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Zozobra: Santa Fe’s Burning Man

Wrap up all your troubles and woes and give them to Zozobra to be carried away.

Zozobra is a 40-foot tall marionette that has been torched by a dancer for the last ninety years in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Part Burning Man part Magic Company; Zozobra is also called EL Rey del Diablos and Old Man Gloom. Zozobra is anxiety in Spanish.

The original event was the parading of la Conquistadora, the statue of the Virgin after a special mass. De la Vargas brought the effigy to Santa Fe when he reconquered the pueblos in 1683. Dates of the original parade vary, apparently continuously since 1712, there has been a procession.

In 1912, the towns' Anglo boosters added their own events to the Hispanic traditions, revived in 1916, then firmly established in 1919. Under the Chamber of Commerce there were staged reenactments of de la Vargas return and other historical events. In 1920 they encircled the plaza and other areas with a palisade and charged admission. The very people who started the tradition were priced out. Hispanics had stopped the promenade tradition of wearing the old mantles and other finery and were reduced to watching the staged pageants through cracks in the fence.

Artist Will Shuster had a studio near the plaza in the twenties, recollecting in 1950 in The New Mexican:

"Around the outside of the stockade peering through the cracks between the aspen poles were the less fortunate children and gente of the town watching THEIR FEISTA. The gaiety was all inside. I made a satirical sketch of that subject.

I can recall the feeling of resentment that surged up through me over that Fiesta. It set off a chain reaction which has made stubbornly and consistently fight it. This is the reason Zozobra has always been a free show. No paid admission, no peeking through cracks, a free show for the whole town."

Shuster's feeling of resentment led to small backyard parties in 1924 and 1925, with small effigies being burnt, and launched Pasatiempo in 1926. Oliver LaFarge writes:

"Once again the art colony rebelled and in 1926, on short notice, organized and put on an open celebration for all comers, following the "closed" fiesta, which they called El Pasatiempo. The Hysterical Pageant mentioned in the accounts below was conceived, obviously, as a parody of the Historical ditto but grew far beyond that. The burning of Zozobra, nowadays (1959) not twenty, but forty, feet high has become an event famous enough to claim an international reputation. This was Shuster's concept, but Shuster says that Bauman gets credit, which he has not received, for making the first head.

The New Mexican, on Friday September 3, 1926, plugged the event: PASATIEMPO NOW HERE

"El Pasatiempo is here. After the burning of Zozobra at 8.00 P.M., the town will be dedicated to jolly fun. Any Santa Fean who is suspected of harboring dull care after that hour, or even thinking a serious thought, will be liable to a fine, not to exceed five hundred dollars, same to be paid to the Pasatiempo committee.

If you can't wear a rose in your hair, and you haven't got a lace mantilla you can get out your white duck trousers and tie red cheese cloth around your middle. If Paddy's pig were here he'd be more Spanish than Irish tonight. Then of course there is considerable latitude. If you would rather be a Maya noble, see Doc Morley and learn how to turn egg beaters into earrings and pie tins into armor. If you want to be a bad man get the fourty-four from under the mattress, find a neck cloth and a big hat and join the forces of Billy, the Kid.

Speaking of Billy the Kid, the public ought to know that nothing but a miracle, will prevent the hanging of one of our most promising young citizens on La Fonda roof tomorrow night. It is hoped to avert all tragedies but it's hard to tell what will happen when leading citizens turn desperado, and genteel creatures like Margaret, Cissie and Jane become dancehall sirens.

A three ring circus won't have anything on the plaza shows tomorrow night. Singing and dancing, plays and stunts, burlesque and drama and trovadores contest. There will be new groups and single stars. See your program and pick your places."

The program included a big Spanish baile, a county fair, a gallo race, a burro race, a wood-loading contest , the Hysterical Pageant and a Bull Fight. Everyone was encouraged to write down their troubles or "glooms" and place them in "Old Man Gloom" for destruction.

A revue in Saturday's edition of "The New Mexican" the previous nights' festivities:

"Following Vespers at the Cathedral, a long procession headed by the Conquistadores' Band marched to the vacant space behind city hall, where Zozobra, a hideous effigy 20 feet high, produced by the magic wand of Will Shuster, stood in ghastly silence illuminated by green fires. While the band played a funeral march, a group of Kiwanians in black robes and hoods stole around the figure, with four others seated before the green fires. When City Attorney Jack Kennedy on behalf of the absent mayor, solemnly uttered the death sentence of Zozobra, with Isidoro Armijo as interpreter, and fired several revolver shots at the monster, the green fires changed to red, the surrounding ring of bonfires was ignited, red fired blazed at the foot of the figure and shortly a match was applied to its base and leaped into a column of many-colored flames. As it burned the encircling fires blazed brighter, there was a staccato of exploding fireworks from the figure and round about, and throwing off their black robes, the specters emerged in gala costume, joining as invading army of bright-hued harlequins with torches in a dance around the fires, as the band struck up "La Cucaracha". Following which the crowd marched back between the bonfires lining the streets to the armory and the big baile was on. It brought out the biggest crowd of native merrymakers seen here for years."

And in a boosterish summary:

"It seems to us this impromptu carnival, done with only two weeks preparation, proved more strikingly than before the pricelessness of the treasure of Spanish culture here. The rare, quaint, old costumes of the grandmothers; the graceful old dances, the beautiful mantillas and shawls, the haunting old melodies, the happy children in their bright-hued finery, the white haired women in black shawls watching with shining eyes the merry-making of the young people; candles burning on the rooftops, gay banners in the sunshine, children shrieking at the burro race, heirloom silver bridles clanking on prancing steeds, grotesque and fun-the picture that lingers, and to draw and keep the community together, nothing else has such magic influence as merry making together.

Santa Feans know and understand each other better as a result of El Pasatiempo. All Santa Fe is happier for the two weeks of work and the two days of play, and we have found out a whole lot about the value of other folks. We believe El Pasatiempo de la Gente was a complete expression of the genius of Santa Fe, and the exemplification of those things that make life so rich and well worth living here."

Obviously it was a good time and a good thing but the newspaper's bragging at getting on so well is quite a contrast to the vilifications liberally usually in the paper regarding things with the nation of Mexico at that time.

The same newspaper also asked Texans to refrain from bringing their colored help with them on vacation.

Shuster built a scale model of Zozobra at one inch per foot. It was used to build each Zozobra with rolling eyes, flapping jaw, swiveling head and flailing arms added through the years. That model is retired but Zozobra's framework is still cut the same every year using a new scale model.


Zozobra was set to the torch by dancer Jacques Cartier for over 30 years. His original hat is in a museum but is copied faithfully every year.

In 1950 Will Shuster built a Zozobra float for the Tournament of Roses parade and won the First National Prize for the State of New Mexico.

Today in Santa Fe more than 50,000 people go to watch Zozobra, who stands fifty feet tall. His burning marks the start of three days of celebration that includes traditional mass at St. Francis Cathedral; a reenactment of the Entrada, when Don Diego de Vargas returned to the city; a Children's Pet Parade; and the Historical/Hysterical Parade. The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe builds Zozobra and burns the effigy at Fort Marcy Park. The Zozobra that was burned in 2007, was certified by Guinness World Records as the largest marionette in the world, measuring 49 ft. in height. The Admission price is now $10 and folks are still putting their "glooms" inside him.

One Comment

  1. margie solis-saavedra April 16, 2014

    pls give me the dates for the burning of the Zozobra,,,per the newspaper the day will be Friday of Labor Day wkend…pls let me know I need to make resverations. thank you Margie

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