(If the above montage of images I have taken of Descansos appears small on your screen, click on it for a larger view!)
You have probably seen them in the United States – memorials erected to those who perished on a particular stretch of road. In Mexico, they are known as Descansos, or Resting Places. From what I have read, the tradition of marking the exact place of death was brought to Mexico by the Spanish in the 17th century. Now that so many more people die on the road, there is a concentration of Descansos there.
The number of Descansos on the Baja highways is not surprising, considering how dangerous stretches of the road can be. The most elaborate Descansos seem to be placed on the most treacherous sections; the more “blaze of glory” the death, the more grand the shrine. I would like to share with you all the shrines I’ve seen on steep curves, overlooking valleys or bodies of water more than 60 feet below, but at those moments I am a bit busy driving instead of taking photos!
Sometimes there is more than one marker in the same location, but the shrines are cordoned off from one another. You get the distinct impression that there is finger-pointing going on by grieving families as to who caused an accident, and who was an innocent victim.
In the United States, some states have banned roadside shrines. First, there is a separation of church and state argument, as most memorials are placed on government property and may have religious overtones. I see the shrines a sacred, but not religious. There is a sad beauty to them, all as individual as the people they commemorate.
Roadside memorials are also being banned in the United States because they are not maintained and become unsightly. There’s also the argument that the markers are distracting to drivers. On the Baja, it appears that families regularly maintain, and visit, the Descansos. Some of them even have benches for setting a spell. As for whether they are a distraction, I see them as a constant reminder to drive more carefully.