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.
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.
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.
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.
The residents built the community's first church, San Albino, a humble adobe structure, at the north end of the plaza in 1849. They raised a new San Albino church, a towering and dominating brick structure that enveloped the old church like an umbrella, in 1906. With their new church complete, they dismantled their old church and carried it out, piece by piece, through the new front door. In 2008, the historic San Albino was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Shopping and Dining
Around and near the plaza, which the US Department of Interior declared a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1962, you will find galleries and shops — imbued with a century and a half of history — that offer an abundance of paintings, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, katsina dolls, fabrics, leather products, baskets and other goods produced by regional and local artisans as well as by Puebloan, Navajo and Apache craftsmen. You will discover specialty shops that offer packaged local treats and excellent regionally produced wines. On the west side of the plaza, you can browse through one of the best regional bookstores in the southern New Mexico and western Texas region, Bowlin's Mesilla Book Center.
If you're ready for lunch or dinner or just for a relaxing moment, you can choose from any of several restaurants, coffee shops, wineries or amiable beer joints. Depending on the size of your party and the time of day and season, you may find yourself seated in a well-appointed dining room, a secluded alcove, an open porch, a shaded patio or a friendly bar. With luck… and a good wine… you may experience what the Spanish call "duende," which literally alludes to an elf or troll but figuratively refers to an unexpected and magically good time.
Eateries immediately on or near the plaza include:
- The Double Eagle, famous for its aged steaks, and its sister restaurant, Peppers, specializing in Mexican food, are located on the east side of the plaza, in a building listed as a Registered National Historic Landmark. Double Eagle offers a nationally recognized wine list and superb margaritas.
- La Posta, with a diverse menu of world-class Mexican foods, lies at the southeast corner of the plaza, with the entrance on the east side of the building. It once served as the business office for the Butterfield Overland Mail service and for Sam and Roy Bean's freight and passenger service, and then as the upscale (for the area and time) Corn Exchange Hotel. Today the restaurant's guest book lists signatures of visitors from all across the world.
- Josefina's Old Gate, a 19th century residence converted into a restaurant, gift shop and small inn, is located on Calle de Guadalupe, on the east side of San Albino. In its interior rooms, front porch or large shaded patio, it serves light meals, snacks, pastries and outstanding wines.
- Emilia's on the Plaza, at the southwest corner of the plaza, offers a full Mexican food menu as well as salads and sandwiches. On the weekends of spring through fall, it often features live bands on the patio.
- For something light, the Mesilla Café, on Calle de Santiago just one-half block east of the plaza, offer a range of coffees, snacks, pastries and desserts.
- While the restaurants all have patios or cozy nooks where you can order something to drink, Vintage Wines, on Calle de Principal a half block south of the plaza, specializes in wines, offering some 50 choices as well as tapas. The owner, an authority on the wines, can offer rewarding suggestions for selections.
- El Patio, on the southwest corner of the plaza, has been described as "one of the best dive bars in the world." It has been the hangout of generations of locals. Just before the Civil War, the building housed way-station operations for the Butterfield Overland Mail. In 1860, Sam Bean — older brother of infamous Texas Judge Judge Roy Bean — converted the building into a saloon. Although it would serve other purposes, with other owners, it has been a full-time cantina, operated by the same family, since 1934.
If you're yearning for some unusual company, you may find it in the form of several ghosts who hang around a few of the old buildings on the plaza or among the grave markers of the San Albino churchyard.
For instance, at the Double Eagle, if you choose to eat in the small secluded Carlotta Room, you may receive a visit from the ghosts of a pair of young lovers who were stabbed to death in the room by the boy's enraged mother. Or if you opt for a drink and a snack in the Victorian-era bar, you may hear the barkeep complain about the antics of a fun-loving poltergeist.
If you shop at the gift shop next door to the Double Eagle, at the Galleri Azul — once the home of one of the earliest of the Jewish families to live in Mesilla — you may encounter the ghost of one of the daughters, who died there as a little girl.
Should you choose La Posta, which Kit Carson, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa and Douglas MacArthur patronized, you could be warned about the poltergeist who thinks it's funny to move your chair just as you are about to sit or to tip your salad bowl just as you are about to eat.
If you like to explore old and historic cemeteries like the San Albino churchyard, located a few blocks south of the plaza, you may see the wispy spirit of La Llorona — the Weeping Woman — who makes appearances across much of the Southwest and Mexico, especially at twilight. An exquisitely beautiful young peasant girl who was betrayed by her aristocratic lover, she fell into despair. She drowned their two children and then herself in the Rio Grande. Perpetually weeping, she now haunts riverbanks and churchyards in an everlasting search for her children.
Entertainment and Celebrations
Often, even during casual evenings and weekends, you will find small music groups and maybe poets performing on the plaza or in the eateries' patios and bars. For a unique motion-picture experience, walk over to the Fountain Theater, located on Calle de Guadalupe, a half-block south of the plaza — the site where the Confederates established their military command during their stay in Mesilla. Originally built in 1905 as a vaudeville theater, the Fountain Theater now offers a foreign, independent, classic or art film every evening and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Unlike modern film theaters, the Fountain features rickety old seats, café tables and chairs, and historical wall murals. It serves not only the usual movie theater soft drinks and popcorn but also coffee and pastries.
As you will soon discover in Mesilla, the community makes celebration a folk art — of its cultural heritage, books and authors, historical events, fine art exhibits, music, dance, classic cars, remembrances, Christmas carols and lights. You may enjoy most what are perhaps Mesilla's most popular events of the year:
- Cinco de Mayo, or Fifth of May, marking the day in 1862 that a ragtag Mexican force in Puebla defeated an invading French army that many considered the best in the world at the time.
- Diez y Seis de Septiembre, or 16th of September, marking that moment in 1810 when Father Hidalgo issued, from his small church in Dolores, the cry for Mexico to declare its independence from Spain — El Grito de la Independencia. The Cinco de Maya and Diez y Seis de Septiembre events become a vividly colorful swirl of the dance and music and rhythms of Mexico and Spain, the climb of a greased pole, the children's scramble for scattered piñata candies, the offerings of vendors, the gatherings of families and friends.
- La Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, around the first of November, when Hispanic families gather to remember those who have passed and to celebrate their lives. Día de los Muertos begins with a quiet candlelit evening procession from the plaza to the churchyard, where graves have been groomed and decorated, to honor and remember beloved lost relatives. It features, on the plaza, altars that memorialize those who have passed, including not only family members but also good friends, heroes and even beloved pets. In a display of panels, it honors those local heroes who have sacrificed their lives for their country. Its vendors, many who have painted their faces specifically for the occasion, offer delightfully funny symbols of the day. And, with good luck and a dollar bill, you can dance with Death — a frightfully ornamented figure who contributes the money to charity.
To learn more about Mesilla, see www.oldmesilla.org or call or visit the Mesilla Visitor Center at 2231 Avenida de Mesilla, NM 88046, (575) 524-3362.
The little book Historic Walking Tour of Mesilla, NM, by Mary De Varse and Vesta Siemers also offers interesting information about the plaza and the community. I've relied on it as a source of information for some of the picture captions.
Jay W. Sharp is a Las Cruces author who is a regular contributor
to DesertUSA, an Internet magazine, and who
is the author of Texas Unexplained, now available
as an e-book from Amazon or iTunes.