History of Oaxaca: The Modern Era

articles History & People

Maria Diaz

History of Oaxaca – Part 3 – Modern Era

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Let us continue our overview of life in Oaxaca, past and present. In this final section, we will review the period from Independence in 1821 through 1999 and the incalculable changes which these few years have seen.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there came about cataclysmic changes throughout the world. The Age of Enlightenment, the rejection of the ancient feudal systems and the successful republican revolutions in France and in the former British colonies in America, all generated a longing for change in New Spain.

The mestizos and criollos now constituted a growing majority and they were no longer content to render unto Spain the benefits of their labor. The clergy also wished to retain their great riches with less control from Spain.

And so on September 15, 1810 in the village of Dolores in what is now the state of Guanajuato, the priest Miguel Hidalgo pronounced the great shout for Independence, exhorting the people to arms. The original intent was to create a constitutional monarchy still under the reign of the Spanish crown but with economic self-determination.

However, it soon became a popular revolution. The descendants of the original inhabitants, after three hundred years of virtual slavery, demanded independence for all and a voice in affairs. For more than ten years, battles raged, until on August 24, 1821 Spain signed the Treaty of Cordoba granting independence to its former colonies in America.

The first national government was set up by the conservative interests, creating Agustin Iturbide Emperor of México. The majority, however, rejected the dictatorship and, in November 1823, convoked the Constitutional Congress representing the 19 states, 4 territories and the Federal District which, on October 19, 1824 ratified the first constitution of the United States of México.

From the beginning of the struggle for Independence, Oaxaca was in the forefront of everything. To borrow words from the Old Testament, there were at that time truly giants in the land. Oaxacans were among the most effective of the combatants.

A few statistics:

19 June, 1821: General Antonio de Leon, of Huajuapam, proclaimed the separation of the Province of Oaxaca from Spain.

29 July, 1821: Troops under De Leon won the decisive battle against Spanish General Obeso at Etla and from that date Oaxaca considered itself independent – nearly one month before the signing of the Treaty.

(An interesting anecdote: The Oaxacan troops under De Leon entered victorious into the city of Oaxaca on July 31, 1821. At 1:00pm that day there was an earthquake in the area and the Coat of Arms of Castilla which had been displayed above the entrance of the Jesuit College was thrown to the ground.)

But the incredible brilliance of Oaxaca is yet to come.

1 June, 1823: De Leon declared the Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca, one of The Federated states of Mexico – when the Mexican Federation did not yet exist.

6 July, 1823: The first Provincial Congress was convened and by July 28 had established the bases for the state constitution.

In March and July of 1824: The Organic Law of the State was published but the Constitution could not be signed until January 10, 1825 because it was necessary to wait until the National Constitution was written and ratified.

Oaxaca continued to be the pioneer legislature, not only in México but in all Latin America.

March 12, 1825: The Law which arranges the administration of Justice in the Tribunals of the State was published, combining in one document the first penal and first civil procedural codes in all Latin America.

In 1827 and 1828: In three sections, Oaxaca published its first Civil Code – the first in Ibero-America. Based on, but not a copy of, the Napoleonic Code of 1804. This is only one evidence of the brilliance of the Oaxacan literati of the Nineteenth Century. But let’s mention a few other statistics from the beginning of Independence in Oaxaca.

1824: the total population of the Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca was 457,504, of which approximately 17,000 – mostly mestizos and criollos – inhabited the capital city of Oaxaca. The city at that time had two principal plazas, the Zócalo and San Juan de Dios, now the Benito Juárez Market. The Zócalo was cobblestone with stone benches and ash and fig trees. The downtown area consisted of 15 streets laid out in a grid north-south and east-west, with oil lamps. Because of budget limitations, the lamps were lit only half the month, while the waxing moon provided illumination for the other fifteen days.

There were three hospitals, three apothecary shops, one granary, two jails and one theater called El Coliseo. There were two printshops (one of them government operated), one newspaper and two libraries (one public and that of Santo Domingo).

