Descansos in New MexicoDes­can­sos– in New Mex­ico you see them every­where – along major high­ways and nar­row coun­try roads, at the inter­sec­tion of city streets and in lonely niches along dusty, unpaved lanes. They’re the road­side shrines mark­ing the place where some­one has died sud­denly and vio­lently, often a long way from home, and they serve as both a memo­ri­al­iza­tion of the deceased and a warn­ing to remem­ber the fragility and imper­ma­nence of life.

In span­ish, the word ‘des­canso’ means respite or rest­ing place. Years ago, when the cof­fin was often car­ried from the church to the grave­yard, the bear­ers would have to set it down at some point and rest. The spot was then marked with a cross or ‘descanso’.

Many des­can­sos con­sist of a cross with flow­ers, pho­tographs, per­haps a stuffed ani­mal of a statue of the deceased’s favorite saint. Some shrines are lov­ingly tended; oth­ers are neglected and over­grown with weeds.

To me, the des­can­sos are poignant and haunt­ing, a reminder that death can come at any hour, in the moment we least expect it. They’re the memento mori of the New Mex­i­can road­side. Their pres­ence carves out a sacred space and a pil­grim­age site for fam­i­lies and friends of the departed.

Almost invari­ably, the des­can­sos face the high­way, so those speed­ing past can catch a glimpse of the spot where some­one died. I always notice them,and I won­der about the per­son who died there, what hap­pened, and who vis­its the des­canso to mourn.

For a few miles at least, I drive a lit­tle slowler and appre­ci­ate my life a lit­tle bit more.

Add com­ment
  • No com­ments found