Sunday, December 15, 2013

A stop for rest along the way

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Highway 111 in the town of Thermal, California typically has the right of way through the crossroads that intersect it, but at Avenue 62 there's a four-way stop.

This change-up in traffic control may be one reason the roadside shrine caught our eyes when we slowed down to stop in the southbound lane.


It was the elaborate double shrine that I saw, its twin crosses and its red, white and blue bright against the dun-colored sand and the dry brown creosote brush.

My husband was driving, and he was the one who first saw the second shrine, hidden back further from the shoulder of the road.  It was decorated with artificial flowers in a rainbow of color.

There was no other traffic, then, on a Friday around high noon. So we made a careful U-turn and parked on the northbound shoulder to take a closer look at them.

The shrines had a sense of permanence and durability - both were sturdy wooden boxes crafted as niches to shelter photos and offerings from the searing sun or the winter rain. They were marked with metal crosses elaborately embellished with welded scrolls and curlicues.

In the Latino culture of Mexico and the American Southwest, memorials marking the site of a loved-one's death echo back to a long and abiding tradition. As pall-bearers in small villages carried the coffin from the funeral to the graveyard, they might need to rest a moment on the hot and dusty road. These resting places were called descansos, and shrines were built in those places to remember the dead. In later years, grieving families erected similar memorials on the roadways where loved-ones lost their lives in highway accidents.

The memorials are often elaborate, attended and renewed by families. Candles and flowers are left, and offerings of items that were favored by the dead, like cigarettes or beer.

Click to "embiggen"
The double shrine marks the memory of two young men, 20 year old Victor Elizarraraz, and his friend Christian Garcia Regalado. Just before midnight on November 19, 2011, they were in Victor's Hyundai sedan going east on Avenue 62 when it was struck in the intersection by a northbound tractor-trailer hauling 30,000 pounds of melons and lettuce.  Victor was ejected from the car and died on the "dirt shoulder 148 feet north of Avenue 62," according to the Riverside County Coroner's report. Christian died in the fire that engulfed the Hyundai. The truck driver managed to escape before the flames spread to his cab.

The few news reports that chronicled the accident were unclear on which vehicle ran the stop sign, but all noted that alcohol may have been a factor.

There is no name visible on the second shrine. Although the blue painted steel cross is beautifully embellished with fleur de lys and little floral finials on the curlicues and the silk flowers look newly bright and unfaded, the inscription has worn to a mere trace of Sharpee ink.  A 51 year old man named Jose Anguiano-Campos died at this intersection in May of 2012 when his sedan was hit by a pick-up truck, but it's hard to know whether the flowers are for him.

Victor and Christian's memorial holds cans of Bud Light and Coors, and a bottle of Corona. There is a crucifix hung atop the niche, figurines of the Virgin of Guadelupe and angels, and crosses fashioned from palm fronds. There is a small silver tinsel Christmas tree, and a rosary.

The second shrine is overwhelmed with all kinds of silk flowers and a bouquet of real roses, marigolds and babys breath, now dried. It has a single can of Budweiser, and in its concrete base the word "Salvador" is etched.

Both shrines, in addition to many votive candles, have solar landscaping lights clamped to the wooden niche, carefully held by conduit clamps. I wish I could see the shrines glow softly at night, after gathering the light of the desert sun, in memory of these souls who suddenly lost their lives.

There has been a debate about roadside shrines lately in newspapers, city council meetings, and other forums. For those who oppose shrines, some think they are unsightly, especially as the ravages of time and weather degrade the flowers and mementos left by loved ones. Some think they are morbid reminders of death. Others express concern that the shrines distract drivers, and that family members tending them put themselves in danger on the side of the road. Yet others find the erection of religious memorials on the public right-of-way a violation of the separation of church and state.

The flipside of the Constitutional argument claims that these expressions of religious devotion are protected, and shouldn't be censored by government.  Also on the side defending the shrines is an argument that these spontaneous expressions of grief comfort families and communities. Some say they even caution drivers to slow down at dangerous intersections.

The other reason these shrines caught our eye was that this intersection is a deadly one, having claimed perhaps 15 lives since 2000, according to one news report. It's no surprise that there are shrines here.

Laws regarding roadside shrines vary greatly from state to state.  Some states vigorously enforce laws prohibiting them, while other states, like New Mexico forbid destroying them. Some allow them for a time, but have road crews remove them after a year or six months. Yet other states have implemented official methods of marking the sites of traffic-related deaths, standardizing them as uniform state-erected signage, so as to prevent displays considered trashy or distracting.


I am not a religious person, but to me, these shrines represent the outpouring of feeling that families and friends need to express so they can cope with the loss of someone who has gone too soon. Devotion expressed with such loving creativity touches me, and makes me think about the humanity of the departed. I have very little in common with Victor or Christian. Yet when I see the descanso made in their names, I know that someone loved them. If their shrine makes me, a stranger, remember these young men even for a moment, I think it's a good thing.

 What do you think of roadside memorials?

6 comments:

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I think I'm with you, Aunt Snow.

I am not a religious person, but to me, these shrines represent the outpouring of feeling of families and friends that have had to cope with the sudden loss of someone too soon.
~

Unknown said...

I love them. I find them to be poignant, creative, and touching. They take me out of myself for a moment, which I welcome and appreciate.

knittergran said...

I'm with you as well. Sad things, though.

dharmadigger said...

As a New Mexican, we have many many Descansos on major highways as well as small back roads. I have often wanted to take pictures of them but have hesitated because it seemed sacrilegious in some way. You have captured with great sensitivity the wonderful remembrances that are encompassed
but these shrines. On a regular route I drive, there are four crosses and a star of David commemorating a tragic accident involving teenagers. When I see a mother at the side of the road (not easy to get to) caring for it and saying a prayer, I am able to share her grief and also, perhaps send silent comfort. These roadside shrines remind us of our humanity and mortality.

Aunt Snow said...

Thanks for your comment, Dharmadigger. I first had some hesitation about photographing, but then I thought that since they were meant to be visible, it was OK. I admit that I felt some unspoken impulse to maintain a respectful distance, and not to touch or handle them. I didn't really realize this this after the fact.

smalltownme said...

They make me so sad, especially when I know the story. I pass by one on a nearby highway almost everyday. Sad sad story. Drunk driver ran into a tree and killed his passenger. Second time. He did it years before on prom night, killing his passenger and paralyzing himself.