Oaxaca's origins are in the Aztec settlement of Huaxyácac, from which its name is derived. The Spanish laid out a new town around the Zócalo in 1529, and it quickly became the most important place in southern Mexico.
In the 18th century Oaxaca grew rich from the export of cochineal (a red dye made from insects living on the prickly pear cactus) and from textile weaving. By 1796 it was probably the third-biggest city in Nueva España, with about 20,000 people (including 600 clergy) and 800 cotton looms.
Oaxaca’s major expansion has come in the past 30 years, with tourism, new businesses and rural poverty all encouraging migration from the countryside. Together with formerly separate villages and towns it now forms a conurbation of about half a million people.
The Rebellion of 2006
Despite its cultural riches, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, a factor that has helped shape its politics in recent years. The results have not always been peaceful. Political tensions boiled over in 2006 when a teacher’s strike in the state capital turned into a wider protest against reigning state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who was suspected of corruption, repression and electoral fraud. When police were sent to break up a sit-in by the teachers in the Zócalo, the situation became violent, resulting in more than 100 injuries.
In response, over 300,000 Oaxacans came out in support of the teachers creating a mass movement known as the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), a loose coalition of artists, intellectuals, union leaders, environmentalists, students, women’s rights activists and indigenous people. Sick of ‘’politics as usual’ and opposed to what they saw as the malpractices and illegitimacy of the Ruiz administration, the APPO set up barricades in the streets and quickly reinstalled themselves in the Zócalo by activating a campaign of civil disobedience. In its early stages the campaign was largely successful with the APPO effectively taking over the running of the city for four months. Ruiz moved to Mexico City as the APPO cancelled the popular Guelaguetza festival and staged a series of largely peaceful marches and protests that succeeded in gaining national and international attention.
As the crisis prevailed with no end in sight, the federal government, fearing economic meltdown (tourism, the state’s main industry, dropped by over 70%), sent in police to evict the protesters. In October 2006, clashes in Oaxaca City again became violent when an American reporter and more than two dozen others were killed in the streets. The violence ultimately broke the cohesion of the APPO and ended the occupation of the Zócalo allowing Ruiz to regain control of the city by the end of the year.
Ruiz served out his term until 2010 amid continuing controversy, yet, despite the setbacks, the legacy of the APPO lives on in Oaxaca today where strident street art continues to evoke the tumult of 2006 and the rebellious spirit it inspired.