Tragedy Begets Beauty – Descansos in Valencia County
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a retired engineer from Sandia National Laboratories and vice-president of the Valencia County Historical Society. He is the author of five books on the history of New Mexico, including the recently released “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” co-edited with Dr. Richard Melzer.
Information for this column was drawn from a number of sources including “Murder on the Santa Fe Trail” by Marc Simmons.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
An instant of inattention or perhaps too much speed for the turn — a sudden realization that all is not right — an overcorrection — and then calamity strikes.
With squealing of brakes and the awful crunch of bending metal, the car skids, tumbles and rolls. People not wearing seat belts are thrown from the car and crushed as it rolls. When the dust finally settles, several individuals are dead or dying.
Family and friends of the victims are overwhelmed with sadness and grief. They go through the motions of living while they perform the necessary tasks — visits to the mortuary, arrangements with the church, rosaries, masses, burials and then just the emptiness where once a vibrant family existed.
In their grief and sadness they want to memorialize their loved ones in a more public way and perhaps warn others of the dangers that lurk on the highway. From this desire, another descanso is born.
The Spanish word “descanso” means rest or resting place. The tradition of placing a small memorial at the place where someone breathed his or her last and where his or her soul left the body has its roots deep in Southwest Hispanic tradition.
On long journeys such as those from Mexico to Nuevo México during the Spanish and Mexican periods, the harsh conditions and lack of medical attention frequently led to deaths. There was no way to carry the bodies with the caravan, so they were simply buried along the trail with the graves marked with a cairn of stones or a simple cross.
In northern New Mexico, it was common for pallbearers to carry the coffin of a deceased friend or relative on their shoulders from the church to the campo santo or cemetery. In some cases, particularly those in which the campo santo was some distance from the church, the men had to stop periodically to rest. These resting places were frequently marked with a simple cross.
In his book, “Descansos — An Interrupted Journey,” Rudolfo Anaya says: “The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground. Rested, the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots.”
In “The Place Names of New Mexico,” Robert Julyan notes that the city of Las Cruces was named for a place where an Indian raid had killed three Spanish soldiers in the late 17th century. Their bodies had been buried at the location and crosses had been erected to note the graves. Essentially, Las Cruces began as a descanso!
We are perhaps most familiar with the spontaneous descansos that appear following tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting or the traffic accident in Paris that killed Princess Diana. These are typically collections of candles, photos, messages, or, when children are involved, stuffed animals.
The spontaneously donated material is eventually removed. Oftentimes, a permanent memorial is erected in the location.
Descansos have been memorialized in print and in film. There have been lawsuits filed and legislation passed. Some states (e.g., Colorado and Florida) have banned them altogether, and others require a fee ($1,000 in California) for their erection. Some states have developed a standardized road sign to note the location of a fatal accident, others restrict the amount of time a descanso or sign can be displayed (typically no more than two years).
Here in New Mexico, arguably the United States birthplace of the descanso tradition, things are quite different. There are no state laws or Valencia County ordinances specifically governing the size, style, or placement of roadside memorials, so the standard rules about infringing on the right-of-way or providing a hazard to drivers prevail.
In fact, state highway workers are directed to take extreme care when mowing or working around descansos along our streets and highways. If the work that is required actually necessitates the removal of the memorial, care is taken to replace it after the work is completed.
In fact, a recent story in the Albuquerque Journal describes just such an occurrence in connection with the Paseo del Norte interchange project.
Not everyone is so careful of descansos, however. Several years ago, a group of vandals, rumored to be members of a cult of some sort, ripped up several descansos along Interstate 25 and Interstate 40 and dumped them on Albuquerque’s West Mesa. This did not deter the loved ones from replacing them as soon as the vandalism was discovered.
A survey of descansos in Valencia County (not including the Isleta and Laguna reservations to our north and west) yields some interesting information. The author was able to find, identify and document 73 separate descansos representing at least 80 individuals.
The “at least” caveat is needed because several of the memorials have no name and may represent an incident with more than one fatality.
The earliest of the dated memorials is 1993, although many of them have no date noted. The latest dates are Feb. 19, 2014, memorializing the murder of a 12-year-old boy by his supposed friend in Meadow Lake and Feb. 26, 2014, memorializing a work-related fatality during a construction project on Chughole Lane in Peralta.
