This article is from the April 1996 The Mexico File
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A Short History of the Southern Oaxacan Pacific Coast
By Robert Simmonds
The state of Oaxaca has been identified as the spirittial reserve of Mexico Its Spanish colonial past and its Indian past and present.. .merge in a way that distances itself from the modern world, without shutting it out completely. This region enjoys a sunnier and slower existence than much of Mexico, qualities that may derive from its remoteness, its rocky and arid landscape, its sparse population, and the large Indian population which is the impetus behind Oaxaca's fine handicrafts.
The earliest Imown human occupation of the coast of Oaxaca came during the middle or late Preclassic era, over 2,000 years ago. From the many disparate groups that inhabited the valleys of Oaxaca, the Zapotecs emerged as the strongest around 200 B.C., extending their influence into the coastal region. They established trading links with the Mayans to the south and as far north as the city of Teotihuacan. Their culture reached its peak between the third and eighth centuries A.D. Toward the end of this period there was a sudden collapse of the culture, and it was at this time that the Mixtecs began to invade the strained Zapotec population. Although the Mixtecs were thought to be aggressive and barbaric, they in fact were great artisans, fashioning the most delicate metalwork ever seen in Mexico, introducing mosaic tile into architecture, precious stones into jewelry, and color into pottery. The Aztecs took advantage of the smoldering animosities between the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs and conquered what is now Oaxaca proper in the late 15th century, however, their influence was minimal along the coastal region.
Another important influence in the coastal region was a group of Chichimecs who traveled from the Valley of Mexico in the fourth century to the coast of Jalisco and sailed to Huatulco. They settled in various places and established a government in Tututepec. By the time of the Spanish Conquest (1519-1522) this region remained under the control of the lord of Tututepec. The population led a simple coastal life: they fished, made salt from seawater, and grew cotton, corn, beans, squash, chile, chia and sweet potatoes. The local religion was Yzpapaloti, which included such rituals as the offerings of birds, animals, human blood and hearts. Ritualistic cannibalism was practiced as well. The population at the time of the conquest was about 8,000, but by 1580 there were only twenty families remaining due to plagues. Prior to the conquest religious leaders also tended to be medical specialists, but because the conquistadors actively suppressed the native religions in favor of their own, it is speculated that this led to greater loss of life due to illnesses during this period.
Huatulco served as the major trading port between New Spain and Peru from 1540 until 1560, and this flinction was later shifted to Acapulco. Pirate attacks by Francis Drake in 1579 and Thomas Cavendish in 1587 were visited upon Huatulco, and in 1616 the Spanish destroyed the port on orders from theViceroy, discouraging frirther development of this region. Although Puerto Angel was a settlement at this time, it was not considered desirable by the Spaniards because of its lack of an adequate water supply. This condition continues to this day.
The state of Oaxaca produced two great figures of Mexican history, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz. Juarez was a Zapotec and served two terms as governor of the state of Oaxaca between 1848 and 1861. He was a great reforming leader on the liberal side...and opened new village schools and did much to cut the cumbersome bureaucracy. He was then elected national president in 1861, and helped to bring about important changes to the people of Mexico with liberal reforms in education, civil rights and the separation of church and state. He was eventually ousted by European intervention in 1863. He appointed Porfirio Diaz, the son of the horse trainer in Oaxaca, as state governor in 1862. Diaz went on to control Mexico with an iron fist from 1877 to 1910. (Interestingly, the younger brother of Diaz, Felix Diaz, was killed while trying to sail from Puerto Angel.) Although the Diaz regime helped Mexico to come into the industrial age with a positive promotion of economic development and helped to maintain peace, his authoritarian regime also fostered cormption, repression of the population, and the foreign ownership of the country's resources. This ended with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.
Puerto Escondido was founded as a center for coffee exportation in 1925. By 1965 its population had reached 3,000 and today it has a population in excess of 30,000. Puerto Angel was described by Aldous Huxley, who entered Mexico at this tiny port, in his book, Beyond the Mexique Bay, as consisting of four huts and two houses in 1930. He noted that the port was being used for some shipping and that coffee plantations were being established in this area at that time. By 1960 a concrete pier was built in Puerto Angel for the purpose of loading coffee onto smaller boats so that it could be transferred to freighters anchored at the entrance to the harbor. The coastal highway had not yet reached Puerto Angel by that time and the town had a population of only 750. Today its population stands at about 12,000.
Today Oaxaca remains one of the poorest of the states of Mexico. Many peasants are forced to leave for the larger cities or the United States in order for find work... and this situation is worsened by the fact that some areas are experiencing deforestation and erosion. In 1994 the uprising in Chiapas led to rnmors that a similar revolutionary movement could occur in Oaxaca, although there is no real evidence that this is coming about. Tourism today is seen as an area of economic growth, particularly along the southern coast.