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The Evolution of Descansos

By: Guest Blogger Bob Dolci

What is a descanso, you ask? Well, I guess it depends on whom you ask. For some it’s a cross or crosses adjacent to a road. They can be a simple or elaborate or even somewhat garish. Most folks tend to think that they are just those roadside memorials placed where someone, or multiple individuals, died or where an incident occurred that ultimately resulted in death.

For many others, descansos are much more than those spirit markers (roadside memorials) adjacent to the roads in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest. They can be a big cross on a hill or even be a cross or a headstone at the head of a single grave or multiple graves outside of a cemeterio or camposanto (camposanto was more often used in early New Mexico literature).

Descansos in Santa Fe. Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa.

Though descansos can be found in states other than New Mexico, for many New Mexicans descansos have great spiritual significance and there is a time-honored tradition regarding them. They have such traditional spiritual importance that even highway crews often reverently work around or carefully catalog and remove these markers during road construction, then replace them afterward.  In 2007, the New Mexico passed a law making it illegal to desecrate descansos. It isn’t unusual that, during the “Day of the Dead”, family members or decedents of the dead maintain the Descanso. Christmas and Easter are also times in which the descansos are maintained and decorated.

In New Mexico, and throughout much of the Southwest, descanos have been around since the Spanish settled here in the late 1500s. Descansos are deeply rooted in Southwestern Hispanic culture. The word means “resting place” and is believed to refer to the days when coffins were transported by horse and cart or carried by hand over many miles for burial in a camposanto. When the mourners rested for the evening along their journey, they erected markers made of stacked stones. The word descanso is used to refer to more than just a temporary resting place. It can also mean the ultimate resting place. For example, a caballero that died somewhere along the Santa Fe trail would be buried and a simple cross would be used to mark the grave. A 16th century conquistador that died somewhere in the Americas was seldom laid to rest in a camposanto. A descanso marked his ultimate resting place.

Today, as stated above, descansos demark where the spirit left the body, or where the incident occurred that ultimately resulted in death. I am sure that you would not find it hard to believe that there are folks that argue over what truly represents a descanso and how long they’ve been around. While it is a fact that descansos have been around a long time, roadside memorials are a “relatively” new tradition in the southwest. It is believed that they originated in Arizona. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Arizona Highway Patrol used white crosses to mark the site of fatal car accidents. Families of road-crash victims continued this practice after the Arizona State Government determined that it was inappropriate for the Highway Patrol to continue erecting the crosses. There are those who believe that roadside memorials have only been around for the last twenty years or so. The truth is we’ve seen a proliferation of them on our roadways during the past twenty years. There has been a steady increase since the passing of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. It’s simple, more roads, more cars, more drivers, more fatalities, more roadside memorials.

There are even some folks, in states other than New Mexico, who make a point in removing them. Some states even have highway workers that are responsible for removing them along certain roads and highways. Of course, I’m only referring to roadside memorials and not descansos that are actual grave markers.

In many states roadside memorials are not allowed and are even against the law to erect. In Colorado, though you might find them in the back roads adjacent to private property, highway shrines are forbidden (the State of Colorado refers to roadside memorials as highway shrines). The ACLU and several Hispanic groups made a big issue of it and demanded that the state come up with a way to show where a tragic traffic fatality occurred. The state’s first attempt was to temporarily place a small wooden cross at the site of the accident. That approach made no one happy. After considerable negotiation, the state eventually settled on a rectangular blue sign with white letters and a red “x”. Even those have to be removed after two years.

As we know, Florida has a large Hispanic community. In 1997, Florida banned roadside memorials. Talk about causing a firestorm. The Hispanic community became outraged when a local Orlando radio station offered a $100 bounty for each descanso that was torn down and delivered to the station.

Believe it or not, New Jersey has had and continues to have a significant number of roadside memorials. New Jersey allows markers along the Atlantic City Expressway to be left up for only 10 days, and can only be placed under police escort. In other parts of the state, they are just simply ignored.

At one point some states including Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin, supposedly for safety reasons, banned the roadside memorials. After years of dealing with the grief that the ban had caused they decided that the battle wasn’t worth fighting. Reluctantly many of the states that had enacted rigid laws eased their laws regarding the roadside memorials.

There are several descansos in New Mexico that have special significance, including The West Mesa Murder Victim descansos and The burning of a descanso in Chimayo. We will look at these and other local descansos in our next blog – Descansos Part II***Coming Soon!


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