inhabitants of the place of sopote,” a soft, edible fruit that grows locally. In pre-Columbian times, the Mixtec was one of the largest civilizations of Mesoamerica. Their language was spoken by an estimated 300,000 people as recently as the late 20th Century, though the majority of those also spoke Spanish as well. The Zapotec were comprised of four different groups, but only two groups were germane to Oaxaca: the serranos of the northern hills of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, and the Central Valley Zapotecs who live near the Valley of Oaxaca. It is estimated that there were over 60 variations of the Zapotec language in its prime.
The Aztecs moved into the valley in the mid-1400s, and this is the time the area earned its present-day name. In the 1500s, the first Spanish expedition to the area arrived. Working in tandem with the Aztecs under the rule of Montezuma II, Hernan Cortes descended upon Oaxaca because of the reported existence of gold. Cortes ruled the region with an iron fist, and through cunning interaction with the Spanish Crown, he earned the title of Marquis. He expelled those native to the area, and taxed others heavily to stockpile his own treasures. Eventually Cortes would be removed of his position when Oaxaca was elevated to the status of a city and therefore subject to direct Spanish rule.
Today, Oaxaca is known as a tourist destination. One of its bigger draws is the Guelaguetza, a festival that takes place on the last two Mondays in July. The celebration is a commitment to local indigenous cultures and a celebration of sharing. Citizens of Oaxaca will do good deeds for others in lieu of payment, but with the expectation that a good deed will be done for them in the future. One famous example is the mason who builds a new oven for a baker, with the implied return favor of the baker making wedding cakes for the mason’s daughters when it comes time for them to marry. In recent years there has been some issue taken with the commercialization of the festival, and many hope for a return to the roots and original intention of the festival – to celebrate their culture and community.
Oaxaca also has other festivals that celebrate their heritage, most notably: el Noche de Robano (night of the radish) where local artisans show off their artistic ability by decorating large radishes near Christmas time; and the legend of the Zapotec Princess Donaji. When at war with each other, the Mixtecs took the Zapotec princess, killed and buried her, though the head was buried separate from the body. Allegedly, a shepherd came across a Madonna Lilly while tending to his flock, and instead of just plucking it, he dug it up to the roots so that he could replant it near his home. At the bottom of the root, he came across the head of the princess, and she is now celebrated annually. A depiction of her head is also on the coat of arms of the flag of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is also known for its beautiful architecture as evidenced by some of its many churches. One of the more famous is the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church located just minutes away from the Catedral de Oaxaca (a seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese), and is one of the older churches still standing in the city. Construction began in the late 16th Century and it took nearly 200 years to build the church and monastery. The monastery was active from 1608 to 1857, but is now home to the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca. From 1857 to 1994 it was occupied by the Mexican Army, but under protest from the government and citizens of Oaxaca, it was returned to its original intention, a place of worship. While the temple is still open for worship today, there are numerous restrictions due to the frailty of the compound’s architecture, its possessions and the high level of respect associated with it due to its age and prevalence in Mexican religious history.
To borrow from the New Mexico state motto, Oaxaca appears to truly be a land of enchantment. With rich culture and stories of mystery from the past, Oaxaca is a place of tranquility and one to appreciate. With vibrant architecture, beautiful environment and a sense of another time, the city offers an escape that is unique to the passionate traveler.