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Discover a getaway right in our own backyard


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Our Towns

The Magic of Old Mesilla

Discover a getaway right in our own backyard.

Jay W. Sharp

 

 

In the tales of its past, the distinctiveness of its architecture, the offerings of its stores and vendors, the food and drink of its eateries, the ghosts of its buildings and churchyards, the music and dance of its plaza, the village of Mesilla — or "little tableland" — lives by its historical roots and cultural diversity.

 

 

The Human Story

 

Located in south-central New Mexico, just west of Las Cruces, Mesilla lies within the corridor of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the Royal Road to the Interior — the name the Spanish gave to the ancient trail that extended from the Mexico City region to the Rio Grande, then up the river toward Santa Fe and northern New Mexico.

mariachi
The Mesilla Plaza, overlooked by the San Albino Catholic church, now a minor basilica, as seen from the plaza gazebo. The plaza was declared a Registered National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1962. (All photos by Jay W. Sharp)

In the faces of the people on Mesilla's plaza and its streets, you will see the features of Hispanics, Native Americans, Anglos and others. In their voices, you will hear fluent Spanish and English, sometimes laced with the accents of the French, the Germans, the British, the Arabs or the Japanese. In their music and dance, you will discover rhythms and melodies with origins in Spain, Moorish Africa, western Mexico and Puebloan ceremonial chambers. In their celebrations, you will experience the thrill of Mexican independence from Spain in 1821; the pride in a hard-fought victory over a superior French force in 1862; the fond remembrance of dead relatives and friends in an often-humorous ritual inspired by Mexico's Mesoamericans; and the sheer joy of Christmas carols and the warm soft candlelight of luminarias on the night of Christmas Eve.

On the exterior and interior walls of buildings, the signs and the sidewalks of the plaza, and the shelves of booksellers, you will find stories and artifacts that recall Mesilla's history. It began with a progression from spear-carrying hunting and gathering peoples to early agriculturists, to the culturally complex and sophisticated Puebloans, to the nomadic raiding Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches. It took a dramatic new course in the late 16th century with the passages of the Spanish, who followed the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to found, in northern New Mexico, the earliest European settlements of the Southwest.

mariachi
The plaza, with mariachis performing before the gazebo. The number “54” refers to the year, 1854, when Mesilla officially became part of the United States.

For the next two and a half centuries, the Mesilla area, favorably located near the Rio Grande and its water, served for ephemeral camp sites — or parajes — for explorers, new settlers, military units, resupply parties, merchants and Franciscan missionaries traveling north or south. It lay near the route that Spanish refugees and their Native American allies followed southward in desperate flight from the Pueblo Revolt in the late 17th century.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century, in the wake of the Mexican/American War, that settlers took up permanent residence in Mesilla, which was founded by decree by the Mexican government. Along what was now a paralleling branch of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, they would raise new structures for homes, businesses, local government and worship. They would turn river bottomlands into irrigated fields and vineyards, producing an agricultural yield that included superior wines and brandies. They constructed residences, commercial and municipal buildings, a school and a church around and near a plaza, established both for tradition and for defense. Within a few years, Mesilla, with a population of perhaps 2,500, became one of the largest and most important American communities on the trails from Texas to California and from Mexico's Ciudad Chihuahua to Santa Fe.

As the brawny young nation to the east asserted its power across the Southwest, whole new, and often violent, historical currents — spawned by international conflict, international commerce, the western immigrant surge, the Civil War, political turmoil, range wars, land disputes, mining and relentless Apache raiding — swirled around and through Mesilla.

In the plaza, in 1854, America celebrated its acquisition — through the Gadsden Purchase — of Mesilla, southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona from Mexico. Through the mid- to late 19th century, American traders moved their goods by mule train and wagon down El Camino Real through the Mesilla vicinity en route to the city of Chihuahua. Prompted largely by the gold rush that began in 1848, immigrants, soldiers, miners, drovers and adventurers moved by wagon, horse, stagecoach and foot over the long trail that often led through Mesilla's plaza before turning westward for California.

Early in the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers marched, camped and skirmished around and within the community. The Confederacy made Mesilla the capital of New Mexico and Arizona lands it had seized, for a brief time, from Union forces. In 1871, Republicans and Democrats fought a pitched battle on the west side of the plaza, killing nine and injuring dozens more. In the last half of the 19th century, ambitious cattle barons, mine operators, politicians, merchants, lawyers, military personalities and renegades felt drawn to Mesilla, where they created a volatile social stew. Meanwhile, Apaches preying on the settlers and travelers forced Mesilla to maintain a standing militia — the Mesilla Guard — drawn from the local families to protect the community until the Apache Wars finally ended in the 1880s.

 

 

The Architectural Story

 

The first residents of Mesilla built, around and near the plaza, jacales, simple one-story hovels with walls made of vertical sticks plastered with mud and roofs fashioned with thatched branches and grasses.

mariachi
San Albino, built in 1906, replaced an adobe church
built on the same site in 1849.

As the community population grew, the residents replaced their jacales with more durable, one-story adobe structures. Much like Middle Easterners 10,000 years earlier, they constructed the walls from adobe bricks made from mud mixed with straw and dried in the sun. Somewhat like Pueblo peoples hundreds of years earlier, they built flat roofs from heavy wooden beams — vigas — overlain with branches or lathes — latillas — capped with mud. They often hung drop cloths, like large hammocks, beneath the ceilings to catch the insects and dust that filtered through the roof. They leveled and packed the earthen floors to serve as living surfaces. Some built front porches for shade. The more prosperous constructed brick-trim parapets along the tops of their adobe walls.

Some decades after the original construction, many residents and businesses plastered their walls to protect the adobe bricks from deterioration. Many of the original buildings still stand, serving as businesses and homes around and near the plaza.

 

 

 

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