Situated adjacent to Las Cruces, Mesilla (“Little Tableland”) is a tiny town that packs a big punch. The charming community offers an abundance of colorful art galleries, delicious restaurants, historic architecture, and annual events steeped in tradition. It’s a wonderful place to spend the day, but there is more to Mesilla than immediately meets the eye.

Since its beginning, Mesilla has played a central role in the economic, historical, and political life of the Southwest, including the Gadsden Purchase, the Civil War, the Butterfield Stage Coach Trail, and the Trial of Billy the Kid. The community has also been shaped by Native and Hispanic-American influences, and the result is a rich, cultural experience that is difficult to find anywhere else in the world.

There is evidence of Mesilla’s heritage everywhere you look — you just have to know what you’re looking for.

1. Architecture

The cultural heritage of Mesilla is apparent in the historic architecture, which ranges from traditional adobe structures to elaborate Mission-style churches. Adobe is a building material made with earth and other organic matter and translates roughly to “mud brick” in Spanish. It’s one of the earliest construction techniques and is used throughout the world, but is definitely a signature style in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest. Keep an eye out for it in homes and other structures. (You won’t have to look far.)

Additionally, the Basilica of San Albino sits in the town’s center and is one of the oldest churches in the Southwest. It is recognized for having been established in Mexico before the Gadsden Purchase. After the purchase, of course, the magnificent building became part of the United States territory. The leaded stained glass windows depict images of saints, and the church’s iconic silhouette has become one of the region’s most recognizable landmarks.

2. Decor

Luminarias make the Mesilla town center glow on Christmas Eve New Mexico Tourism Department

Throughout the town, you can also find evidence of Mesilla’s rich history in its decor. Spanish details adorn the walls, and intricate Native patterns can be found in the furniture and wall hangings. It’s not uncommon to see a gathering of ristras (arrangements of dried chile pepper pods) hanging outside of a home, restaurant, or place of business. Traditionally, chiles were hung this way so they could be preserved and used to make red chile sauces, but ristras are also a traditional decoration in the Southwest (almost like a wreath or a bouquet) and a symbol of hospitality.

And those paper bags that are lit from the inside? Those are called luminarias, and they’re a beloved New Mexican tradition, especially around Christmas. The paper lanterns are said to have originated from Spanish merchants who were inspired by the lanterns from Chinese culture and decided to make their own to decorate for the holidays.

Although Mesilla is known for its colorful decorations, we would argue that the true culture of the town is in the people. Here, the locals celebrate their heritage and centuries of tradition through annual events like the famed Cinco de Mayo Fiesta and the Diez y Seis de Septiembre Fiesta.

3. Diez y Seis de Septiembre Fiesta

This event occurs every year in mid-September, kicks off with a grand parade along Avenida de Mesilla, and includes festive costumes and lively music. After the parade, vendor booths line the plaza, offering a wide variety of arts, crafts, and games. You’ll also find mariachi music, folklorico dancing (folk dancing with ballet characteristics), flamenco dancers, amusement rides, piñatas, and the traditional greased-pole climb.

4. The Cinco De Mayo Fiesta

Every year, there is a big Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mesilla. New Mexico Tourism Department

Around the fifth day of May every year, the town of Mesilla hosts a grand celebration with arts, crafts, games, drinks, and plenty of food. More than 30 local vendors gather to showcase their wares, and children can engage in family-friendly activities like whacking piñatas and the greased-pole climb (a difficult endeavor that is very entertaining to watch).

5. El Tratado de La Mesilla Reenactment

Also known as the Gadsden Purchase, El Tratado de La Mesilla took effect in 1854. The United States purchased from Mexico a 29,670-square-mile piece of land in southern New Mexico and Arizona to complete construction of the Southern Transcontinental Railroad line. After lengthy international negotiations and the signing of papers, the deal was officially completed with flag ceremonies and gunshot salutes in the town of Mesilla. The town celebrates the anniversary of this momentous occasion with a reenactment every November.

6. Mariachi Sundays

Mariachi music is a staple in New Mexico culture, and Mesilla celebrates this tradition with an annual festival featuring the area’s best mariachi and folklorico groups in the historic Mesilla plaza. The event features festive apparel, excellent music, and plenty of dancing.

7. Día de los Muertos Celebration

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout the country and in some regions of the United States, including Mesilla. The day focuses on the gathering of friends and family to honor loved ones who have passed away and help to support their spiritual journey. But it’s far from a day of mourning — it’s a celebration of life and love, and the festival that takes place in Mesilla is one of the best in the region. The historic plaza is transformed into a spectacle with unique altars, sugar skulls, candles, flowers, and delicious food. Plus, there are activities, music, and dances for the whole family to enjoy.

8. Christmas Eve on the Plaza

Christmas Eve on the Plaza is truly something everyone should experience at least once. The square is lit by thousands of luminarias: lanterns made from paper bags that have become a staple in New Mexican culture. As you sip hot chocolate, you can stroll through the glowing plaza and enjoy the sounds of carolers.

From its peaceful Christmas Eve gathering on the plaza to music-filled festivals and Old-World architecture, Mesilla offers a wealth of Hispanic-American heritage. Whether you’re touring an art gallery or enjoying a delicious meal, you’ll get a true sense of past and present New Mexico culture while exploring the town. If you’ve never visited, you’ll be surprised at how a small community can inspire so many rich and wonderful experiences.

Written by Sarah Strohl for RootsRated Media in partnership with New Mexico.