All the roads were unimproved dirt in poor condition, with the only acceptable being the road to Tehuantepec and Central America.

November 1824: the first normal school was founded and supported by the organization of Los Amigos de los Niños.

January 1827: The Instituto de Ciencias y Artes del Estado opened its doors, graduating its first lawyer in 1834 – Benito Juárez, future President of the Republic. The influence of this golden age in Oaxaca can readily be seen in the Reform Laws issued by Juárez in 1857 and during his administration.

The political goal was the creation of a yeoman economy of small farmers and industrialists with a single standard of legal justice through a democratically elected representative assembly, and legislation and institutions supporting these ideals abound. Other factors, however, were present which affected the reality.

For more than 100 years the State – and the country – were in a nearly continuous turmoil to establish the forms of administration and control. In the first twenty years there were at least twenty governors and nearly as many changes in the Presidency.

In 1836 and 1847: Two serious disruptions were the war with Texas and the Invasion by the United States. 1861 saw the intervention by France and the imposition of Maximilian Hapsburg as Emperor of México, aided by the conservatives who had been fighting for decades against any reform.

Finally, in 1867: the Republic expelled the foreign troops and the country could begin to recover from so many years of strife. Again, Oaxaca provided the leadership of the era. Benito Juárez, first as Governor of the State, then as President and Defender of the Republic, finally achieved what many call the second independence and some much-needed reforms were instituted. Unfortunately, Don Benito died in 1872 with much consolidation still to be accomplished.

In 1876: Porfirio Díaz, the great Oaxacan general and hero of many battles during the intervention, became President and Dictator until the Revolution of 1910 which again threw the country into bitter conflict for nearly twenty years.

During the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Oaxaca remained basically an agricultural community with little industry. The mineral deposits were exploited in a few communities on a small scale. Roads were built, but the coming of the automobile changed the pattern of travel, leaving villages, which had been important in earlier epochs, totally outside the new communication network.

The railroad connected the city of Oaxaca with México City but cut it off entirely from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and its industrial port at Salina Cruz.

Centuries of deforestation resulted in areas of widespread erosion, particularly in the Mixteca. As early as 1900, people in search of a better life began emigrating to the cities, to agricultural areas in the north and to the United States.

Today: numerous attempts continue to rescue and improve the technology of the past for the production of silk and cochineal, without success. There is very little industry in the State: the cement plant and the Oil Refinery in the Isthmus, the Industrial Parks in Tuxtepec and Santo Domingo, while representing commercial enterprise, are almost all on a local level, with many of the consumer goods brought in from outside the State.

The principal industry, since early in this century, is tourism. With more than 500 kilometers of Pacific Coast beaches, a treasure house of archeological zones, colonial architecture, mountains, valleys, a perfect climate, Oaxaca is a paradise for the visitor. And its infrastructure supports tourism. Impressive hotels, restaurants with exquisite regional and international cuisine, folkloric entertainment, an abundance of popular art and handicrafts, modern airports and the new superhighway to Mexico, combine to make the tourist service industry an important source of employment for Oaxacans and an attraction for visitors from around the world.

Oaxaca remains one of the richest states in the world – in history, culture, tradition, natural beauty, unexploited mineral deposits and other natural resources. It is also one of the poorest – in average income, in modern and efficient services of water, drainage and electricity, health care, and, unbelievably considering its past brilliance, in quality of education.

Oaxaca has all the raw material to build a future glorious not only in words, ideas and courage but in an improved economy and quality of life for all its citizens. All we need is dedication and honest application of the means at hand to enter the next millennium in a style worthy of our past.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2000 by Maria Diaz © 2001
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1 thought on “History of Oaxaca: The Modern Era

  1. I have been trying to get information about the Escalera al Fortin, which begins on Av. Crespo en el centro de Oaxaca de Juarez. I have been unable to find anything. I would like to know the reason it was built, when and by whom. Can you help me?

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