Less than 24 hours after Annette Gonzales, 39, and Emily Baca, 29, were killed while waiting for a green light at Riverside Drive and Fairview Lane, in Española, New Mexico, two crude crosses had been put there in memory of them.
“In our family tradition they say the person doesn’t rest in peace until you place a descanso,” said Gonzales’s daughter, Ileen Gallegos. “We did it immediately, the following day.”
For thousands of New Mexican families, the crosses, or descansos, are monuments to fallen loved ones whose deaths were tragic and unexpected. Gonzales and Baca, for example, died in October 1999 when a load of timber hauled by a passing semi tumbled atop Gonzales’s vehicle, crushing it and the women inside.
Taking their name from a play on the Spanish verb “to rest,” descansos are as much a part of New Mexico’s landscape as its mesas and cottonwoods.
Troy Rodriguez, a Santa Fe-bred oral historian, said the crosses speak to a “deeply human need to bring order to chaos.”
“It also reminds us of what is so deeply human: to love one another,” said Rodriguez, who has spent more than a decade collecting stories from those who have put up descansos. “To erect and maintain those crosses, especially in desolate, far-flung places, really speaks to that deep human need to stay connected to those we love.”
But not everyone supports the tradition, which reaches back hundreds of years. Numerous states have outlawed placing memorials along highways and other public lands. Other states, like Colorado, permit state-approved memorials to be placed for a short amount of time.
State chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union have lobbied to prohibit religious symbols from being placed on public lands. And an atheist group in Utah recently filed a lawsuit to have descansos there removed, arguing public lands ought not be used for personal reasons.
Some argue the memorials can impede motorists’ visibility, while subtracting from an area’s natural beauty.
“Often those who erect descansos go beyond simply putting a cross and add other things,” wrote a blogger weighing in on the atheists’ lawsuit. “At some point these items often become litter and trash. Papers blow away, weathered teddy bears sprout stuffing, the deceased person’s favorite CD becomes silver, cracked plastic litter.”
Valerie Ortega, who placed a descanso at the Fairview and McCurdy Road intersection in honor of her brother who died in a car wreck in 2003, disagrees with that assessment.
“People don’t understand until they lost someone,” she said. “I feel closer to my brother going to his cross than his grave. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because it’s where he took his last breath. I will take care of it until the day I die.”
Tradition is born
Although erecting a descanso may satisfy a universal human need to honor lost loved ones, the tradition in New Mexico is stronger and more enduring than in most places, perhaps because it began here hundreds of years ago when the area was still under the rule of the Spanish Crown.
In their book “Descansos: An Interrupted Journey,” authors Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez take readers to the old villages “high in the Sangre Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, (where) the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.”
When the pallbearers could no longer tolerate the coffin cutting into their shoulders they rested. “The place where they rested was the descanso.”
The authors speculate on how the tradition might have been born during these rest stops.
“Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground,” they wrote. “Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.”
Rodriguez, who began researching descansos after realizing little had been written about them, told a similar story, only in his version, the mourners would pile rocks where they came to rest. The blood-letting of the times also helped entrench the tradition.
“The town of Las Cruces itself takes its name from so many crosses that marked the landscape when there were battles that had gone on there,” he said. “Our research has shown the same happened in the Abiquiú and Embudo areas where there were lots of Indian attacks.”
Today, descansos no longer mark where mourners have rested or where Indians attacked and killed, but rather where unattended deaths have occurred.
“Obviously, lots of people die in hospitals or at home, but you don’t see crosses erected and that’s because typically those deaths are being attended by doctors and nurses or loved ones,” Rodriguez said. “In these cases, the loved ones couldn’t be there because the death was sudden and tragic. So placing a cross and then going back to visit at key memorial times—holidays, birthdays—leaving flowers, it is really about trying to maintain order somehow.”
Rodriguez has sat in hundreds of kitchens listening to grieving loved ones tell the story behind the descansos they’ve made. He said descansos represent all types of tragedy, including automobile wrecks, drownings, lightning strikes, falls and homicides.
“In one breath the cross says ‘Tragedy happened here,’” he said. “In another breath it is saying, ‘Slow down, watch out!’ They remind us of mortality itself, that life comes and goes.”
Memories kept alive
If descansos remind us of our mortality, they also offer the departed a shot at immortality. In his 2009 book, “SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlife,” neuroscientist David Eagle hypothesizes there are three kinds of death, the final one being the last time someone speaks your name.
Descansos arguably aim to prevent that from happening. The volume of motorists who pass the crosses erected in honor of Gonzales and Baca at the busy Riverside and Fairview intersection has given the women a level of local fame that Gallegos finds comforting.
“I know tons of people who, I tell them that’s my mother’s cross, complete strangers who wonder what happened,” she said. “It gives me a sense of relief that my mom’s memory will live forever.”
Part of the descanso’s staying power, especially in New Mexico’s solidly Catholic north, is that family traditions often emerge around the crosses, with gatherings held on birthdays and holidays.
“I go every holiday and put up decorations,” Gallegos said. “For the first 10 years it was a tradition to get together on the anniversary of the accident at the cross, the whole family, say a prayer, light some candles. After the tenth year, I said, ‘Let her rest already.’”
Ortega said she derives considerable pleasure and peace from tending to her brother’s cross.
