As I go about my day enjoying the beauty of Santa Fe I can’t help but notice the constant reminders of death. I see these roadside memorials along Santa Fe streets and highways that mark the spot where a life has ended tragically. The placement of a cross is the most common practice. The laying of stones, as a way of creating a devotional homage to the deceased, is also practiced by cultures around the world. The random acts of violence that fill the nightly news has turned this phenomenon into a universal tradition. There are flowers, photos and candles for the dead. The spontaneous spot where a memorial is born. In New Mexico these death markers are known as descansos from the Spanish tense decansar (to rest).
A 16th Century Tradition
The tradition of the descanso began with the 16th century confraternity, Los Hermanos Penitentes (the Brotherhood of the Repentant). The Penitentes placed crosses, or laid stones to mark the place of death for their fellow Spaniards who died along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. These remembrances were erected for the colonists that died of exposure or were killed by Indians along the treacherous 1,500 mile trade route that began in Mexico City and ended in San Gabriel in northern New Mexico. Las Cruces, the state’s largest city to the south, got its name from the crosses that were erected for the dead along that journey.
The Life of a Descanso
No two roadside memorials are the same. These sites are all different, just like the people they commemorate. Some sites are more elaborate than others. Most memorials feature the requisite cross. Others are adorned with flowers, images of saints and photos. Mementos best describe the personality of the deceased. Sometimes a simple white cross is enough. Often, a cluster of crucifixes indicate that several people, perhaps an entire family, lost their lives at a certain locale. The descanso starts to evolve with the passage of time. Family and friends continue to decorate them for the different holidays. Christmas wreaths, birthday balloons and Valentine hearts often surround the site.
Life’s Traffic Signal
Theses memorials are not graves but rather a collage of love and devotion by the side of the road. The descanso marks the spot of a tragic end of life. It also serves to remind the passerby of the tenuous nature of life. It’s as if each descanso is signaling, “Slow down or the next roadside memorial could be yours.”.