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Roadside memorial at what, presumably, was the site of one or more deadly automobile (and in this case, bicycle) crashes in Talpa, New Mexico Carol Highsmith, photographer. January 5, 2021. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/item/2020743298/

Descansos: Roadside Memorials

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In late October and early November, people of Hispanic heritage remember their lost loved ones with ofrendas, colorful memorials to the dead that are decorated with sugar skulls, marigolds, papel picado, candles, favorite foods of the lost ones, and more. This time tends to be a celebration more than a mourning; when building an ofrenda one is reflecting on those lost ones one cherished, and recalling their personality. The loved one is gone from the earth, but alive in memory.

Similarly, it is difficult to believe a loved one passed in a road accident, perhaps even more so because those deaths are sudden and unexpected. To keep that person alive in memory, the mourners build descansos (resting places), which also, as Rachel Byrd observes, “work as material coping mechanisms for experiencing the sudden traumatic death of a loved one.” Descanso is a Spanish word that literally means “place of rest” but is a term used in New Mexico specifically for these roadside shrines for accident victims. Some descansos are for murder victims, but most are for pedestrian or auto accident victims; there is a specific kind of memorial for bike riders who are killed called “ghost bikes”, in which a bicycle is painted white. Descansos are decorated with fresh or artificial flowers, photos, signs, candles, stuffed animals, and holiday decorations.

Roadside Memorial Around mile marker 13 on US 550 west out of Bernalillo, NM. Photo by Flickr user John Fowler, August 25, 2009. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

 

In New Mexico, these memorials are so embedded in the material culture that the state has protected the memorials in law, and uses the local term descanso in their state code. In New Mexico, only state officials can remove descansos in the commission of their duties, and it is a criminal offense for anyone else to “knowingly or willfully deface or destroy, in whole or in part, a descanso” (NM Stat § 30-15-7 (1996)).

Other states make allowances in their codes for descansos, but only New Mexico refers to them that way, and specifically protects them. Colorado installs roadside memorials for state residents: “Pursuant to § 43-2-149, C.R.S., CDOT has developed the State Memorial Sign (State Memorial) Program to memorialize individuals who have died on Colorado State Highways. This program allows families and friends to honor their loved ones safely while also providing messaging to encourage safe driving.”

Alaska permits roadside memorials for two years (AK Stat § 19.25.260 (through 27th Leg Sess 2012)). West Virginia allows temporary memorials that do not interfere with the functional parts of the roads or their signs (157 WV Code of State Rules 157-6-9). Virginia has civil penalties for people who install them improperly; permission to erect them has to be obtained from the state highway board (VA Code § 33.2-216 (2022)). Maryland has an unusual approach and circumvents descansos entirely; they have a roadside memorial sign program, plantings, and are proposing the planting of tree groves in honor of the ca. 600 people who die on Maryland roads each year.

Wherever you are, no matter what road you ride on, you will find descansos everywhere.

Sources

GT3241.A2 F56 2009 Capillitas a la orilla del camino : una microcultura funeraria : “para que no queden penando–“ / José Enrique Finol, David Enrique Finol.

GT3390.5.C2 B45 2009 Belshaw, John Douglas. Private grief, public mourning: the rise of the roadside shrine in British Columbia.

CC350.U6 Bednar, Robert Matej. Road scars: place, automobility, and road trauma.

Byrd, Rachel M. “Rest in place: Understanding traumatic death along the roadsides of the Southwestern United States.” Αrizona Αnthropologist, Vol. 26, 2016, pp. 53-75.

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Comments

  1. This is a great blog post, Jennifer! I had no idea that there was legislation for these roadside memorials. In Mexico, they have several names (e.g., recuerdos, calvarios, crucecitas, ermitas, capillitas). In addition to the meanings you covered, they also serve as a warning to drivers that they are approaching a particularly perilous curve or road. There are parts of Mexico where the mountainside roads are particular challenging and the abundance of crosses in those areas serve as a somber admonishment to the drivers to take heed and proceed carefully.

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