The youngest victim recognized by a descanso was 1 year old and the oldest was 74. Some of the descansos list only a first name, others list a full family name. Many have additional inscriptions such as, “Home boy — we miss you — see you on the other side” or “Querida Madre y Amiga en Memoria de la Familia.” One simply says, “Mijo.”
The memorials themselves range from simple crosses of wood or metal to elaborate multi-cross memorials set in concrete. Many are set up with solar-power lights so that the memorial is visible at night. Some have been decorated with plastic flowers, rosaries, statues of the Virgin Mary or crucifixes, while others are unadorned.
Some are well-tended, with clear holiday remembrances from Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter or the individual’s birthday. Others are almost invisible behind trash and tumbleweeds.
Many are weathered to the point that the names and dates are no longer decipherable, others are freshly painted. Many of the crosses reflect ornate metal work, others are simple painted pipes. Two are nailed to cottonwood trees.
Descansos are set at the location where the individual breathed his or her last. In some cases, an initial memorial is set up very soon after the accident.
One set of grieving parents was so intent on seeing where their son died that they got to the scene before the pool of blood had even been cleaned up. This particular family then went to the last place they had seen their son alive — his grandfather’s ranch — and recovered some old, weathered wood.
They used this to set up the first memorial. Later, they returned to install a more elaborate and permanent descanso at the site.
Some memorials have two or even three crosses — one small and older and the others newer and larger. Perhaps these are situations where an initial memorial has been “upgraded” more recently or a case where the first memorial was vandalized and then reinstalled with the more permanent display.
Some of the memorials are set up like miniature gravesites, with a cross and a small “plot” delineated in stones or concrete arranged in front.
One of the memorials has an angel and five crosses, representing five family members from Albuquerque, ranging in age from 3 to 32. The family was northbound in a van loaded with ceramic tile on I-25 just south of Belen at about 1:30 a.m. The 14-year-old driver drifted to one side of the road and attempted to re-enter the highway. She overcorrected, the heavy tile load shifted and the van slid and rolled over.
None of the passengers were wearing a seat belt and five were thrown from the car and died at the scene. The driver and one passenger escaped with minor injuries.
A memorial on the Manzano Expressway has two identical crosses that reflect an accident that claimed the lives of twin 20-year-old brothers. One of them died at the scene and the other passed away almost three months later, presumably as a result of injuries suffered in the accident.
Some of the families that erected memorials have gone to great pains to personalize the setting. A 2-year-old boy is remembered with stuffed animals, toy trucks and cars. A motorcycle rider’s descanso has a metal chopper sculpted on the top.
Several have horse images carved or welded to the crosses. Hearts are a common motif — some permanent and some added, probably on Valentine’s Day. Santa hats and Christmas stockings still flutter from some.
On N.M. 6, just southwest of the intersection of N.M. 47 and Main Street in Los Lunas and at the intersection of Camelot Avenue and Pañada, also in Los Lunas, are two examples of a unique type of descanso called a white or ghost bike — a bicycle fixed in place and painted white.
The ghost bike on N.M. 6 has the name of the 68-year-old cyclist who was killed noted on the crossbar.
The one on Camelot is a combination of a metal cross and the ghost bicycle. It memorializes the death of a 12-year-old boy and includes his photograph on the cross. The young man was apparently trying to catch a friend’s dog when he veered into the street and was hit by a truck.
This tradition of memorializing cyclists who were killed is a relatively new one, probably starting in 2003 in St. Louis. It has spread across the country, and there are several such memorials in Albuquerque.
There is at least one descanso in the county that memorializes a young man murdered by one of his “friends.” The boy’s mother placed a small memorial in the open field at the location where his body was discovered hidden under a mattress. His family and friends have installed a larger cross just north of the original site where they intend to have a park with recreational equipment and picnic areas dedicated to the young man’s memory.
If the number of descansos per mile is any indication, I-25 from the north Valencia County line to the south Belen exit seems to be a particularly dangerous stretch of highway. In fewer than 15 miles, there are 17 descansos representing at least 22 individuals.
In general, the long stretches of higher-speed roads (I-25, N.M. 47, N.M. 314, etc.) have the largest number of descansos, probably reflecting the strong influence that speed has on the incidence of fatal accidents.
So, the next time you are out and about, watch for these memorials. They represent lives cut short and families that still grieve for their loved ones. In addition, they are messages to each of us of the hazards represented by cars hurdling down the road at 60, 70 or even 80 miles per hour.
Please be careful so that you do not become the subject of one of these tragic but beautiful reminders.