Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Roadside Crosses - Descansos

Oral historians in New Mexico have started paying attention to the practice of placing crosses at the exact site where a loved one died, generally in an automobile accident. That's great, but I wonder whether the focus on just New Mexico is too limiting. After all, the practice is common in Arizona as well, and has doubtless spread to many other places. And who knows about Mexico? But you've got to start somewhere. Here is another interesting Web Site....
McRee and oral historian Troy Fernandez, both Santa Feans, have spent years researching, photographing and interviewing people about the roadside crosses known variously around New Mexico as descansos, crucitas or memorias.

...Descanso is a word derived from the Spanish verb descansar, to rest. Because of the differences in terminology in various parts of New Mexico, McRee and Fernandez decided to use the English term "roadside crosses" for their research project. The crosses are erected where there is an accidental or unattended death.

Although roadside crosses can be found around the world where Christianity is practiced, crosses were first erected in New Mexico by Spanish settlers heading north from Mexico to explore the new territory. Now, deaths from driving accidents are the most frequent cause— but not the sole— for erecting a roadside cross.

McRee and Fernandez discovered that crosses have been erected for people who were struck by lighting while hiking or on horseback or hit by cars while walking or who had committed suicide.

In a unique case, a young man had caught the train to Lamy during the month of February. He started hitchhiking to his destination but froze to death during the night before he reached it. His family set up a roadside cross where his body was found.

The earliest description uncovered by the researchers of a roadside cross is found in a 1744 writing. Frey Miguel de Menchero describes an area around Embudo as being full of crosses erected for people who had been ambushed and killed by Indians while attempting to make it through Embudo Pass.

An 1826 map of northern New Mexico marks the location of many roadside crosses. The oldest cross McRee and Fernandez have found was erected near El Rito in 1948 for a priest who was hit by a drunken driver.

...According to McRee, the place where the cross is erected is paramount because that is where the deceased's spirit is believed to exist. In some cases, where a car may have plummeted into a ravine, one cross was erected in the ravine and another on the side of the road where the car veered off.

The roadside cross also serves as a warning to drivers that an accident occurred at that spot.

...Some states have discouraged the erection of roadside crosses, or at least the personal, home-made shrines that New Mexicans are familiar with.

Last year, the Colorado legislature passed a law that allows the families of traffic accident victims to request that the state put up a small sign, with the victim's name, at the site of fatal crashes in lieu of a shrine. The signs cost $100 and can stay up for six years.

Texas and Florida have also required state-funded, standardized memorials— Florida's are made of PVC pipe. In Wyoming, families may put up an aluminum sign picturing a gravestone, a broken heart and a dove at the accident site. Washington state encourages tree plantings in lieu of crosses or shrines.

New Mexico so far has no official policy. State Department of Transportation spokesman S.U. Mahesh said last year that about dozen crosses along the Santa Fe-to-Pojoaque highway corridor were stored by families or the department when work on widening the highway started several years ago and that the shrines will be re-installed once the work is complete.

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