The Aztec settlement here was called Huaxyácac (meaning ‘In the Nose of the Squash’), from which the word ‘Oaxaca’ is derived. The Spanish laid out a new town around the existing Zócalo in 1529. It quickly became the most important place in southern Mexico.
In the 18th century Oaxaca grew rich from exports of cochineal (a red dye made from tiny insects living on the prickly pear cactus) and from the weaving of textiles. By 1796 it was probably the third-biggest city in Nueva España, with about 20, 000 people (including 600 clergy) and 800 cotton looms.
In 1854 an earthquake destroyed much of the city. It was several decades before it began to grow again, but by the 1890s the population passed 30, 000. Another earthquake in 1931 left 70% of the city uninhabitable.
Oaxaca’s major expansion has come in the past 25 years, with tourism, new businesses and rural poverty all encouraging migration from the countryside. The population of the city proper has almost doubled in this time, and together with formerly separate villages and towns it now forms a conurbation of perhaps 450, 000 people.