The sun set, the Gloomies danced and Zozobra, packed full of Santa Fe’s glooms, burned to a crisp in the middle of an empty field at Fort Marcy park.

Although the 96th annual burning of Zozobra on Friday night was different from any other event in its long history, those watching the 50-foot-tall marionette burst into flames on television said its symbolism remained the same as always — and perhaps was more needed than ever.

“If there’s any time to burn gloom, it’s this year, for so many reasons,” said Helene Luna, Zozobra’s Fire Dancer since 2007.

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Fire dancer Helene Luna looks up at 2020’s Zozobra, reflected in her sunglasses, while practicing for the 96th annual burning, which took place Friday, Sept. 4.

For Luna, who stuffed a stack of submitted glooms — written blurbs of regrets, worries or heartache — into the marionette’s heart leading up to the event, she wanted to eradicate 2020’s “self-doubt, anxiety and the feeling of hopelessness.”

“Without hope, it’s fear,” she said, “and I don’t want to live in fear.”

It’s a fair sentiment, as Zozobra himself was constructed around the famously fear-inducing coronavirus and a newly discovered deadly insect: His hair was strung with bright orange table tennis balls and maroon hair scrunchies meant to resemble the notorious coronavirus strand; so-called murder hornets, which were discovered in the U.S. this year, decorated his cuff links.

As the night grew dark, torchbearers dressed in hospital scrubs taunted Old Man Gloom with flames. Lisa Jaramillo, a Zozobra spokeswoman, said the crew represented health care workers on the front lines “and their fight against the virus.”

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Zozobra looks down upon a relatively empty field at Fort Marcy during a lighting check before the 96th annual burning.

While Zozobra burned without its usual crowd — only about 60 members of the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which organizes the event, and members of the press and volunteers were present — families and friends watched the livestreamed event on KOAT-TV. The Kiwanis Club also partnered with a local drone company to show aerial footage of the burn and fireworks show.

Meanwhile, about 500 people gathered at HIPICO Santa Fe for AMP Concerts’ watch party, which featured local bands Cuarenta y Cinco and Severo y Grupo Fuego for a drive-in concert.

Though watching the event from a screen while social distancing in the grass was a different experience, the COVID-safe gathering was exactly what the community needed, said Jamie Lenfestey, director of operations at AMP Santa Fe.

“What’s not special about it? We’ve been so isolated, I think that’s why we are so gloomy and the country is so angry,” Lenfestey said. “The opportunity we’ve lost to be together as a community is heartbreaking.”



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Celene Sanchez, front left, Renee Montoya, front right, Felicia Romero, back left, and Letisha Soveranez, all from Santa Fe, dance on the back of a flatbed truck at HIPICO Santa Fe during Friday's Zozobra watch party. 

For this reason, he said, Zozobra remained the glimmer of light it has always been.

Among those watching from camping chairs and pickups at HIPICO was Santa Fe native Andre Lewis. Even from the back row of the drive-in, about 200 yards from the nearest screen, he said he felt connected to a tradition he’s participated in since he was a child.

“I’ve been to Zozobra for at least 30 years. If you were born and raised here, there are traditional events that are part of your life,” Lewis said. “This year’s event isn’t what we’re used to, but it’s something.”

“We’ve got family together, friends together. It may not be the same as past years, but we’re still gonna burn him,” said Boni Armijo, 64, who can’t remember missing a single Zozobra.

With barricades set around the perimeter at Fort Marcy park and roads blocked in nearby neighborhoods, law enforcement was on hand in case there were any attempts at trespassing the live event. Santa Fe police Capt. Matthew Champlin said the night had “been pretty quiet out here,” noting the department had only dealt with two teens trying to get inside.

As colorful fireworks blasted into the night sky and Zozobra wailed his final moans, the last of the 100,000 glooms inside him turned to ash, and a feeling of rebirth reverberated across Santa Fe.

“These have been horrible times, and coming together to watch this with people who care and seeing him burn for a reason, it was a great feeling,” said David Valencia, who watched the inferno from HIPICO.

“There’s something about Zozobra in flames. You can’t take your eyes off it,” said Luna, noting the moment she touches her torch to Old Man Gloom — “that’s when the hope comes.”

“For me, this is a new year,” she said. “It’s cathartic when he burns.”

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Zozobra goes up in flames last year at Fort Marcy park.

Staff writer Matt Dahlseid contributed to this report.

(3) comments

Al Chavez

Zozobra is fun to watch, although much could be done to improve the show's production value. The state should fund the location itself; replace dilapidated infrastructure and landscape the surrounding area. It's nice that there is community involvement but, for instance, better amateur or preferably professional dancers could be used. The music, sound effects, and narration also could be better coordinated if the production was done more professionally. Zozobra has the potential to be a much more acclaimed event. Why not make it an event that will draw national attention?

Angel Ortiz

This is a local event that needs to retain it's local flavor. Ms. Luna has done a superb job as the fire dancer for many years. The gloomies have always been represented by local youth. While I understand that this year had to be modified because of COVID the show was really over produced by KOAT. Listening to the play by play from the television hosts was a bit over the top. The music that played in the background was not Spanish or mariachi but instead they opened with the theme song from Miami Vice. Keep it simple. Keep it local. Too many of our local traditions have been modernized and they have lost their identity !

Archer Hill

One of the best looking Zozobras in years. Great to burn all the Covid, political, social, etc. gloom away. The voice was a disappointment. Looking forward to a normal celebration 2021.

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