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Marking Loss
Descansos of Northern New Mexico
In Northern New Mexico, a long tradition
exists in the religious and daily life of the Catholic Hispanic population of marking roadside deaths. Commemorative and cautionary markers called descanso, resting place in Spanish, are created in grief and loss by relatives and friends. The memorials remember men, women and children who experienced violent deaths from automobile accidents. Many of the dead are young men killed from driving at high speeds under the influence of alcohol.
Traditionally, descansos were simple stark wooden crosses, which continue to exist today amidst the contemporary proliferation of elaborately decorated memorials. This cultural shift has come from the easy availability in local stores of suitable machine-made materials and objects. Many descansos are fashioned with objects personal to the deceased in combination with a Christian cross and artificial flowers. The chosen objects create a singular and haunting final portrait. Though unintended by their makers, the rich and colorful assemblages are works of folk art with roots in this vibrant tradition in New Mexico.
In the Southwestern landscape the descansos are viewed from a passing car. The most visible are graphic and defining elements, adding scale and upright alterations to the land, while others feel secret hidden from view tucked in the underbrush. The photographs capture the powerful and singular spirit of each memorial, and in all their details highlight how the families and friends left behind are inseparable from the descansos they assemble to preserve their personal memories. Ubiquitous, in rural and urban desert and mountain places, their presence is a constant reminder of a powerful public mourning ritual.