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Mesilla, New Mexico is a small community on the west side of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The name is Spanish, and means "small table" -- it refers to the flat plain west of the Rio Grande from which you can look east, down into the river valley and up to the Organ Mountains. The name is also given to the "Mesilla Valley," a section of the Rio Grande including Mesilla itself, along with Las Cruces. It predates New Mexico statehood by several decades, though unlike its larger neighbor to the east, Mesilla has remained small and relatively unchanged for much of its history.


Historical Mesilla

Prior to the town's founding in 1848, the areas around Mesilla and the Mesilla Valley were Indian country, a mixture of Pueblo peoples, and more nomadic ones such as the Apache. The region was explored by Europeans during the Spanish period, and the El Camino Real between Chihuahua, Mexico and (modern-day) Santa Fe, New Mexico passed through the area. The Mesilla Valley came under full Spanish control after the Spanish and Indian wars, when Juan de Oñate conquered the pueblos around 1600. However, the Spanish (and later, Mexicans) didn't begin to settle in large numbers in the area until the mid-nineteenth century.

In the late 1840's, the region around the early settlement at Doña Ana began to grow, with the arrival of both Mexican and Anglo settlers. In response to attacks by the Apache, the United States built Fort Fillmore a few miles from the town. After this, the region became more attractive to white settlers, and the migration began with many settling in what is today Las Cruces. Many of the Mexican residents of the region weren't happy with the Anglo settlers moving into the Valley, so they formed their own settlement at Mesilla, which was still in Mexican territory even after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Unfortunately for them, their land was of great interest to the United States as a potential railway to the Pacific Ocean. Mesilla lay within the Gadsden Purchase, and the nationality of the town was changed when United States finally bought all of the border region from Mexico for $10 million (in 1854 dollars). The Mexican residents of the town officially became United States citizens on November 16, 1854. Still, most continued living according to their own Mexican culture, and their descendants maintain close cultural ties to Mexico.

Initially, Mesilla grew and became a well-known gathering place for cultural and social activities in the border region, as well as a stop on the Butterfield Stage Coach line. It served as a gathering place for merchants, markets, miners, and the occasional outlaw. Mesilla also saw its share of political strife. In 1871, the Democratic and Republican parties held competing meetings on opposite sides of the plaza on the same date. While the meetings were initially peaceful, rabble rousers on both sides initiated a fight that turned deadly. Nine men were killed and several dozen wounded, though no one was ever prosecuted for the riot. Mesilla also served as the judicial center for much of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory -- Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang in a courtroom in Mesilla in 1881, in a building which is now a tourist dime-store. 1881 also saw the arrival of the railroads in the Mesilla Valley. The residents of Mesilla rejected the idea of the railway passing through town, so the railroads opted to run through Las Cruces instead. As a result, Mesilla retained its small town lifestyle, while Las Cruces grew into the much larger town it is today.


Modern Mesilla

The geographic (and cultural) center of Mesilla is the plaza, bounded on the north side by the beautiful Church of San Albino, and on the south by the El Patio bar. The Church was originally built in 1855, and is one of the finer examples of adobe construction in the town (most houses around Mesilla are also adobe). Like many churches in New Mexico, San Albino conducts mass in Spanish and English reflecting the ethnic makeup of Mesilla. Both the plaza and the Church are historic landmarks, and they're a nice place to spend a few hours. The plaza is surrounded by shops and restaurants mostly catering to tourists, though there are some good deals available -- one shop has huge stacks of inexpensive rugs and blankets, and there's also a used bookstore.

Just off the plaza is the Fountain Theater -- an independent film house popular with students and faculty of the nearby university. The Fountain stands on the former site of the Confederate headquarters, when the South briefly took control of southern New Mexico during 1861-1862. The current theater was built in 1905 as a live theater and music venue, and later converted to a movie theater. It is now the oldest continuously-operating movie theater in the state. One street west of the theater is the La Posta restaurant, which has good New Mexican food at a reasonable price. The Gadsden Museum (unsurprisingly devoted to James Gadsden and the territorial history of the region) is also just off the plaza.

Further off the plaza, on Avenida de Mesilla (Route 28) are two more popular restaurants; the Meson de Mesilla, and Way Out West. The former is a gourmet restaurant and small, 15-room hotel. (I could never afford it, but I've heard it's nice.) The latter is a restaurant and brewery situated on a small hill overlooking the Rio Grande with what is probably the best view of the Organ Mountains in the entire valley. Way Out West used to be the "Old West Brewing Company" -- a shack holding four or five copper brewing tuns, a cash register, and free hot dog and popcorn machines, surrounded by a few dozen outdoor tables and chairs. Now the shack has been replaced with a fancier adobe building and ceramic tile patio, and they serve overpriced tapas rather than free hot dogs and their own microbrew, but the view on a clear, late autumn afternoon is still worth whatever they choose to charge you for a piñon nut and spinach quesadilla.

Surrounding Mesilla are several square miles of farmland, mostly devoted to one of three crops: pecans, cotton, and chiles. Pecans are by far the most noticeable crop in the region. The pecan orchards are easy to spot, as the trees are usually laid out in straight rows, with each grove surrounded by a foot-high berm used for flooding the trees periodically. Cotton is also an important crop, and there is a ginning facility just south of town. And they also grow chiles in Mesilla, though some other town developed a better reputation for them. In early October, it's impossible to miss the smell of chiles being roasted around the valley, and they can be bought by the ristra or bagful at several roadside markets around town.

Overall, Mesilla is well worth a visit. It's close enough to Las Cruces (and even El Paso) to be an easy drive, and yet it still retains much of its small town culture. It's a nice place to go and relax for a few hours if you're in the area, especially if you're traveling on Interstate 10 and need a break. The interstate has an exit directly onto Avenida de Mesilla, so pay a visit to "Old" New Mexico if you're passing through.

I obtained some of the historical information for this from:
http://www.oldmesilla.org/
http://www.zianet.com/snm/ftfillm.htm
http://www.zianet.com/snm/billykid.htm
The remainder is from pleasant memory.

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