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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — James Yazzie, a 63-year-old Navajo man from Church Rock, sits in his car in a gravel and dirt lot near the intersection of Central Avenue and 60th Street, where a savage assault recently made national headlines.
“Beauty above, beauty below, beauty behind, and beauty all around,” he says. Then he whispers and moves his hands as if whisking something away.
“Purify all around here,” he prays. “Make the beauty come back to us. Let’s have that back again.”
He’s doing a Navajo-style blessing in the lot where two men he considers his brothers – Kee Thompson and Allison Gorman, homeless Navajo men in their mid-40s – were killed last month.
Three teens are charged with beating the two men to death with a cinder block, a pole, their hands and feet, leaving the victims so disfigured it took days for them to be to identified.
And now, amid the rubble, are two descansos, memorials that pay tribute to their lives at the spot where they died.
Prominent in the Southwest and viewed differently around the world, the memorials also give people a place to remember a lost loved one and a spot to lay down things they may want in the afterlife.
“I think it’s completely appropriate there’d be a descanso there,” said Erica Garcia, an educator at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, of the spot where the two men were killed.
Garcia curated an exhibit on descansos several years ago, a photographic display of such memorials erected in a small Mexico town.
“It’s a lot of things at once,” Garcia says of descansos. “It’s a way to remember, and it’s a way to mourn, and a way to share caution, because usually where there’s a descanso, there’s been a death. They can be looked at as very personal, but they are very community-oriented, because they let you know something bad happened here, and we can learn from it.”
Yazzie, a double-amputee Navajo Vietnam vet who has grappled with homelessness himself, arrived at the lot at midday last week to pay tribute.
The crime that provoked the making of descansos at 60th and Central was brutal. Albuquerque police have charged three youths between the ages of 15 and 18 – Gilbert Tafoya, Nathaniel Carrillo and Alex Rios – with first-degree murder after they confessed to Albuquerque Police Department detectives that they left a party, wrapped T-shirts over their heads, and walked across a field where Thompson and Gorman were sleeping.
The lot was once strewn with mattresses on which Thompson, Allison and other folks without local homes sometimes spent the night, sleeping, drinking, giving each other a makeshift family of support and community.
Now, the blood-stained mattresses and most weapons of the assault have been cleared.
The teens apparently had no relationship to or grievance with the men. Afterward, they told police, they threw dirt on the men’s faces and told them, “eat mud, bitch,” because one of the youths was upset his girlfriend had just dumped him. One teen told police this attack was one among 50 other attacks on homeless people he and his friends had participated in.
What remains are the descansos, created anonymously to memorialize the two men. The descanso for Allison Gorman includes a teddy bear; a bag of pork rinds; a toiletry pack with soap, shampoo and toothpaste in a plastic bag; one black tie-up men’s leather shoe; a peach; a few plastic water bottles; plastic flowers; a cross; a rosary; and a picture of him wearing a shirt and jeans, battling with a steer.
The descanso for Kee Thompson (which like Gorman’s is roughly circular and about two feet across) includes a red cola can with the word “Buddy” appearing where the word “Coke” would normally be. There are also votive candles, a brown towel, empty plastic water bottles, a lotion tube, a small Beringer white Zinfandel bottle, a stuffed bunny rabbit and a handwritten sign that says: “Let us pray for our homeless people. Keep them safe from evil.” Against a fence behind the memorials, another sign reads: “Rest in peace … God Loves all But I belive (sic) in Karma.”
The term descanso is derived from the Spanish verb “to rest” (descansar) and it refers to the kind of memorial made of items that often include flowers and religious iconography, placed at or near the spot where a person’s life comes to a sudden end – often from suicide, homicide, a roadside accident or a drowning.
Art, history and culture
Descansos are especially prominent in the Southwest from not only an artistic standpoint, but from a historical standpoint as well.
“Even when the Spanish government was coming up the Camino Real,” the NHCC’s Garcia says, “they would put little markers where people died, from Mexico City to northern New Mexico.”
A 2003 study published in Omega: Journal of Death and Dying by two University of Northern Colorado scholars asked 17 questions of roadside memorial builders and found that when people leave personal items, “those (are) things which he or she formerly enjoyed and which they may still enjoy, albeit in a new or different dimension or existence,” according to Charles O. Collins and Charles D. Rhine, who wrote the study.
They report that New Mexico is among the earlier locales for descansos. “In the United States, the widespread appearance of roadside memorials is relatively recent, perhaps no more than two decades old,” they report. “However, in Southwestern states, especially Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, the phenomenon dates back more than 200 years. … This supports the contention that roadside memorials have arisen from a Latin American cultural hearth, although it is also suggested that they are a syncretic expression reflecting both Hispanic and aboriginal influences.”
Creating a descanso, typically made within feet of the incident, can satisfy the need for “spontaneous memorialization,” they write, and can give people someplace to visit and treat as sacred.
In Ukraine, some descansos include a granite or marble gravestone; in the United Kingdom, they are typically removed after three months because of concerns that they are unsafe on roadways; and in Edmonton, Alberta, they’ve been deemed an eyesore and outlawed altogether, according to reports.
In New Mexico, laws have been passed against their desecration.
Completing the blessing
Yazzie finishes blessing the site of Thompson and Gorman’s descansos by squeezing a pouch he wears around his neck, which contains a blend of corn, herbs, sweet grass and mountain tobacco.
He belongs to the Water’s Edge clan, one of 32 making up the Navajo Nation – the same clan to which he believes Gorman, also from the Navajo community of Church Rock (pop. 1077), belonged.
He says their deaths have been the topic of painful conversation in Church Rock, where about 258 families live in an area 2.4 miles square. “Back home, we’re all hurt; we’re angry. … I couldn’t sleep for almost three days,” he says.
That was before he showed up on the lot with the descansos, two bright, colorful, sentimental spots in an otherwise bleak patch of dirt surrounded by fences and little else, in a neighborhood with lots of low-budget motels.
“I came here kind of angry,” he says. “Now I feel better.”