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Location and Description

The State of Oaxaca is located in the south of Mexico where the Eastern Sierra Madre and the Southern Sierra Madre mountain ranges merge. Oaxaca shares common borders with Guerrero (on the west), Puebla (on the north), Veracruz (on the north and northeast), and Chiapas (on the east).  Oaxaca also shares a long coastline with the Pacific Ocean on its south.  

As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca has a square area of 93,757 square kilometers (36,200 square miles), equal to 4.8% of the national territory. Only Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila, and Durango are larger than Oaxaca. Politically, the State of Oaxaca is divided into 570 municipios (almost one-quarter of the national total).

In 2010, Oaxaca had a population of 3,967,889 people, ranking it tenth among the Mexican states in terms of population. The capital of Oaxaca is Heroica Oaxaca de Zaragoza, which had a population of 225,029 in 2010, representing 6.4% of the state’s total population. The name Oaxaca was originally derived from the Náhuatl word, Huayacac, which roughly translated means The Place of the Seed in reference to a tree commonly found in Oaxaca.

Extreme Geographic Fragmentation

As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca is characterized by extreme geographic fragmentation. In fact, Oaxaca is crossed by three mountain ranges (the Sierra Madre Oriental, the Sierra Madre del Sur and the Sierra Atravesada) which cover 81.62% of the surface area of the state. In between the mountains lay narrow canyons and alluvial river valleys, and only about 9% of Oaxaca’s surface area is arable, which explains why only 6.3% of Oaxaca’s GDP is dedicated to the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting sector of the economy.

The Isolation of Tribal Groups

Oaxaca’s rugged topography has played a significant role in giving rise to its amazing cultural diversity. According to Professor Francie R. Clausen-López, Oaxaca’s mountainous terrain has created “the physical isolation of many areas and the existence of distinct ecological niches within short distances of each other.” Because individual towns and tribal groups lived in isolation for long periods of time, historian María de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi believes that this isolation allowed sixteen individual ethnic groups to maintain their individual language, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial period and… to the present day.” For this reason, Oaxaca is ­ by and large ­ the most ethnically complex of Mexico’s thirty-one states.

Oaxaca’s Ethnic Complexity

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 1520’s the valley’s inhabitants had split into hundreds of independent village-states. This established a tradition of community fragmentation that survives today, giving the region a cultural mosaic quality. Today literally thousands of tiny villages dot the surrounding hillsides and valleys.

Although Oaxaca’s ethnic groups are well-defined through dialect, customs, food habits, and rituals, the historian María de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi has suggested that the simplistic “linguistic categorization” of the ethnic groups is “somewhat misleading,” primarily because “the majority of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca identify more closely with their village or their community than with their ethnolinguistic group.”

Of Oaxaca’s 16 languages, 11 belong to the Otomanguean family (Amuzgo, Chatino, Zapotec, Chinanteco, Chocho, Ixcatec, Mazatec, Popoloco, Mixtec, Cuicatec and Trique).  Two languages, Mixe and Zoque, belong to the Mixe-Zoquean family, and three (Chontal, Náhuatl, and Huave) are single representative of their own families.

The Mixtecs and the Zapotecs

The two largest linguistic groups in this large collection are the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, whose roots stretch very deeply into the early Mesoamerican era of Oaxaca. Living in their mountain enclaves and fertile valleys, many of their pre-Hispanic ancestors harvested corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chili, squash, pumpkin and gourds. Some of the early inhabitants also hunted turkey, deer, armadillo and iguana or fished in Oaxaca’s many ocean-bound streams and rivers.

It is no surprise that the Mixtecs and Zapotecs were neighbors as they both belong to the Oto-Manguean language family, which remains the largest linguistic group in the state of Oaxaca and in the Mexican Republic, represented by approximately 174 languages (according to

Since 2005, the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (known as INALI or the National Institute of Indigenous Languages) has utilized the word “variante Lingüística” (linguistic variant), in place of language or dialect. According to INALI, a language variant is a specific form of natural language, characterized by a set of linguistic features used by a certain community of speakers linked by social, geographical or cultural relationships. In recent publications, INALI has reported that there are 81 Mixtec language variants and 62 Zapotec language variants. As Zapotec and Mixtec communities became isolated from one another over the last couple thousand years, each language variant evolved in its own unique way.

Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory

The author Nicholas A. Hopkins, in his article “Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory,” states that glottochronological studies of the Oaxacan Indian groups indicate that the first diversification of this group of languages had begun by 4400 B.C. It is believed that nine branches of the Oto-Manguean family were already distinct by 1500 B.C., and that some of this linguistic differentiation actually took place in the Valley of Tehuacán.

