“While the original memorials were made of simple wooden crosses, for the last forty years a profound change in the design and appearance of descansos has taken place with the availability of new commercial construction materials and store-bought objects and decorations … The sites of remembrance have become singular creations in design, materials, and objects, with the result that no two are alike.” —Judith Hidden Lanius
Despite the prodigious number of roadside memorials found in the Northern New Mexico landscape, unknown to most, is the significance of the powerful and poignant descansos erected for years by the Hispanic community. In Mortal Highway (Daylight, Spring 2022) Judith Hidden Lanius offers a unique and highly personal view of descanso culture through her photographs interwoven with prose and lyrical verse inspired by her conversations with the families of the victims.
The photographs show how descansos incorporate objects of religious significance and personal mementos from the life of the deceased. This public mourning ritual turns highway shoulders into sacred spaces holding memories and cautionary tales for those driving by.
Lanius began her long-term project 10 years ago. She shares, “Through the years of solitary driving and stopping, my connections deepened to the lost men, women, and children remembered in the sacred descanso space. Families and individuals generously and courageously welcomed a stranger along the side of the road or into the homes and shared memories.”
The book includes photographs of the surrounding northern New Mexico landscape, and the modest homes adjacent to the descansos. Lanius feels this helps “anchor the memorials in the physical context of the dramatic high desert landscape of the Southwest.”
Lanius’s images show the variety of approaches, from simple to elaborate, in the creation of the descansos, noting, “The Latin cross, a visual and spiritual anchor, is the essential element around which the descanso is created. Recent crosses are made of wrought iron, steel, rebar, or galvanized steel tubing. Wood continues to be used and is thick or thin, hand carved, or saw-cut.” Flowers, flags, and hand-written messages also populate the memorials, providing insight into both the person who died, and the creators of the shrines.
At the back of the book is a text describing the elements that go into creating a descanso, a map of the region that shows the location of each crash site, and in-depth captions that reveal each victim’s name (when known), and details about the particular descanso erected in his or her memory.
About the Photographer:
Judith Lanius is a New Mexico photographer and writer. She has a background as an art historian and jewelry designer and self-published limited-edition books on Northern Indian and Morocco.
Judith Hidden Lanius : Mortal Highway
Published by Daylight Books
Hardcover with Dust Jacket
Trim Size: 10.5 x 10 inches