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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 descansos, resting place in Spanish, are created in grief and loss by relatives and friends of those who have died on the road or near by. The memorials are acts of remembrance for 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 and drugs. The descansos are fashioned with handmade and manufactured objects personal to the deceased in combination with the traditional elements of a cross in a variety of designs and materials and artificial flowers. The chosen objects create a singular and haunting final representation of the life and tragic death of each individual memorialized.
In the Southwestern landscape viewed from a passing car, the most visible descansos are graphic and defining elements, adding scale and creating upright alterations to the land. Others are crosses hidden from view tucked in the underbrush. Though unintended by their makers, the uniquely decorated memorials are works of folk art with roots in the rich Hispanic tradition of religious art created in New Mexico. Ubiquitous, in rural desert and mountain places, their presence is a constant reminder of this powerful public mourning ritual.