Descansos are the roadside memorials that pepper our state. The word “descanso” comes from the Spanish word meaning “to rest” (as in a resting place, either a final one for a body or a temporary one for pallbearers making their way to a grave). Roadside memorials are both traditional and popular in the Southwest. Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum noted Dec. 21, 2008, that “the decorated crosses that dot our highways, marking the place where a soul left this earth in a car crash, are high on my list of what makes New Mexico the best place to live.”
A controversy has erupted about the memorials, however. In Utah, an atheist group sued to have Christian roadside memorials removed from that state’s highways. The lawsuit is still being decided by a federal appellate court, but the case has given rise to several myths about descansos.
A misunderstanding about descansos is that objections to them are based mainly on their religious nature. This angle was emphasized in a Journal article (Nov. 2, 2008) by Kiera Hay and Mark Oswald (subheaded “Atheists in Utah Seek to Ban Roadside Memorials”), which cast the controversy as one between Christians and atheists. That article spawned a letter to the editor by Tiffany Nicol, published Nov. 23, in which an obviously exercised Nicol wrote: “These atheists in Utah seeking to ban roadside memorials should find something else to do! If they don’t like seeing the crosses, then don’t look! Just because they do not believe in God, they have no right to deny those of us who do. ... It is time to stop their ridiculous and malicious actions!”
While the religious controversy angle makes for sensational headlines, the real issue is not about religious symbols, Christian or otherwise, but is instead about the private use of public property. Anyone who wishes to erect a cross, obelisk, flower wreath, teddy bear collection or any other marker or memorial on his or her own property has every right to do so. Erecting a memorial to one person along public highways owned by everyone is a very different matter. No one person or family has the right to use public land for his or her own purposes. It doesn’t matter if the memorial is religious in nature or not; a plaque or cement bust of the dead person is just as illegal as a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David. I can’t go onto public lands in the Jemez mountains, Petroglyph Park, Tingley Beach, or anywhere else and decide on my own to erect whatever memorial I want, from a cross to a stone pillar to a shrine to Paul Newman. That is not my property.
The underlying problem is the location of the memorial, not the content of it. An atheist organization brought the Utah lawsuit, but religion is only part of the issue. The “persecuted Christian” angle is a red herring, thus Journal readers mistakenly think that the debate is about atheists who “don’t like seeing crosses.” Non-Christians see crosses all the time—just not on public property.
Another myth about descansos is what they represent. From a cultural and folkloric perspective, descansos mark an “interrupted journey,” a path (physical, spiritual or metaphorical) whose course has been altered (often by tragedy). Descansos do not necessarily “mark the place where a soul left this earth in a car crash”; very few mark where an accident victim actually died, unless he or she was killed instantly at the site. Far more often, victims die hours or days later in a hospital or in an ambulance on the way there. If descansos marked the spot where a soul left the earth, hospital hallways would be littered with them. (Nor, for that matter, do descansos necessarily indicate a car crash or vehicle death; in the Utah case, for example, the roadside memorials were erected for state troopers shot or killed in the line of duty.)
Even in accident-related descansos, there is controversy about who merits a memorial: Should it include the drunk driver who caused the accident or only his or her victims? Should a criminal and killer be memorialized?
Descansos can also become road hazards. Often those who erect descansos go beyond simply putting up a simple cross and add other things: photographs, notes, papers, books, teddy bears, votive candles, live or plastic flowers, T-shirts, luminarias, beer bottles, candies, toys, artwork, wreaths, plaques, CDs, and so on. Regardless of how noble their origins, at some point these items often become litter and trash. Papers blow away, weathered teddy bears sprout stuffing, the deceased person’s favorite CDs become silver, cracked-plastic litter. Most New Mexico DOT road crews seem to be careful to respect descansos they find, though they often must remove them (at least temporarily) to do road work and maintenance.
People memorialized by highway descansos are anonymous to virtually everyone who passes by. While some have names written on them, many don’t, and those that do have named bear lettering too small to read from a passing vehicle operating at a safe speed. All people know is that something happened to someone somewhere nearby at some point in time. Who was it? When did they die? Was it a car crash, a shooting, a heart attack or something else? Who knows? The victim likely already has a gravestone or marker somewhere else that more fully tells their story. Whether a cement cross, a painted stake in the ground, or just a collection of notes and teddy bears, the anonymity of the descansos largely robs them of their significance.
While the legality and appropriateness of descansos are debated, there are other ways which a loved one can be memorialized on New Mexico’s roads. For example, the Department of Transportation has a program called “Memorial Sign Program for Victims of Alcohol-Related Crashes” intended “as a means of lending emotional support to a victim’s family and furthering efforts to combat drinking and driving.” Recognizing that roadside memorials can create hazards, the rules state that the signs may only be placed in predetermined areas, taking into account visibility, road geometry, and federal and state regulations—not necessarily at the site of a crash. There are many such signs throughout Albuquerque; one near the corner of Highway 528 and Sara Road in Rio Rancho reads, “Please don’t drink and drive. In memory of Arlene Baca.” Unlike descansos, the sign actually tells the viewer who the person was, what happened to him or her and provides a reminder that drunk driving can end innocent lives. The aluminum signs cost $90 to $120.
Agree or disagree with descansos; the issue merits a real discussion, free of myths and misunderstandings. The urge to memorialize a dead loved one is understandable and honorable. But one person’s (or even one family’s) grief does not give legal or moral license to erect descansos wherever they like. Descansos have thrived in the gray area of the law, but once we allow private citizens to use public land as their personal property, a dangerous precedent is set.