Los Descansos of Santa Fe

Santafe.com - June 23, 2011

"They are beautiful, colorful celebrations of the loved ones we lost all too soon..."

Un descanso is a Spanish word that translates into "rest" or "place of rest." Another interpretation involves a meaning that is more macabre in nature-- a memorial marker that is placed at the spot of one's death, usually by the side of a road.  Descansoshave been around a long time, from Greece and Europe to the Americas. While it is not certain exactly when or where they originated, the practice became common during the European Crusades for soldiers who died in battle. They were typically buried at the site of their death with a cross placed on top. The tradition continued when the Spanish Conquistadors came to America, making New Mexico the first state to be known for erecting descansos, due to the many battles that took place from Las Cruces to Espanola. In more recent times, especially in Santa Fe,descansos have taken on more of an artistic interpretation rather than just a religious oriented tribute (crucifixes are the norm). The simple crosses of decades gone by have been replaced with ornate shrines of religious and non-religious icons, including poetry and handwritten letters; stuffed animals and toys; holiday décor and painted stones; even alcoholic containers that serve as vessels for flower arrangements. While descansos may be subject to ravages of the elements of nature and time, the memories never fade.  They are beautiful, colorful celebrations of the loved ones we lost all too soon. Next time you pass one, stop and look at the neglectedly beautiful details on the ground. To learn more about descansos in New Mexico, read "Descansos: An Interrupted Journey" by Rudolfo Anaya, & Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez.