Judith Hidden Lanius: 

Mortal Highway

Photographs and Text by Judith Hidden Lanius

Today roadside memorials are scattered across America, but only in the rural state of New Mexico are they present in such large numbers and tied to the long Hispanic custom of erecting a cross to mark a death on the road. In an age when the larger Christian culture tends to minimize death rituals, descansos, Spanish for “resting places,” are part of an enduring tradition of communal grief marked in a most public place. While the original memorials were made of simple wooden crosses, for the last forty years a profound change in the design and appearance of descansos has taken place with the availability of new commercial construction materials and store-bought objects and decorations. The sites of remembrance have become singular creations in design, materials, and objects, with the result that no two are alike.

 

 

The white metal square at the center of the descanso is decorated with tinsel for Christmas and holds a photograph of the remembered mother of two children. Photographs are rarely incorporated into descansos. This one, however, was taken from the cover of Joanne Marie Ocaña‘s funeral program.

 

Joanne Marie Ocaña, 1965–2009

NM State Road 554

 

 

 

 

 

The young man is remembered with two metal crosses that stand adjacent to ranchland where cows graze. The front cross, with its large, colorful metallic wreath, obscures the taller one in the rear.

 

Finalino Romero, 1950–1968

NM State Road 96

 

 

 

 

 

The descanso is one of the beautiful older crosses with remains of white paint bleached by the sun, standing against a hillside of cactus. It has hand-carved patterns on the edges and a typical Northern New Mexico center design motif. Someone climbed the steep hill to place white and pink roses at the base.

 

Gonzales Lucero, dates unknown

US 285

 

 

 

Bonnie’s first name and death date—large capital letters chiseled on the rough-hewn horizontal wood bar—create a feeling of power and simplicity around this descanso. A black metal hinge holding fabric flowers becomes a piece of the decoration

 

Bonnie, d. 2001

Dirt road off NM State Road 554

 

 

Carlos and Donovan Molina were cousins driving together on a narrow road, most likely at high speed. Their families erected identical crosses in their memory of them with an inscription in Spanish, Descansa en Paz, or “rest in peace.” On Carlos’s they also inscribed the Spanish words Nació and Falleció, or “born and died.” The crosses frame a large statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

 

Carlos Iban Molina, 1985–2009, Donovan Molina, 1990–2009

NM County Road 155

 

 

 

 

 

 

She, a woman of 90 years, remembers the flowers at the descanso were crepe paper,but she always put silk flowers on her sister’s grave.

 

 

Angelo Lopez, 1974–2006

US 84

 

 

This simple white, welded metal cross with flowers of vivid red and pink marks the spot where the car went off the cliff. The location is also one of the dramatic vistas on the road from Embudo to Taos.

 

Benito Ortega, 1966–2002

NM State Road 68

 

 

 

The descanso sits on a slope surrounded by hills and mesas—landscape typical of Northern New Mexico. It is decorated with bright orange and pink fabric flowers, common colors for the descansos, making it easy to see from the road below. 

 

José E. Valdez, dates unknown 

NM State Road 554

 

In early December the ranchlands west of Abiquiú are covered in morning frost. Glittering green, red, and gold Christmas decorations hang from the barbed wire and the top of the cross. All are seasonal additions to the objects that remain throughout the year.

 

Tricia N. Thomson, 1987–2007

NM State Road 96

 

Judith Hidden Lanius

Judith Hidden Lanius is a New Mexico photographer and writer.