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Pre-Hispanic cultures in Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales (Central Valleys) reached heights rivaling those of central Mexico. The hilltop city of Monte Albán became the center of the Zapotec culture, conquering much of Oaxaca and peaking between AD 300 and 700. Monte Albán then declined suddenly, and from about 1200 the Zapotecs came under the growing dominance of the Mixtecs from Oaxaca’s northwest uplands. Mixtecs and Zapotecs alike were conquered by the Aztecs in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

The Spaniards had to send at least four expeditions before they felt safe enough to found the city of Oaxaca in 1529. The indigenous population quickly took a disastrous drop in numbers: the population of the Mixteca in the west is thought to have fallen from 700, 000 when the Spanish arrived to about 25, 000 by 1700. Unsuccessful indigenous rebellions continued into the 20th century.

Benito Juárez, the great reforming leader of 19th-century Mexico, was a Zapotec from the Oaxaca mountains. He served two terms as Oaxaca’s state governor then as president of Mexico from 1861 until his death in 1872. Juárez appointed Porfirio Díaz, son of a Oaxaca horse trainer, as Oaxaca state governor in 1862. Díaz rose to control Mexico with an iron fist from 1877 to 1910, bringing the country into the industrial age but also fostering corruption, repression and, eventually, the Revolution in 1910.

After the Revolution about 300 ejidos (communal landholdings) were set up in Oaxaca, but land ownership and wealth distribution remain sources of conflict today. Tourism thrives in and around Oaxaca city and in a few places on the coast, but underdevelopment still prevails in the backcountry. The violent confrontations between the authoritarian state government and opposition organizations in Oaxaca in 2006 and 2007 highlighted the gulf between Oaxaca’s rich, powerful minority and its poor, disempowered majority.