These two groups are not only the largest indigenous groups within this part of Mexico; they also exhibit a wide range of diversity within their own ethnic populations. Ms. Romero has observed that some of Oaxaca’s language families – including the Zapotec and Mixtec tongues – “encompass a variety of regional languages, making for a more diverse picture than the number sixteen would suggest.”

Zapotec Prominence

Most archaeological evidence indicates that the Zapotecs were one of the earliest ethnic groups to gain prominence in the region now called Oaxaca. The Zapotec Indians have always called themselves Be’ena’a, which means “The People.” The implication of this terminology is that the Zapotecs believe that they are “The True People” or “The people of this place.” Unlike many other Mesoamerican Indians groups, the Zapotecs have no legend of migration from another land. Instead, their legends claim that their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people.

Some of the Zapotecs eventually became known as the Be’ena Za’a (Cloud People), a name primarily applied to the Central Valley Zapotecs. In the pre-Hispanic era, Aztec merchants and soldiers dealing with these people translated their name phonetically into Náhuatl: Tzapotecatl. When the Spaniards arrived, they took this word and transformed it into Zapoteca. The Mixtecs, the sister culture of the Zapotecs, also received their “Aztec” name due to their identity as “Cloud People” (Ñusabi), but in their case the Náhuatl translation was literal, as Mixtecatl translates directly as “Cloud Person.”

The early Zapotecs were a sedentary, agricultural city-dwelling people who worshipped a pantheon of gods. In their art, architecture, hieroglyphics, mathematics, and calendar, the Zapotecs appeared to have shared some cultural affinities with the ancient Olmec and the Mayan Indians. The Zapotec culture developed in the mountainous area at and near Monte Albán, roughly parallel to the Olmec civilization, which was in decline as the Zapotecs were in ascendance. The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a basic form of writing through carvings. By 200 B.C. the Zapotecs were using the bar and dot system of numerals used by the Maya.

Politically and militarily, the Zapotec Indians became dominant in the area around 200 B.C., extending their political and economic influence into the coastal regions and establishing valuable trading links with the Mayans to the south. Sometime between the third and eighth centuries A.D., the Zapotec culture peaked. However, soon after, the Mixtecs began to dominate the region, displacing the Zapotecs in many areas.

Monte Albán

Located above the Valley of Oaxaca, six miles away from the capital city, the Zapotec ceremonial center, Monte Albán, was built in a mountain range overlooking great valleys and remains one of the most majestic of the sites of Pre-Historic Mexico. This architectural wonder is a complex of pyramids and platforms surrounding an enormous esplanade, where there is also an extraordinary astronomical observatory. Monte Albán was dedicated to the cult of mysterious gods and to the celebration of the military victories of the Zapotec people.

The pinnacle of Monte Albán’s development probably took place from 250 A.D. to 700 A.D., by which time Monte Albán had become home to some 25,000 people and was the capital city of the Zapotec nation. For reasons still not entirely clear, the site was gradually abandoned after A.D. 700.

Some archaeologists have suggested that the decline of Monte Albán may have taken place because local resources of wood had become depleted and that its once-fertile slopes had become barren. However, the Zapotec culture itself continued to flourish in the valleys of Oaxaca and the Zapotecs moved their capital to Zaachila. From about 950 to the arrival of the Spanish in 1521, there was minimal life at Monte Albán, except that Mixtecs arriving in the Central Valleys between 1100 and 1350 reused old tombs at the site to bury their own dignitaries.

Mixtec Origins

The Mixtecs originally inhabited the southern portions of what are now the states of Guerrero and Puebla. However, they started moving south and eastward, eventually making their way to the Central Valley of Oaxaca. In their newly adopted land, the Mixtecs became prolific expansionists and builders, gradually encroaching onto the territories of the Zapotecs. But, the Mixtecs’ prominence in the Valley of Oaxaca was short-lived.

The Ascendance of the Aztecs

By the middle of the Fifteenth Century, a new power appeared on the horizon. The Aztec Empire, centered in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), was in the process of building a great empire that stretched through much of what is now southern Mexico. In the 1450s, the Aztec armies crossed the mountains into the Valley of Oaxaca with the intention of extending their hegemony into this hitherto unconquered region.

