Fire Versus Gloom

He stood towering over more than sixty thousand spectators. His head scanning over the large mob screaming, “Burn him!” The fifty foot pale giant was charged with crimes against the community. Without saying a word himself, he was found guilty, and set afire. The crowd cheered as the flames engulfed the giant. His arms waving and head shaking, he howled in agony. I stood in shock as the flames spiraled up and behind his face. His eyes silhouetted by the inferno within. In a matter of minutes, he was reduced to a pile of ash. This is not an excerpt from some medieval epic or a scene from a monster horror film. Nor was this a real monster. This enormous marionette effigy made of fabric, paper, and wood is Zozobra, signifying the beginning of the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe festival in New Mexico.

I was an outsider and knew nothing about this event prior. It is important to disclose that in telling this story, I lacked the necessary cultural context, nor did I have the history that many folks who grew up here share. My interpretation and perspective thus misses the true meaning and significance of this event. I had entered into a family with deep roots in Santa Fe. I had experienced the beautiful traditions held around Christmas with thousands of paper lanterns called farolitos decorating the entire old town. I had eaten enough hatch chilies in my visits to satisfy a lifetime. We had done many walks around their Canyon Road neighborhood in Santa Fe, experiencing their strong culture in creating and sharing art. Up to this point, Santa Fe was a magical place. Hearing of Fiestas, I was thrilled to see this “burning of Zozobra.” It sounded inspired by the burning effigies in Europe or perhaps the inspiration for the Burning Man festival in Nevada – but with a more family and local community focus. I heard different stories from several locals of Zozobra’s significance. To some, he was “Old Man Gloom,” and as he burned away, so did all the community’s anxieties and worries. To others, it was of catholic origin. His burning was a way to rid the town of evil such as done in many Catholic countries on Holy Saturday. For a small group standing outside the main gate yelling and protesting, they saw a satanic ritual, and the thousands of attendees were all sinners. Regardless of the explanation, Santa Fe’s sweet charm would surely take a twist this evening.

It began similarly to an outdoor concert or Fourth of July firework show. Everyone first arrives to sift through the entrance gates of Fort Marcy Park where tickets are collected and bags searched for contraband. Inside, vendors sell food, art, balloons, and even glowstick jewelry. Several music acts performed on stage, and after a few hours, the sun finally set. It is time for the main attraction. Built by the Kiwanis Club, Zozobra holds the Guinness World Record as the largest marionette in the world. Never would I have associated either of these organizations with burning an enormous effigy in such ravaging delight. 

It began with the Royal Court of the Santa Fe Fiesta charging Zozobra with bringing gloom and despair to the community. The crowd began to scream, “Guilty!” and “Burn Him.” This raging mob mentality amplified as the yelling became louder and more frequent. I couldn’t help but recall stories of witch burnings and angry mobs with fire and pitchforks. The irony of the moment: as they screamed to burn this giant in order to rid the town of anxiety and fear, I myself became more anxious and fearful. The Court declared him guilty and the fire lighting was to begin. Several choreographed dance routines were performed in front of the giant puppet. One routine, performed by children playing “Gloomies,” were rescued by other dancers representing townsfolk. Another routine featured a fire spirit taunting Zozobra, dancing with flames dangerously close to his flammable paper structure. After a series of fireworks were set off around him to either intimidate or attack him, torches were placed at the bottom of his long white cloak. The crowd roared. The fire climbed up his fabric body and he began waving his arms, shaking its head, and opening its mouth with sounds of helpless agony. As the excitement of the raucous mob escalated, I became more disturbed. He burned. The crowd rejoiced. 

Finally, he collapsed. As his body fell into a pile of burning remains, the crowd cheered once more. A few more fireworks were set off as a small band of Spanish conquistadors climbed onto the stage waving the Cross of Burgundy flag of the Spanish Empire in front of the still flaming pyre. They seemed to claim victory and bring the festival to an end. The burning was done. What laid before me was a smoldering pile of ash that once stood a talking, moving, and lifelike being. After all the screams to burn him, and the celebration as his flaming body crumbled to the ground, the celebration was done and thousands of spectators returned to their homes, hotels, and Airbnbs. I was in shock. I had not really known what to expect, but I certainly never expected this.  

We joined the thousands of people exiting the park and filling the streets of Santa Fe. I followed my group processing the spectacle. Cultural background and its historic significance are important elements to consider before attending. Without this proper context, I was left to witness this event as a grisly and shocking ceremony. Though I knew it was not real, I could still hear the giant puppet’s cries as he was symbolically, yet still literally, burned alive and the pyre that consumed him. 

This takes us back to my disclosure. Prior, I was unaware of what this event would entail nor had I been exposed to a celebration of this kind. I recognize my own disconnection, and I may go as far as calling it ignorance. And just as I found some things unnerving and strange, I undoubtedly share in my own traditions and cultural aspects that others may feel the same or simply incomprehensible. To those who consider Zozobro significant to their lives, they see liberation and their community persevering, freeing themselves of negativity and fear, and a long time tradition that brought people together. It is a time of celebration. And with the end of Zozobra, now begins Fiestas; a very joyous time for Santa Fe. Though I may never wrap my head around the one event that started it off, I very much enjoyed the following days of Fiestas and will continue to welcome new experiences among the diverse culture, traditions, and people of the world.

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