Sunday, September 18, 2011

Spanish Cemetery

One thing you learn when you come out to New Mexico from the east is that "Mexican," "Hispanic," "Gringo," and "Spanish" do not mean what they mean back east.  In New Mexico, if you say, "I got into a fender-bender with a Mexican today," nobody will bat a politically correct eye at you.  Mexican people live and work here, and, as far as I've been able to discover, they are Mexicans, not Mexican-Americans.  That much is pretty straight-forward.  What I haven't been able to wrap my head around, however, is the Spanish thing.  The Hispanic people in northern New Mexico assert that they are Spanish, i.e. once hailing from Spain.  The Hispanic people also identify as Americans―naturally, they are Americans―and like many Americans, many of them tend to look down upon Mexicans.  Now, I haven't been in New Mexico long enough to understand the fine cultural nuances that separate (and unite?) the Spanish and the Mexicans, but I do know that national identities are often fraught, complicated unions of history, shame, pride, denial, and so forth.  How much does cultural-national identity matter to the dead?  I don't know.  Here's a Spanish cemetery I found today.

If I'd come out here to photograph the crosses that punctuate the roadsides throughout this part of New Mexico, I would have been a kid in a candy store.  I don't know if the roads here are more fatality prone than the roads in the rest of the country, or if the Spanish culture here is such that all road fatalities must be marked with a cross.  Whatever the answer is, you can't drive more than a mile around here without seeing a decorated white cross on the side of the road.  I took an afternoon excursion through the mountains today, passing cross after cross, and so, when I spotted this full-fledged cemetery, I had to stop.  I am a sucker for faded plastic flowers.

Being a mid-westerner by birth and an easterner by the course of life, the sparseness of this cemetery struck me.  I mean, where's the grass?  To me, cemeteries are grassy places with big trees and, for the most part, the dead seem to be a comfortable distance beneath the surface of the earth.  In this cemetery the mounds of dirt made me think that the coffins were right beneath the surface, not six feet under, but six inches under, as if the grave digger had gotten tired and decided to just lay the coffin on the surface of the earth and heap some dirt upon it.  Clearly, another burial culture prevails here.  Perhaps the topsoil is just not deep enough for deep burial.  I have no idea.  

Almost all of the graves in this cemetery are marked with crosses, not the headstones I'm used to, and all of them are decorated with faded plastic flowers (it's just too dry around here for live plants), but this grave marker stood out to me because (a) it's the smallest and most discreet grave marker in the cemetery, and (b) because the placard looks a lot like a highway sign.  This isn't the only grave in this cemetery with a highway sign-shaped placard, just the most poignant one (to me) because it's tucked at the back of the cemetery, right at the bottom of the hill, and because it's adorned with a single, faded, pink, plastic rose.  This cemetery is really just like any other: some of the graves are lavishly marked, and some are barely marked at all.  The most important unifying thing, however, is that everybody is dead.  That's what all cemeteries have in common.  Everybody is dead. 

No comments: