Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Archive for the tag “descansos”

Hesperia and Apple Valley, California

I’m writing an article right now that’s taken me into a number of small communities in the southern CA desert.  A few days ago, a friend and I drove out to the towns of Hesperia and Apple Valley.  Although they are quite a few miles apart, they are connected by a main thoroughfare that had a few spontaneous shrines along it.  The first shrine we passed in Hesperia was for Kimberly:

We drove about a mile down the road before I saw this nearly hidden shrine out of the corner of my eye.  The memorial for Bryan is a white cross that’s decorated with flowers and tacked onto a telephone pole:

A few miles away, in Apple Valley, we passed a very visible shrine.  It surprised me that such an eye-catching shrine had no name or information on it.

This shrine is particularly interesting, because I can’t tell what kind of a person it is for.  The color of the cross and the presence of multiple stuffed animals are common in shrines for children.  The American flag is often present in shrines for veterans or active military.  I’m not sure what to make of the pail filled with stones.  Stones are often left on Jewish gravesites, and I’ve seen pails filled with votive candles at shrines (presumably for passers-by to light if they so choose), but I’ve never seen a pail filled with stones.  Of course, there is also the possibility that the stones are in the pail to keep the pail itself at the memorial.  Any ideas?

Spanish Spontaneous Shrine

I’d like to share some photos sent to me by a journalist and good friend of mine, Lucas Laursen.  He’s currently based in Spain and came across this spontaneous shrine earlier this year on the side of the road near Guadalupe, Extremadura.  I think this is a particularly lovely example of a roadside memorial.

It is simple yet elegant.  While it stands out against the landscape as something beautiful and human-made, it is also visually jarring.

The red flowers are a warning–a gash in the natural surroundings that passersby can’t help but notice.

Thanks for sharing these photos, Lucas!

If any of you have photos you’d like me to put on the blog, feel free to email them to me.

Where They Left — Roadside Memorials & Descansos

I found this video on youtube posted by user ‘bridgesoflosangeles’.  It is a series of photographs of roadside memorials in Los Angeles, California with the song “Corre, Rio, Corre” by David Lanz in the background.  I’ve come across several amateur videos featuring shrines and soothing or sorrowful music.  What interested me about this one was the written blurb beneath the video:

“The Mexican tradition of the road side memorial – or “Descanso” – has spread to Los Angeles County. It is common to see these home made alters at the spot where someone died, usually in an automobile accident but for other reasons as well. They are of course sad but they are also symbols of love. For me, they are a kind of home made folk art, something assembled with a passion and power beyond the limits of the materials used. They are on a road from sadness to healing.”

‘bridgesoflosangeles’ describes spontaneous shrines as a type of folk art, stemming from the Mexican tradition of descansos.  I like the fact that this video locates itself in a particular time and place.  The photographs featured in the video excellently portray some of the characteristics typical of California shrines.  As a native Californian, these are the types of shrines I grew up passing frequently on the roadsides.  Many of them are constructed by and for Mexican Catholics and often have devotional candles for patron saints.  Keep an eye out for these tall, glass candles as you watch the video!

Music as Memorial in Jim Fox’s “Descansos, Past”

I recently came across a Music From Other Minds interview with composer Jim Fox about his album entitled Descansos, Past.  The entire interview, which was conducted via email, can be read here.

Fox begins his written interview:  “As mentioned in the CD’s single sentence of liner note, the piece was written “in memorium” for a friend, John Kuhlman, who took his own life in 1996.”  I find it interesting that Fox chose to use only a single “in memorium” sentence for the liner notes.  Liner notes are often extensive pieces that go into detail about the artist(s), composition(s), lyrics (if there are any), “thank you”s, etc…  In terms of CDs, it is rare to come across a recording with such minimal explanation.  However, if one is thinking of this piece as a memorial, it is not so unexpected.  Shrines, also called descansos, are often dedicated with only a few words– the deceased’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a short personal message.

Fox goes on to explain his use of the term descansos in the title:

“”Descansos” are little roadside memorials that one commonly finds throughout the Southwest, marking the spot where someone died. They may be simple (just a cross or wreath) or ornate (a small shrine), and are a recognized form of Mexican-influenced folk art. The word itself means “rest,” and I have encountered two prevailing stories as to its roadside-memorial use. The first suggests that the idea arrived from Europe with the Conquistadors, who marked the death of one of their own with a small marker, usually a cross, referred to as a “descansos,” at the spot along the road where a person died–that individual’s final “resting place.” This story rings true to me. The second story seems a less-reasonable explanation: The markers originally marked the spots where pallbearers carrying a coffin to the graveyard would stop to “rest” during their journey. Tied to this story is another that relates the markers and pallbearers’ journey to the Catholic Church’s “Stations of the Cross” concept. In short, I believe the simple marker where a traveler (or anyone on a road or roadside) fell/died, dating from the time of the earliest European conquest of the Americas, is the most reasonable “descansos” history, and in agreement with present usage.

Perhaps I should point out here that in my use of “descansos” I dissociate the word from all particular religious meaning. I’m not a religious person in any sense whatsoever, but I find fascinating the ways that man has throughout history thought about and commemorated death, his own and those of his friends and enemies. And I feel a certain yet amorphous “resonance,” which I suspect most of us do, when strolling old cemeteries and battlefields and other places where death and life coincide directly. Perhaps this is tied to the simple sense that we’re all headed into inevitable oblivion, and for the moment we pause with that thought, we share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”

One of the often controversial aspects of roadside shrines is the obvious use of religious objects and symbolism.  In the debate over shrines and public vs. private space, allowing a religious symbol to stand on public land is a definite point of controversy.  Fox seems to suggest that although descansos have a religious history, they are recognized–along the roadside–as more than just religious symbols.  They are recognized as places of death.  They are places where people may “share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”  It is this coming together of the living and the dead–this point of crossing boundaries–this liminal space, that make spontaneous shrines such complex entities.  Therefore, I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that someone who does not consider himself a religious person should choose to use a musical descanso to commemorate a lost friend.

