July 6, 2011 Descansos


For We Write Poems.


THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos (“resting places”).

Traditionally, Descansos were memorials erected at the places where the funeral procession paused to rest on the journey between the church and the cemetery. The association thus created between the road, the interrupted journey, and death as a destination, eventually found expression in the practice of similarly marking the location of fatal accidents on the highway.

“THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

“The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps  someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

“Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots.
.  .  .

“Time touches everything with change. The old descanso became the new as the age of the automobile came to the provinces of New Mexico. How slow and soft and deeper seemed the time of our grandfathers. Horses or mules drew the wagons. ‘Voy a preparar el carro de vestia,’ my grandfather would say. I remember the sound of his words, the ceremony of his harnessing the horses.

“Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young. Time has transformed the way we die, but time cannot transform the shadow of death.

“I remember very well the impact of the car on the people of the llano and the villages of my river valley. I remember because I had a glimpse of the old way, the way of my grandfather, and as a child I saw the entry of the automobile.

“One word describes the change for me: violence. The cuentos of the people became filled with tales of car wrecks, someone burned by gasoline while cleaning a carburetor, someone crippled for life in an accident. The crosses along the country roads increased. Violent death had come with the new age. Yes, there was utility, the ease of transportation, but at a price. Pause and look at the cross on the side of the road, dear traveler, and remember the price we pay”.

Introduction/Dios da y Dios quita”, from “Descansos: An Interrupted Journey”, by Rudolfo Anaya,  Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995).




Cross driven into the desert sand

Decorated with spangles

A small flag waves

As traveler drives by

Hard to say

This is my love

It happened here

Finger plunged into the

Heart of hot desert sand

A small flag waves

End of time

End of story

End of life

In hot desert sand

Angels gathered round

Decorated in spangles

Mountain crowned in smoke rings

On the radio

A voice assures monsoons are here

But not a drop again today

Pigons sit on rooftops

In stillness

Try to catch their breath

Under glare of hot desert sun

Red, yellow, purple

Mark the sacred spot

On roadside

Invite traveler

To remember the one loved

The one whose life has ended

Here — right here

In hot desert sand

Another cross erected

Simple white

Stands in mass of pink flowers

Yellow pin wheeles spin

As wind sings songs of sorrow

Each unique

Yet common in purpose

“In Memory Of”

Placed along roadside

In hot desert sand

Angels gathered round

Traveler hurries home

Hardly remembers

Sacred sites marking

Love and loss along roadside

In hot desert sand

Song of sorrow

Sung by the wind

Angels gathered round



River of Stones


Descansos sad reminder of the one lost and the one who lost.