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The Zozobra Festival Is a Neo-Pagan Ode to Spanish Colonialism

At a park in New Mexico’s capital city of Santa Fe, tens of thousands of people gather every year to watch the burning of what might be the world’s largest marionette. The creature is known as Zozobra, or “Old Man Gloom.”

Zozobra, or "Old Man Gloom," is set afire at the climax of this decades-old Sante Fe traditionAll photos by Lyle Shanahan

Last week, at a park in New Mexico’s capital city of Santa Fe, tens of thousands of people gathered to watch the annual burning of what may be the world’s largest marionette. The creature is known as Zozobra, or “Old Man Gloom.”

Felix Martinez, a native New Mexican, has been coming to Zozobra since he was three years old. Standing amidst the crowd with a half-gallon of orange juice and Vodka while sporting a virgin of Guadalupe T-shirt, he screams out, “Que Viva La fiesta!” The 40,000-plus crowd made up of wasted teenagers, hippies, artists, cholos, 20-somethings, tourists and half-terrified children respond in turn with a thundering “Que Viva!“

At around 9 pm the park lights shut off, and the steady chant of “Burn him! Burn him!” rises from the crowd. Fifteen minutes into the performance, the fire dancer emerges. Torch in hand, she moves methodically up and down the stairway towards Zozobra, taunting the distressed marionette whose arms flail in fruitless protest, his puppet lips miming in syncopation to the detached moans projected over the loudspeaker. (There is actually a man present who gets paid to moan in agony.)

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Arizona native Mary Martinez, marveling at how quickly the seemingly innocuous gathering of picnicking families, mariachi music, and dancing transformed into something vaguely nefarious. “The people, the puppet…I don’t know quite what the fuck is going on.” 

Many New Mexico residents have been coming to Zozobra since they were children.

At around 9:30 the ritual reaches its climax as the fire dancer puts torch to muslin, the moaning puppet bursts into flame, and the crowd celebrates a city’s renewal by fire. 

“It is an annual cleanse,” says Sam Mauldin, Brooklyn-based rapper, New Mexico native, and son of the famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin. “[Every year] our city gets together and slays a monster.”

The burning of Zozobra—a Spanish word roughly translated as gloom or anguish—began in 1924. Raymond Sandoval, event chairman and designer of the creature’s face, told VICE, “Zozobra is the battle between unrestrained and restrained fire. Glooms, whether they be scribbled on scraps of paper, nine boxes of legal documents or a t-shirt, are the representation of man inflicting pain upon man.” Zozobra’s insides are stuffed each year with tax paper, bills, parking tickets and the other unpleasant physical documents of daily life.

Since its beginning 90 years ago, this creepily awesome event—sponsored by the local Kiwanis Club—has become a quintessentially Santa Fe tradition. Describing the importance of Zozobra to New Mexico, Felix Martinez told us, “You got the Hispanic thing, the Native American thing, the Mexican thing and the Anglo thing. But we all got the Zozobra thing.“

Hunger Games-esque scene as the Fiesta Queen addresses the crowd

Zozobra was started by Santa Fe artist Will Shuster, who was inspired by a Yaqui Indian ritual in which they would burn an effigy of Judas. Since then the neo-pagan ritual has—somewhat anachronistically—come to mark the beginning of “Fiestas De Santa Fe,” the oldest civic celebration in North America, which commemorates Don Diego de Vargas’ “peaceful” reoccupation of New Mexico following the famous Pueblo Revolt.

Musing over the Spanish royal court, including the fiesta queen and volunteer conquistadors that have just finished performing on stage below the towering puppet, a young man named Joseph took in the scene.

“It's great. You got dudes dressed like Spanish knights, people selling Navajo tacos, some spaced out hippies and uncomfortable tourists…It’s Santa Fe!”

Two locals are pumped and ready to go.

The event itself—an indigenous-inspired art installation that commemorates Spanish colonial culture—make Zozobra a surprisingly honest mirror into the city.

Speaking to the unique mix of Hispanic, Native American, Latin American and Anglo culture that defines the region, Sandoval said,

“Zozobra is something that we will all have and own a piece of that no one else has. We describe the sounds, the smells, the food, the fireworks and the moans. We tell a story of where we’re from.” 

But there is another, equally important side of the celebration—one defined by blackout drunkenness, fist fights, gang-standoffs, negligent parents and bewildered kids. Each is indispensible to overall drama.

Fom classic cholo swag to this white linen wizard look, contrasting style is one of the most notable and enjoyable parts of Zozobra.

“This is not a find yourself, burning man type thing.” Joseph said. “This is organized chaos.”

In past years, the celebration of Zozobra has gotten out of hand. In 1971, the mayor of Santa Fe was forced to declare a state of emergency as celebrations descended into mayhem. In 1976, widespread havoc led Mayor Bruce King to call in the National Guard. And in 1997 a gang-related shooting left one dead on the Plaza of Santa Fe. 

“The party used to move from the field to the Plaza downtown” said Celeste, a Santa Fe woman who started going to Zozobra in the late 70s. “It was great! But sometimes things would get crazy.” 

After the fatal shooting in 1997, Zozobra was moved from Friday to Thursday and the bars and plaza in downtown Santa Fe were closed to the public.

This guy is having a good time.

This year Zozobra was moved back to its original Friday timeslot, and the police presence has increased accordingly. Officers from the nearby Albuquerque Police Department (APD) were brought in to help secure the area. The presence of APD—among the most lethal police forces in the county, one with a penchant for killing unarmed homeless men, the mentally ill, and any shade south of pale—did not sit well with some locals.

“They worry about us killing each other,” said Steve Sandoval, a former Iraq veteran and native New Mexican. “APD has been killing us for decades. They should not be here. It is an insult.”

And while the more authoritarian air has diminished the event for some diehards over the years, others speak to the lasting importance of Zozobra.

Santa Fe Fiesta Queen Carmelita Roybal being escorted from backstage into the crowd by her Conquistadors

“Zozo was pretty scary, and after the lights went off he was horrifying,” Mauldin told us of his first appearance at Zozobra. “When he was gone and reduced to a pile of ash, I felt like the whole town had slayed a monster. It was beautiful. The ashes raining down on the crowd were surreal.”

And each year as Old Man Gloom’s fiery remains fall from their supports, and the lights at Fort Marcy turn back on, you can sense a tangible release from the crowd.

As Ray Sandoval put it, “For many of us Zozobra is our New Year’s, where instead of making resolutions we stuff our glooms—and in a sense our failures of the past year—into the mighty beast to be consumed by fire, allowing us to begin our year anew.”

Video retrospective by Luke Fitch

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