On the Haunting Beauty of Roadside Crosses in New Mexico
The roadside cross is a jarring balance of the emotional poles, internal and external, surely an action by and for the remaining soul—not the one who has departed.
crucitacruz, las cruces, las crucitas. DescansoMemoria crucita
There are memories everywhere in our lives and people deserving to be heard and seen and acknowledged for the simple celebration of life itself. I think las crucitas are some loving attempts at these celebrations, and although they are anchored in loss, they shine by the side of the road with a feeling of hope. Obviously public displays, these are also very private utterances of remembrance and I try to keep that mind whenever I stop to photograph them.
The roadside cross is a jarring balance of the emotional poles, internal and external, and surely an action by and for the remaining soul, not the one who has departed. I wonder how the people who have placed these reminders feel when they see others stopping by the roadside to look and photograph, or if they ever see them at all. I am sure some, though strangers, stop and pray to those memorialized. I prayed at each as I stood and framed the picture I was about to take. At the sight, or in the presence of a memory like this, I think it is natural to remember your own family and friends. So I prayed for them, both alive and dead, here and gone.
Before I began the photographs, my memory held these crosses as simple and white, sometimes brightened with plastic flowers and intermittently with a photograph or a memento. When I actually began searching the roadsides on business trips or on the back and forth from there to here, I was surprised at the complexity of many of the memorials. The stark white crosses are actually few. A folk art barrage of intricate color and device is at work in many of the displays. They are very physical by nature—visual, tactile, made of scraps of wood and sometimes heaped with personal items, rusted and dinged cans of a favorite drink. Yet there is a sense of impermanence about them all, temporary like the lives they celebrate. There is no real solidity to the structure, at least when faced with the elements of an open prairie or high mountain valley. They are pounded by wind and sun, bleached, tattered, eroded and broken. And with that, they take on the color of the geography.
Color seems to be important to those who make the memorials along the road. Flowers brighter and more saturated than the real shout loudly to us, but what are they calling for? Come Look! Live! Beware! Celebrate. Most likely all of that and more. And some are maintained, lovingly—new flowers placed on holidays or anniversaries and additional trinkets tacked to the uprights or pinned to the cross arms. Most though go the way of the world around them and deteriorate over time. Passing at high speed the color catches your eye, but if the color is faded you may not notice. Just another dried bush by the side of the road. Just another piece of detritus left alone.
They can be off the road, slung low and silent in a field, so only that flash of color pulls your eye to the site. In autumn or winter in the flat light, plain wooden crosses most likely will be missed, unless you are seriously looking. They are a countryside phenomenon, accentuating the loneliness of the rural roads and highways. But I have seen six or seven crucitas in the cities of Denver and Santa Fe bedecked with crosses if you know where to look. I recall one floral monument in the center of the city where an entire street corner was draped with bouquets. That was a very temporary site, cleaned and vanished five days after the unfortunate event that prompted the display.
Over time friends would email me with locations where they had seen las crucitas appear, knowing I would be interested in a look or to photograph. A new trio of small crosses on the High Road, entering Truchas. A flower and electric light arrangement on the south west corner of the Ranchos de Taos Plaza. Flowers and a cross wound into the chain link fence on Santa Fe Drive and Mississippi in Denver. The sites had a rhythm and a grotesque inner logic—intersections and sharp curves.
A small industry has grown up around this phenomenon of memory. Several companies sell premade crosses, some with picture frames on the upright and festooned with a ready-made bouquet of artificial flowers. They have clean-lines and are sterile, with no personal connection to those memorialized. The home-made are intricate and dear, memories made real in the artifacts—a bottle of rum, cans of Mountain Dew, a hockey stick, a model motorcycle (red, as I am certain the original was). There are plain white crosses for sale, customized by name and date, and they are made and sold by mid-western and eastern companies indicative of their clean and perfect “Protestant” lines. The rough crosses, made into settings, vignettes, appear more frequently in the west where culture has evolved in different ways. The rude crosses dot the roads where a straight line cannot be found in nature or in the architecture of home or public building.
I have no photographs of anyone tending to the memories on the road though many are clearly maintained. When I told a business associate who lives in California about this project of photographing and writing the crosses, he told me that on his way to LAX that morning he had seen an older woman on her knees tending to a cross, cleaning and sprucing, primping the cluster of plastic flowers and adding some new. That would be the photograph to take or perhaps not. That would put all of this in very clear perspective.
Simply because that is the essence of these crosses—the people left behind who make them and tend them. It is their art after all, and their sense of dignity in making a public statement that we see and feel and understand on our own limited level. They are the link to ourselves and not the persons remembered. They are the living who bear the burden of their loved ones’ sudden deaths and who grieved publicly by putting the cross on site.
