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American Latino Heritage
Mesilla, New Mexico
One of the most well-preserved and lively historic communities in New Mexico is the town of Mesilla, roughly 50 miles north of the Mexican border. When the Mexican government founded the community by decree, it was just south of the new boundary between Mexico and the United States created by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Mesilla sat just inside Mexican territory and welcomed back loyal citizens from the north who did not wish to become residents of the United States. The town was very important in the political, military and social affairs of what is now the American Southwest after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
Mesilla Plaza has been the heart of the community and scene of most historic political, cultural and social events. The plaza was the site of the first raising of American Flag in the area, and was a hub for international trade. It also was a critical stop on stage and mail routes during the 1800s. As the location of numerous political rallies, church ceremonies, concerts, and dances, Mesilla Plaza reflects the diverse and rich history of southern New Mexico’s past.
Today, Mesilla Plaza continues its legacy as the town’s main focal point and cultural center. Strongly reflecting the community’s Mexican heritage, the buildings that still ring the square are mostly adobes that date from the mid-19th century. The Mesilla Plaza historic district has the flavor of a Mexican village where visitors can experience the vibrant Mexican-inspired cultural and architectural heritage that is part of American history.
In the mid-1840s, the Mesilla Valley became a political battleground between Mexico and the United States. The Mexican-American War began in 1846 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo by both countries in 1848. With new international boundaries drawn, the Mexican Government encouraged the establishment of border towns to attract their former citizens back into the homeland. Founded c.1848, Mesilla was one such town.
Like many traditional Mexican villages, the original community was a collection of rudimentary buildings clustered around a central plaza. The simple buildings, called jacales, were made of sticks and mud and had thatched roofs. Their defensive location around the main square provided increased safety against Apache Indian raiders, a continual threat at the time.
As the town’s population grew larger, more permanent buildings in the Territorial style replaced the jacales. These were one story houses, shops and municipal buildings with long, low floor plans. Façades of separate buildings were often contiguous to make use of the limited plaza frontage, but also for defense. Roofs supported by wooden vigas (log beams) were the norm, and many buildings featured long wooden porches along their entire façades.
Soon after the establishment of Mesilla, controversy once more erupted between Mexico and the United States with the discovery of an error in the delineation of the international boundary between the two countries. For a number of years Mesilla existed within a “no-man’s-land,” which both the United States and Mexico claimed. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase Treaty, by which the United States annexed present-day southern Arizona and New Mexico, finally settled the issue. This territory included Mesilla, and on November 16, 1854, the American flag was first raised over the Mesilla Plaza.
Mesilla played an important role in the history of the American Southwest throughout the remainder of the 19th century. During the 1850s, Mesilla flourished as a major center for trade, travel, and cultural intersection. The nearby Fort Fillmore (est. 1851) protected those journeying west toward the promise of gold in California, and Mesilla was a stop on the famed El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, a trade route between the U.S. and Mexico. The plaza also became an important stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage and mail route that ran from San Antonio, Texas to San Diego, California from 1857 to 1861.
Mesilla boomed as a cultural, economic and agricultural center during the mid-to-late 1800s. The town was the county seat of Dona Ana County from 1855 to 1885 and became a popular entertainment and leisure destination. People came from as far away as Chihuahua, Mexico and Tucson, Arizona, to attend events ranging from bullfights to theatrical shows. The plaza hosted dances and traditional performances and sparkled as the city’s social center.
Mesilla Plaza also played a critical role during the Civil War years. In 1861, Confederate Colonel John R. Baylor and approximately 300 Texan Mounted Rifles entered the plaza. After a brief battle, Union troops abandoned nearby Fort Fillmore, and Mesilla came briefly under Confederate control. For the next year, the Confederacy held the so-called Arizona Territory, which included the southern parts of today’s Arizona and New Mexico. Mesilla was named its capital but served as such only until 1862 when Union soldiers forced the Confederate troops in the territory to retreat to Texas following the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
After the war, Mesilla continued thriving and impressive commercial establishments appeared on the plaza. The successful community attracted its share of the infamous, including William Bonney (aka “Billy the Kid”), who was held in the plaza’s jail, and tried and sentenced to hang at the adjacent courthouse in 1881. The plaza was also the site of one of the bloodiest incidents in New Mexico’s history – a riot that erupted between Democratic and Republican parade marchers in 1871. When the gun smoke settled, nine men were dead and over 50 had been wounded.
Despite Mesilla’s popularity and growth, in 1881 the new railroad bypassed the town in favor of Las Cruces, just four miles to the northeast. The county seat moved north to Las Cruces in 1885, and Mesilla’s age of grandeur quickly dimmed.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, Mesilla’s lack of growth allowed it to retain much of its 19th century character. The threat of new, incongruous construction in the 1950s and 60s led to the establishment of historic preservation regulations to protect the character of Mesilla’s old center and to the designation of Mesilla Plaza as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
In the historic district, the Barela-Reynolds House is a significant example of a Mexican/Territorial style combination store and residence. The house is a New Mexico State Historic Monument. Next door, the Iglesia de San Albino dates from 1906 and is on the site of the former 1857 adobe church. Buildings, constructed between 1849 and 1885, ring the remainder of the plaza. Popular stores, galleries, and dining establishments occupy the buildings– much as they did in the boom years of Mesilla’s past.
Many of Mesilla’s current residents are direct descendants of the town’s early settlers, an important reflection of the community’s rich cultural heritage. The plaza and its 1930s-era gazebo continue to host many popular events including annual Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. On Christmas Eve, hundreds of beautiful luminarios light the plaza, which swells with song.
Mesilla and its historic central plaza thrive once more. Today, the town showcases its special heritage that is a diverse amalgamation of Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American cultures and traditions. Visitors are welcomed to the plaza at all times and can experience this heritage through a variety of events and tours. For the most updated information, see Old Mesilla’s visitor information webpage.