Soon, both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs would be struggling to keep the Aztecs from gaining control of their trade routes to Chiapas and Guatemala. After a series of long and arduous battles, the forces of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Ilhuicamina triumphed over the Mixtecs in 1458. In 1486, the Aztecs established a fort on the hill of Huaxyácac (now called El Fortín), overlooking the present city of Oaxaca. This location would become the seat of an Aztec garrison that enforced tribute collection from the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.

The Spaniards Arrive in Oaxaca (1521)

The ascendancy of the Aztecs in Oaxaca would last a little more than a few decades. In 1521, as the Zapotecs, Mixtecs and other vassals of the Aztecs worked the fields and paid tribute to their distant rulers, news arrived that strange invaders with beards and unusual weapons had arrived from the eastern sea. As word spread throughout Mesoamerica, many indigenous groups thought that the arrival of these strangers might be the fulfillment of ancient prophesies predicting the downfall of the Aztecs.

Then, in August 1521, came the news that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán had fallen to a combined force of Spanish and Indian soldiers under the command of a white-skinned, red-haired man named Hernán Cortés. Word of this conquest spread quickly, causing the inhabitants over a large area to speculate on what was to come next.

When the Zapotec leaders heard that the powerful Aztec Empire had been overcome by the strangers from the Gulf of Mexico, they decided to send a delegation to seek an alliance with this new powerful force. Intrigued by this offer, Hernán Cortés promptly sent representatives to consider their offer.

When the powerful Aztecs were overcome, the Zapotecs sent delegations seeking alliances with the Spaniards. Cortés promptly sent Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval to the Pacific and into the Sierra looking for gold. Pedro de Alvarado (1486-1541) explored the Oaxaca region in search of the source of the Aztec gold and to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. He didn’t find a waterway but reported some good locations for ports.

On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Orozco arrived in the Central Valley with a force of 400 Aztecs to take possession in the name of Cortés. A wide alluvial plain of about 700 square kilometers, the Valley of Oaxaca had a native population of about 350,000 at this time. Soon, both the Zapotec and Mixtec caciques of the Oaxaca Valley submitted to Orozco. Thus, writes the historian William B. Taylor, “Peaceful conquest spared the Valley of Oaxaca the loss of life and the grave social and psychological dislocations experienced by the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico.”

Francisco de Orozco did meet with some resistance in Antequera, but by the end of 1521, his forces had subdued the indigenous resistance. Cortés friends’ Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval also arrived in Oaxaca to search for gold in the Sierras. Their reports led Cortés to seek the title of Marqués del Valle of Oaxaca in 1526, so that he might reserve some of the land’s wealth for his own well-being.

The Colonial Period

In the course of the next decade, dramatic changes took place in the Valley. Starting in 1528, Dominican friars established permanent residence in Antequerea. After the Bishopric of Oaxaca was formally established in 1535, Catholic priests arrived in ever-increasing numbers. Armed with a fiery zeal to eradicate pagan religions, the Catholic missionaries persevered in their work. Settlers arriving from Spain brought with them domestic animals that had hitherto never been seen in Oaxaca: horses, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, mules and oxen.

In the decades following the Spanish encounter, a series of devastating epidemics wreaked havoc on the native population of Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. Before the first century had ended, some nineteen major epidemics had come and gone. The exposure of the Oaxacan Indians to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cocoliztli (a hemorrhagic disease) took a huge toll. As a result, Ms. Romero has written that the native population declined from 1.5 million in 1520 to 150,000 people in 1650. But, over time, the population of Oaxaca rebounded. On February 3, 1824, the state of Oaxaca was founded within the newly independent Mexican Republic, after 303 years of Spanish rule.

The 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Oaxaca amounted to 1,120,312 individuals, which represented 39.12% of the total population of the state.

In the 2000 census, the Mixteco Indians in Oaxaca numbered 241,383, or 55.19% of the 437,373 Mixtecos in the entire Mexican Republic. If you count the various subsidiary Mixtec languages, the total Mixtec-speaking population of the Mexican Republic in 2000 included 444,498 individuals.

The Zapotec ethnic group remains the largest indigenous group of Oaxaca and presently occupies 67 municipios of Oaxaca. The term Zapotec comprises a great many language varieties, most of which are identified by the area or towns where they are spoken. In the 2000 census, 377,936 individuals five years of age or more spoke some kind of Zapoteco language in Oaxaca. This represented 83.45% of all the Zapotec speakers in the entire Mexican Republic, who numbered 421,796.

Moving to Other Regions

Increasingly, large numbers of Zapotecs and Mixtecs are travelling to locations throughout the Mexican Republic and the United States to secure gainful employment. Zapotecs and Mixtecs, in fact, are favored laborers in the two Baja states. In the 2000 census, the two largest linguistic groups in Baja California Norte were the Mixtecos (11,962 speakers) and the Zapotecos (2,987 speakers). In the 2000 census, 41,014 persons in Baja California claimed Oaxaca as their birthplace.

