Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Johnny Eata, born in 1965, was only 47 years old when he died in 2012 on NM-96, outside of Abiquiu in the village of Youngsville. Not much is known to the passing public about Johnny. No obituary to be found. But we do know a bit about Johnny's life, and his love for motorcycles, because of the incredible descanso on the side of the road. Flocked by a “Born to Ride” sign and motorcycle toad statue that make up part of his memorial, Johnny's memory lives on to all who pass by. The lovingly maintained descansos tells us that he was surrounded by people who loved him in life, and continue to honor him and his descansos in death.
Our last blog, The Evolution of Descansos, covered the background, history and legality of New Mexico’s descansos, along with the cultural heritage of leaving a roadside memorial. Descansos are created as a marker of a final resting place - they are a spiritual practice, a way to honor the dead but also release anger, hurt, pain and resentment at the sudden, and often tragic, passing of a loved one.
If you’ve spent time in New Mexico, you most certainly have seen these memorials along the road. Because you see so many in New Mex, they can lose their meaning and become just another fixture along the road. But, sometimes, a descanso will grab your attention as you drive by. And, pull you back. You can’t just drive by, you need to understand more, you need to find out who the person was and what happened. You need to understand the final chapter in that story that sits on the side of the road to remind you that life is precious and can be short. A reminder to drive more carefully and defensively. A reminder to never drink and drive, because so many local descansos are erected because of drinking and driving.
So, you make a U-Turn and head back, pulling over to the side of the road, to find out more about the life being honored on the road side, a life usually lost too soon. To me, each descanso reflects a life ended, families altered, relationships shifted…and grief. The descano forces us to remember.
Stepping out of the car, you almost feel as if you are entering a very private and personal space where you don’t belong. It’s a public setting, and a now-public memorial, but honoring the deceased is such a private matter and you can’t help but feel out of place.
In our blog today, we will try to learn more about a few people being honored by some descansos that we pass regularly. Every day, probably thousands of people pass by these memorials. So here is a bit of a tribute to those who left too soon, but are a constant reminder to all of us driving by:
The descanso on N.M. 599 in Santa Fe, created with a bicycle – called a Ghost Bike - catches your attention, for sure. Ghost Bikes, white bikes with the victim’s name written in black, are a twist on a descansos. This Ghost Bike honors David Sciera, who had moved to Santa Fe with his fiancée only a month before he was struck by a car and killed while riding his bike. Originally from Buffalo, NY, David Sciera had moved to Santa Fe from Colorado to open a bike shop and start a bicycle program at the Philmont Scout Ranch. He was an avid biker and active in scouting, an Eagle Scout. He majored in photography at Fredonia State College after high school. He was engaged to be married. He was only 27 years old, and he died doing what he loved. And, he left behind devastated parents, a sister, maternal grandparents and his fiancee. The woman who hit David was charged with vehicular homicide for driving carelessly; she was ordered to do 20 hours of community service and write a letter of apology to David’s family. Feels like a light slap on one's wrist.
Just down the road from where I live is a descanso that is not only well maintained, but a circular drive has been created along the side of the road to make it easy to approach. Tricia Thompson: A daughter, a sister, and a mother. Born in 1987 and died in 2007; she was only 20 years old. I couldn’t find any information on Tricia so I started asking locals. Tricia was young and beautiful, I was told. She was driving down CR 96 in Youngsville, NM with her infant daughter, when she lost control, veered off the road and flipped the car. It is believed that she had taken her seat belt off and was turning around to give something to her infant daughter when she lost control. Tricia was killed instantly. Her daughter was pulled out of the car unharmed and lives on today to carry on Tricia’s memory.
A famous descanso site in New Mexico is in the West Mesa, outside of Albuquerque. In 2009, a woman walking her dog along an arroyo, where development was starting for a housing project, found a human bone and called the police. The remains of eleven women and one fetus were discovered in what is still one of the largest crime scenes in New Mexico. The eleven women, aged 15 – 32 years old, are thought to have been involved in a sex traffic ring of prostitution and drugs, and were killed between 2001 and 2005 by a serial killer. Known as the West Mesa Murder Victims, crosses were erected on the site with names of each victim. The crosses were a visual reminder of a crime which is still in unsolved; no one has been charged. One day the crosses disappeared, causing panic, until it was discovered they had been removed for safe keeping while a memorial park was planned to honor the victims near the location where the bodies were found.
Not all memorials are for traffic deaths or mark the spot where the deceased left us. One example is Espanola’s Helen Valdez. Her memorial is a cross with a bold sign, “Unsolved Murder” and the date 12-14-2004. I was shocked to learn that Valdez was 80 years old when she was murdered. Valdez was known to have gone shopping at a nearby local store, and after that her family was unable to reach her. Her daughter called police the next day. There were signs of a struggle in her home – blood on the floor and wall, bloody dentures found in a flower pot outside. But Valdez and her purse were nowhere to be found. In 2005, an anonymous “tip” led police to the body near a remote Santa Fe National Forest Road. The cause of death could not be determined, but the local tipster also implicated Valdez’s grandson in the murder. Her grandson, Joshua Garcia, was charged but he maintained his innocense. Eventually, charges against Garcia were dropped. Many locals believe the person who provided the tip, an acquaintance of Garcia, was the murderer. Garcia died in 2018 and the case remains unsolved. The descanso reminds us of this crime and unsolved murder every time we drive by.
So next time you drive by a descanso, take a moment to remember the deceased, their families and the fact that life can be cut tragically short. And, drive safely - so you don't end up being memorialized on the side of a random road.