I began to think of photographing the crosses many years ago on one of the road trips to our Talpa house. Just west of Walsenberg, Colorado, there was, and is, a roadside shrine. Not a cross. It is up off the road in a natural niche in an outcropping of red sandstone and when I first noticed it was filled with statues, bultos, and candles. Over the years it grew and there are now crosses and personal items at the wire fence that closes it off from the road. Strips of cloth and clothes and mementos have been added to the fence wire, so in the wind it appears almost as Tibetan prayer flags flapping. The Walsenburg shrine is one of organic growth and of personalized memory that has taken on a public, communal nature rather than the singular identity of most of the memorials. It is the spark that started my interest.
The act itself of placing crosses at roadside is of Spanish origin—medieval, not modern. It is believed that the tradition recurred in the New World as soldiers died in battle or travelers died on the trail and they were buried in place, rude crosses erected to mark the graves. Las Cruces , New Mexico, on the trail of the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe, is believed to have been named for the accumulation of burial markers along the road.
Because of the long and historic cultural tradition, the State of New Mexico leaves them be. Doctor Jeff Pappas, state of New Mexico Historic Preservation Officer and Director, confirmed the rumor I have heard, that the crosses are protected by the New Mexico Department of Transportation as being culturally significant. That respect for tradition does not translate to adjacent states; different cultures, separate histories. Although the Arizona State Police erected white crosses at the sites of fatal automobile accidents along the highways in the early 1950’s, they can do so no longer due to court rulings. The State of Colorado forbids these public displays of memory. In a case brought to Adams County Court as Criminal Action #00-M-2096, the Honorable Judge Jeffrey L. Romero deemed a roadside memorial as “litter,” in addition to not being a “venerated” object. In 2010, the Federal Appeals Court in Denver went a step further and ruled that roadside crosses were an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity. That same year, the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on the issue from Utah. That non-judgment affirmed the many for the few, the quick for the dead, the rule of law.
I do not make any judgment here. To me the crosses are folk art and all beautiful as to intent. Some of my friends find these memorials disturbing and feel they are indeed ugly, a blight on the landscape and a safety distraction, much as the courts in Colorado affirmed. Others believe they are necessary and, as I do, significant in their silent placement along the roads of America. I also do not link the crosses to a statement of religion or faith. Surely the deep-felt faith is there in some, especially so rooted in the culture of New Mexico. Throughout the southwest in cemeteries and churches, both holy places in the social fabric, personalization occurs frequently, and the riot of color is a constant. I will not take the bait on whether these roadside memorials are holy places or not, though many would argue they are, as places where loved ones drew a last breath or received the last rites of the Church. To me, they are the simple symbols of beautiful memory, and nothing more, nothing less.
To me, they are the simple symbols of beautiful memory, and nothing more, nothing less.
They are in the end personal to their makers, but public and interpretive to us all. They are what we make in the intention of placement or simply in looking. One thing they are most definitely is ubiquitous—a folk art form on every American highway in every state, whether legal or not, whether wanted or not. They are not sinister or unnerving to me. Many people think of the uncertainty of life, of the danger of the road upon seeing them. I prefer to reflect upon the memories I have had so far. I find no morbidity here and see them in situ, as another landscape of life in America.
My crucitas, my photographs, are from a very narrow band on the map of the United States—from Denver, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico, along the main highways of I-25 and the old route, US 285, which begins in Denver as US 85 with the street name Santa Fe Drive. The light, the sky, the lack of water and the abundance of it in carving canyons and natural roadways are shared by both states along that driving line from city to city. Much of that geography is spoken in Spanish, and many people of the culture that speak it have left us with homegrown handmade art along the side of the roads. They have also bespoken memory in the act of crafting and hammering these crosses into the hard-baked ground. That memory, I believe, is important to us all.
It is the collective memory my son Alex heard speaking that Thanksgiving morning so many years ago. The bathroom I was working on that day later melted when a pipe burst during a cold winter, adobe returned to mud by the alchemy of water. We sold the house some years on, but made the ride many times for business or to attend the Santa Fe Opera. I would also look for new crosses by the side of the road in New Mexico, some stealthily tucked into an arroyo or behind a ranch fence on the Colorado side of the border, safe from judicial impudence.
As we sorted through boxes, we found the old pot with its smoke clouds from firing where Alex’s plastic soldiers were still stored. I wondered again at what Alex had heard. He believes the Spanish voices were true. I think of roadside crosses, those sites of distilled memory, and I have no reason to doubt him.