Already, in the 1970s, Baja had become a major zone of attraction for Mixtec farm laborers, with Ensenada and Tijuana as the primary destinations. In the last two decades, Baja California growers almost exclusively recruited Oaxacans laborers for their agricultural labor needs.

The Zapotecs of 2010

In the 2010 census, 397,837 persons 3 years of age and more spoke a Zapotec language in Oaxaca. Mexico’s Census agency —  the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) — had tallied five Zapotec languages in Oaxaca, but 93% of Oaxacans identified as speaking a generic “Zapoteco” language. Among all the Zapotec speakers throughout Oaxaca, 43,670 do not speak Spanish, giving Zapotec a modest monolingual rate of 11%. Today, most analysts consider the Zapotecs to consist of the following four primary geographic subgroups:  

  1. The Valley Zapotecs, who occupy the fertile Valley of Oaxaca in the center of the state.
  2. The Sierra Zapotecs (Mountain Zapotecs), who occupy the districts of Ixtlán, Villa Alta, and Choapán in the Sierra Norte.
  3. The Isthmus Zapotecs, who live on the tropical Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is the narrowest part of the Mexican Republic.
  4. The Southern Zapotecs of the Sierra Miahuatlán region of southern Oaxaca.

In total, 460,683 persons 3 years of age and more within the entire Mexican Republic actually spoke a Zapotec language. Eight-six percent of them lived in Oaxaca and another 9% lived in Veracruz, Mexico State and Distrito Federal. The location of Zapotec pueblos in 2015 is shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. “Zapotecos – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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The Mixtecos of 2010

In the 2010 census, 264,769 persons 3 years of age and more spoke a Mixtec language in Oaxaca. The Mixtecs occupy an area that constitutes a geographical region of more than 40,000 square kilometers (189 municipios) in northwestern Oaxaca, as well as the southern end of Puebla and a small portion of eastern Guerrero. INEGI had tallied five Mixtec languages in Oaxaca’s 2010 census, but nearly all Oaxacans identified as just speaking “Mixteco.”

In total, 494,454 persons 3 years of age and more within the entire Mexican Republic actually spoke a Mixtec language, a larger total than that of the Zapotecs. Fifty-four percent of the Mixtecs lived in Oaxaca and another 28% lived in the neighboring state of Guerrero.

The location of Mixtec pueblos in Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca in 2015 is shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. Mixtecos – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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An Ancient Legacy

Wherever they go, Mixtec and Zapotec laborers are usually regarded as newcomers. But, these two peoples have endured a long cultural journey, stretching back several thousand years. The Mixtecs and Zapotecs, in fact, built successful civilizations long before the Aztecs came into prominence. They are, without a doubt, enduring cultures.

Copyright © 2019, by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


Adams, Richard E.W. Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Chassen López, Francie R. From Liberal to Revolutionary Oaxaca: The View from the South, Mexico, 1867-1911. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004., Languages of Mexico. From Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th edition, Online:, July 28, 2001.

Flannery, Kent V., and Joyce Marcus (eds.). The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations. New York and London: Academic Press, 1983.

Frizzi, María de Los Angeles Romero. “The Indigenous Population of Oaxaca From the Sixteenth Century to the Present,” in Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II, Mesoamerica, Part 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Gay, José Antonio. Historia de Oaxaca. Distrito Federal, Mexico: Porrúa, 1982.

Hopkins, Nicholas A. “Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory,” in J. Kathryn Josserand, Marcus Winter, and Nicholas Hopkins (eds.), Essays in Otomanguean Culture History – Vanderbuilt University Publications in Anthropology No. 31 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1984), pp. 25-64.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000. (Mexico, 2001).

INEGI, Censo de Población y Vivienda 2010: Tabulados del Cuestionario Básico: Población de 5 Años y Más Que Habla Lengua Indígena por Entidad Federativa y Lengua Según Condición de Habla Española y Sexo.

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Joyce, Arthur A. Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Chatinos: Ancient Peoples of Southern Mexico. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Marcus, Joyce and Kent V. Flannery, “Cultural Evolution in Oaxaca: The Origins of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations,” in Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II, Mesoamerica, Part 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 358-406.

Spores, Ronald. The Mixtec Kings and Their People. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Spores, Ronald. The Mixtecs in Ancient and Colonial Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984

Taylor, William B., Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1972.

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