“It’s comforting to be able to go put up balloons for him,” she said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure my brother has balloons and flowers on his birthday.”
Both women applaud the community for the respect it shows for the departed and their families. Gallegos said when her family gathers at the busy intersection, motorists will often turn down their radios, offer words of comfort or make the sign of the cross.
“People are very respectful,” Ortega said.
But that respect has its limits. Reports of damage done to descansos—damaging one illegal in New Mexico since 2007—are uncommon, but not unheard of. Occasionally, cars run over them. Gallegos has had to replace her mother’s cross twice, while Ortega has replaced her brother’s once after cars struck them.
Española’s director of public safety Eric Garcia recalled few incidences where people reported criminal damage to a cross.
“The strange thing is the thieves have a certain respect for those who’ve lost their lives,” he said. “I think we took more reports from cemeteries, where the caretaker would call to report thefts or vandalism.”
But vandals do sometimes deliberately destroy a descanso, reopening wounds that have never fully healed. Last November, Santa Fe resident Rita Quintana discovered her son’s McCurdy Road cross was sawed in half.
“I’m hurt because people can be so cruel,” she said at the time. “They’re not hurting him; he’s gone. They’re hurting those of us who are still here to remember him.”
In June 2006, a stranger murdered Quintana’s son, Andrew Quintana, following a late night verbal altercation. She visits the cross about once a month to bring flowers and feel her son’s presence.
“This is the last place he was alive,” she said. “It’s peaceful to be here.”
Wide variety of crosses
When Tommy Ocaña, 51, learned his sister’s remains had been found in an arroyo just off of State Road 554 in October 2009, he reflexively constructed her descanso, which stands several yards from where her skull and jawbone were found.
“Joanne was a special person,” said Ocaña. “I put the cross here, by the road, so no one will forget about her. We had it blessed by a priest from El Rito.”
The construction of descansos can be as meaningful as the traditions destined to emerge around them. Because they aren’t commercially produced like other religious keepsakes, it is friends or extended family who build them so the family can grieve, Rodriguez said.
For Ocaña, constructing his sister’s cross helped tame the grief of losing his sister, who he “still misses so much.”
“I don’t want people to forget what happened to her,” he said. “For me, it’s a way for Christ to accept her spirit and to let people know this is where her spirit left her body.”
The state’s medical investigator determined Joanne Ocaña died of blunt force trauma. Her murderer has never been identified, Ocaña said.
The first set of crosses to memorialize Gonzales and Baca were made by a family friend, Gallegos said. Her husband then built a more permanent pair, as well as the replacements for the ones that have been destroyed.
Her husband, Gabriel Gallegos, said he doesn’t have any specific design scheme in mind when he begins construction. Rather, he gathers what materials he has on hand and lets his imagination guide him.
Others interviewed for this article appreciate the personal flourishes given to the physical crosses. While most descansos are simple crosses adorned with gifts, others are elaborate works of eye-grabbing art. Rodriguez talked of a non-Christian artist whose descanso is a peace sign, and another whose descanso is made of roses surrounded by irises.
“It’s a living descanso, if you will,” said Rodriguez, who has given over 21 lectures on the topic. “Some of them are absolutely beautiful.”
If families who’ve erected descansos have a common complaint it’s that the items they leave for the departed often disappear. Ocaña once installed lights at his sister’s cross to illuminate it at night until they went missing. Gallegos said she now only leaves items on special occasions.
“Everything just disappears,” she said.
In 2007, the state’s Legislature approved a bill introduced by state Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, which made it a crime to deface or destroy a descanso, punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Rodriguez didn’t return calls for comment, but in a press release her office issued at the time, she said the bill was aimed at preserving New Mexico’s cultural heritage.
By offering legal protections to descansos, the bill implicitly acknowledged residents’ right to place memorials on public lands, indefinitely. This state-sponsored reverence is often on display wherever roadwork is being done.
“New Mexico road workers take steps to protect and treat them with great reverence,” said Troy Rodriguez. “It marks the way New Mexicans have chosen to honor this tradition, because we know there aren’t many states where this is done.”
For those visiting the state, the ubiquity of descansos is among the many things people will remember upon returning home. Try driving a highway without seeing many.
One blogger, David Nance, has taken numerous photographs of descansos while traveling the country, spending time to reflect on their emotional import.
“Obviously, the power of roadside memorials derives from the fact that they remind us of our mortality—and, perhaps more significantly, of the mortality of those we love,” he wrote on his website. “Roadside memorials are so effective at this, because they confront us with the reality of death as an actual event that arrives for a particular person, at a particular place, at a particular time.”
None of Rodriguez’s loved ones have descansos, but he said he’d gladly erect on should tragedy hit close. He also said it would be an honor to have a descanso erected for him, but countered that he hopes to avoid an unattended end—at least for now.
With the state’s support, it’s all but certain New Mexicans will continue to erect descansos wherever those unattended tragedies strike, perhaps for hundreds of more years to come.
“My daughter never got to meet her uncle,” said Ortega. “Now she’s five and she knows that is her uncle Steven’s cross. Hopefully my kids will continue, so it’ll always be there.”
I wrote this article originally for the Rio Grande SUN, news from the heart of the pueblo country.