For the past 96 years, New Mexicans have kicked off Fiesta de Santa Fe by watching a year’s worth of gloom, frustration and misfortune go up in flames in the form of Will Shuster’s Zozobra. However, adjustments have been made amid the coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to sustain the beloved tradition while keeping observers safe from the spread of the deadly virus. Still, the members of the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe who produce Zozobra have woven together traditions of the past and accommodations to the present in this year’s festivities.
In sticking with the recent annual theme of having each year correspond with a different decade, 2021’s “Old Man Gloom” has been embellished with throwback ’80s details. According to Zozobra spokeswoman Lisa Jaramillo, every element of this year’s marionette was designed with great attention to the theme.
Fans will notice the atypical green skin and glowing yellow eyes unique to this year’s Zozobra. These zombie-esque characteristics are attributed to the final scene of one of the most iconic music videos of the 1980s: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This year’s Zozobra will also sport Michael Jackson’s distinctive red leather jacket with pushed-up sleeves from the same music video. Representing another cultural landmark of the ’80s, Zozobra’s right hand forms a triumphant fist, reflecting the final scene of The Breakfast Club. This symbol illustrates pride for this year’s united efforts by all people to eliminate the grasp COVID-19 has had on the world.
This year’s eccentric, new design was paralleled by the modified process used to create this year’s Zozobra. Usually, children from the community are invited to a one-day effort to craft and stuff the 50-foot marionette. This year, under measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19, a group of Kiwanis Club members worked to construct Zozobra. The process took 4½ weeks to finish rather than the typical single day.
The joy of the Zozobra tradition was suppressed last year by the lack of an in-person audience. Differing from last year’s televised-only event, a limited audience will be in attendance for the upcoming burn. As attendees arrive to watch the demise of Old Man Gloom, they will notice the appearance of the marionette is not the only thing that has changed. The field will be significantly less crowded from years prior, with only 10,000 tickets available. All observers on Fort Marcy field are required to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event.
Masks are recommended, but not required, under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s orders because the event takes place outdoors.
The tradition of Zozobra is treasured by so many New Mexicans because of its ability to unite the community, an ideology shared by Lucia Porterfield-Ortiz, a senior at New Mexico School for the Arts. She has attended the event her entire life but has the special honor of performing the national anthem this year. Porterfield-Ortiz is excited that her voice will be a part of such a uniquely Santa Fe event that will pull together so many New Mexicans, even though COVID-19 has caused so much isolation and division.
She believes Zozobra is a tradition that has “always brought people together,” and she was “blown away” that the Kiwanis Club was able to make it happen even after all of this year’s limitations.
Considering many of Fiesta de Santa Fe’s customs are called off this year because of COVID-19, many question why a gathering as large as Zozobra is still taking place. Ray Sandoval, the Zozobra event committee chairman, believes it is important to uphold traditions, especially in current times.
“[It’s] an opportunity to come together and sob and contemplate what we are doing to put gloom out into the world,” Sandoval said in an interview. “But also it allows us to collectively celebrate the good in our lives.”
He added that Zozobra is “supposed to be held in perpetuity, in good times and bad,” to ensure Santa Feans can endure this cycle of healing annually.