Friday, May 24, 2013

Creative memorials abound in the Borderlands

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — It shouldn’t surprise me, after all these years in the creative Borderlands, where Día de los Muertos celebrants seem to come up with infinitely imaginative ways to remember their loved ones.
But I’m still regularly touched, often deeply moved — and sometimes even amused and astounded — by the inventive and loving ideas people come up with to memorialize and honor their dear departed.
Etched in my mind’s eye is the achingly lovely scene of a  burial ceremony I stumbled upon when I had been invited to cover a story at a northern New Mexico pueblo. Loved ones on foot and on horseback, silver and turquoise gleaming in high mesa sunlight, ancient celebrations of life and transitions in an ancient land ...
When I moved to Santa Fe in the 1980s, it took me a while to notice the descanos and a bit longer to discern their significance. I came across the tributes in the hearts of cities and villages and on isolated rural roads and highways. Sometimes the little displays were new and colorful, with fresh or vivid artificial flowers, More often, the descanso was something weathered and simple: a handmade metal or wooden cross, sometimes inscribed with a name and date.
Over the years, I interviewed authors and filmmakers who chronicled descanso traditions in books and documentaries. I learned about ancient traditions of honoring loved ones at or near the site of a sudden and unexpected death, away from their homes, victims of a traffic accident, an assault, an unexplained medical catastrophe.
Often, I found, neighbors and nearby business employees know the stories decades after a descanso is created. Decorations — flowers, wreaths, flags, toys for small children — pop up on holidays, birthdays and occasions important to the deceased and their loved ones.
In recent decades, a custom traced to early Hispanic settlers in the Southwest has spread nation- and world-wide, with descanso-like displays showing up at the sites of mass shootings and natural catastrophes.
I see other, more mobile tributes passing by on streets and highways throughout the Mesilla Valley, memorials decaled and painted on car and truck windows.
I’ve also seen portraits of beloved parents, grandparents, siblings and friends tattooed on the arms and legs of loved ones who have made a lifetime commitment to carry and share their memories.
Commemorative T-shirts have been another surprise in the burgeoning lexicon of  Borderland memorial traditions.
At Las Cruces memorial services for Sgt. Triton Mykal Wade, many of his family, friends and comrades wore black T-shirts that said “Team Wade” and “Forever an Outlaw Hero,” and featured his battalion’s mascot, a gun-wielding, grinning skeleton “Outlaw” wearing a cowboy hat.
Wade was killed in action on his last mission, shortly before he was scheduled to come home after a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. He was just 23. 
His wife, Alisha Morales Wade of Las Cruces, said the shirts were a tribute to Wade’s life as a soldier and a husband; they used to wear “Team Wade” shirts when they played video games together.
Since then, I’ve been noticing memorial T-shirts all over town. Sometimes, there is just a stark biographical line: A name, and the dates of the person’s birth and death. Others have symbols of faith and images of significance to the person being honored and those who loved him or her.
Altars, displays and processions during Día de los Muertos.  “Taps,” a wreath, a flag and salutes to a soldier. A daisy on the grave of a beloved mom or dad. A scattering of ashes and rose petals on mountaintops and waterfronts.
Traditional or new and creative, every memorial has something in common: a tribute to and remembrance of a soul we love.
S. Derrickson Moore may be reached at 575-541-5450. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore


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