Sep 29, 2011

A Giant Puppet Burns (But It’s Not Burning Man)

By Ari Phillips
For Reporting Texas

SANTA FE, New Mexico — It’s a brisk September night in Fort Marcy Park, where about 25,000 people gathered to shout at a 50-foot-tall puppet.

“Burn him! Burn him!” they chanted. The wood-and-cloth marionette waves its arms and growls back at the crowd.

The crowd waits for the wind to die down in Santa Fe on Sept. 12 so the 87th burning of Zozobra can get under way. Photo by Ari Phillips.

This isn’t Burning Man, the annual counterculture festival that has been held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each September since 1986. It’s the burning of Zozobra, an event that has taken place in Santa Fe since 1924.

The renowned artist Will Shuster created Zozobra when he burned a puppet to make fun of organizers of the Fiesta de Santa Fe, which he felt had become too commercialized. The first Fiesta de Santa Fe – which celebrates the peaceful reconquest of the Pueblo Indians by the Spaniards in 1692 – took place in 1712. The local Kiwanis Club became the event’s chief sponsor after Shuster’s death in 1969.

Shuster had said the idea for Zozobra came from a trip to Northern New Mexico, where he saw Yaqui Indians burn an effigy of Judas during a Holy Week celebration. Ray A. Valdez, the head producer of Zozobra, told The Santa Fe New Mexican, the local newspaper, that Shuster might also have been influenced by frequent beach trips to Corpus Christi, Texas, where fishermen built model boats and burned them on the water to ward off bad luck.

Despite their similarities, Zozobra wasn’t a model for Burning Man, which got its start when its creator, Larry Harvey, and a few friends burned a nine-foot wooden man and dog on a beach and has spread to the Nevada desert.

Every year Zozobra varies slightly around a crazed-monkey-in-a-tuxedo theme. The defining trait this year seems to be purple hair.

This year, high winds delayed the ceremony for almost an hour. After an elaborate ritual involving fire, spirit dancers and children in white robes referred to as “glooms,” it was time for Zozobra to burn.

Burning Man's famous annual inferno is predated by Zozobra's, though the latter wasn't a model for it. Photo by lightmatter via Flickr.

Zozobra means “anxiety” or “anguish” in Spanish, and watching the giant bogeyman burn offers the crowd the chance to shed negative experiences from the past year. New Mexicans literally fill Zozobra with gloom – break-up letters, divorce papers, notes of regret and whatever else they want to go up in smoke.

For some, Zozobra is an annual pilgrimage. John Gee, 27, a native of Santa Fe who now lives and works in Portland, said he hasn’t missed a Zozobra since he moved away eight years ago.

While not everyone in the crowd knows the origins of the event, they remember their first time experiencing it.

“The first time I saw Zozobra was with my best friend at his parents’ barbecue,” said Dustin Garber, 27, a Santa Fe resident. “We wandered off from the nearby hillside and got lost in the mass of people. It was awesome. I’ve tried not to miss a year since.”

Asked about Zozobra’s influence on Burning Man, Garber said, “What’s Burning Man?”