Although Fox’s piece of music is not typical, I believe it nonetheless should be considered a shrine, of sorts.  It is for a particular person, was constructed specifically for that person (“in memorium”), and is meant to not only commemorate but to call attention to this death.  It calls for a pause– to remember and to think and in this case, also to listen.

Roadside to film to canvas – artwork and shrines of the Southwest

I’m back in my hometown of Riverside, California for the holidays and I’ve seen some unique roadside memorials along the highways.  There is a particularly vibrant shrine culture in Southern California and throughout the Southwest due in part to strong Catholic influences.  While I work on tracking down information about a few of these local memorials, I’ll share a site that I came across a while ago.

The people at Barhead Goose Studios drove from Cerrillos to Taos, New Mexico and recorded many of the roadside shrines along the way.  They use the Spanish term descansos meaning ‘resting places’ to describe the memorials.  Their photography is beautiful and captures some of the most exquisitely decorated shrines I’ve ever seen.  But the thing that caught my attention about their Descansos project was the series of gouache sketches they did of the shrines.  It is rare to find such evocative artwork of descansos.  Below is their video of the project which includes live footage of the shrines, their photos, and their drawings  which wonderfully illustrates the careful progression from roadside to film to canvas.


Roadside shrines of North America: The tour without a guide

I came across a website today.  It’s called Memorial Hiway: A tour of North America’s Road Side Memorials.  The main page indicated that the site was created in 2007 with the goal of becoming a comprehensive list of roadside shrines throughout Mexico, the USA, and Canada.  I clicked on several states to see what shrines were listed.  There weren’t any.  There is only one memorial actually covered on the site–a shrine for six young people killed in a 2003 accident on Chilliwack River Road located somewhere in British Columbia.

This is not the first “comprehensive list of shrines” site that I’ve seen.  There are many out there and most have encountered a similar problem, I’m guessing.  Not only do shrines go up and come down in the blink of an eye, but it is very hard to track down the people that build them.  I know that I’ve passed hundreds of shrines in my lifetime, but I can only recall the precise location of a few.  I know even fewer stories about them.  For me, this underscores the personal nature of these public objects.  Although they are meant to be seen by many, they are only fully understood by a few.  While this does seem to homogenize them–by making them appear as easily recognizable occurrences of a common phenomenon [oh, it’s just another roadside shrine, like all the others], it also serves to set each shrine apart from one another [this may look like the shrine you built/passed on the road earlier, but it’s story is unique and unknown to you].

For this reason, I understand why it is very difficult to build a comprehensive list of shrines.  The same people that build one shrine have no connection to the people who build a different shrine.  There is no network of shrine-builders from whom to get information and locations.  Each shrine and each story must be sought out individually, or must be brought forth individually by someone who knows it.  Because there are no definitive parameters for memorialization [more about states’ attempts to regulate shrines to come in a future post], they may stay where they are for years or be taken down in a matter of days.  Unlike a permanent memorial, they come and go sporadically, each telling a different story with or without words.

Although it would make it easy for someone like me who is interested in finding these shrines and their families, I am glad there is no comprehensive list to follow.  Like the people they stand for, the shrines and their builders are unique individuals who, once found and invited, may or may not choose [or be able] to tell their stories.

Points of Departure: Roadside Memorial Polaroids

I just came across this youtube video featuring polaroid photographs of roadside memorials.  It is a promo for a book that will be coming out in January 2012.  While I am curious about the use of roadside memorials for a folk art book, I found the video to be surprisingly moving.  The song and the photographs take the viewer through a series of shrines, starting slow [it’s easy to see the wonderful uniqueness of each memorial], gradually speeding up [which tragically emphasizes the number of roadside deaths] and then abruptly stopping on one single shrine while the song repeats “look at me.”  I’m always fascinated by how roadside memorials are dealt with in popular culture, and I must say–this clip is one of the most respectfully constructed videos on shrines I have ever come across.  I look forward to seeing what this book has to offer.

The Man Who Mapped Descansos

The Man Who Mapped Descansos
by Alan Birkelbach, from New and Selected Works

The fold in his felt hat
was as pure as a taco’s.
He always tried to have
shined shoes.

He kept an old loose-leaf notebook,
where he had one page for each marker
telling about the day he found it
and what debris had been settled on it.

He felt that moving slow and deliberate,
driving always under the posted speed,
walking with straight shoulders to each
was what was wanted.

He knew that at the moment of tragic death
sometimes the soul stays around to be visited
and that when enough honor has been paid
then they will finally let go.

Ah, the descansos, the roadside markers for the dead:
Luis May He Rest in Peace
Always Missed
She is with the Angels.

He kept careful track;
one especially venomous corner had three crosses.
They were all unmarked but they were stone
and he wondered at first if they were an advertisement

for what, though, he wasn’t sure.
He liked the wooden markers better because
they weathered well,
with fibrous wrinkles.

Each one had a smell he said:
most were flowery and sweet
but a few were kind of salty,
and some had a deeper scent

that made the back of his tongue curl up,
all sour and thick.
Here on the border road
he had filled a notebook this year alone.

His ’65 Chevy with the bald tires
was always washed.
He felt like he needed to look good.
He imagined that, when he drove

with the windows down
he could hear low voices talking to him
because they all knew him
and they stroked his arms with the wind.

The one he liked best
was one he found that had
the rattlesnake skin wrapped around it.
He felt like that family understood.

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Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics...They are, I believe, the voice of the people." --Jack Santino


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