In the summer darkness, hundreds of people crowded into Fort Marcy Park, many looking up at the 38-foot papier-mâché puppet dressed in white, his head bobbing and arms flailing. People shouted, “Burn him! Burn him!” Woes scribbled on slips of paper were stuffed into his head and body and were ready to be set aflame, and a fire dancer taunted the ugly figure by cavorting around the pyre. Drums amplified the crowd’s growing anticipation.
“This is Will Shuster’s model from the 1920s, but we’ve beefed it up,” Ray Sandoval says, pointing to the extra wooden crosspieces. Since the giant puppet is going to be 30 percent bigger than the original this year — 50 feet tall versus 38 feet in the old days — the skeleton must be more robust structurally, for the safety of all.
Ray Sandoval, who was 5 years old, stood in the throng with some of his cousins. When Zozobra — or “Old Man Gloom” — caught fire and was engulfed in flames, they cried from fear. But not Sandoval, who remembers standing at attention, thrilled by the spectacle. After the fire went out, the other kids dried their eyes. And that was when Sandoval teared up.
“They’re all happy and I’m crying because they destroyed Zozobra,” said Sandoval, whose imagination was sparked — so much so that the little boy called the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe to ask if someone would come to his kindergarten show-and-tell to explain how they did it. Kiwanis secretary Griffin “Griff” Dodge and Harold Gans, the voice of Zozobra, accepted Sandoval’s invitation. That was 1979.
It seems simple enough: Write the reason for your gloom on a piece of paper, give it to the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, and they will stuff it inside of Zozobra. When he burns, your unhappiness flames into the atmosphere and is gone. But there’s more to it than that, said Ray Sandoval, the Kiwanis Club event chairman who is in charge of building and burning Zozobra.
“I got in trouble with my teacher because I didn’t know you had to schedule [visitors],” Sandoval recalled. “Then Griff Dodge told me they were stuffing him [that night], so my parents brought me and I started stuffing him.”
Maybe that’s when Sandoval became an evangelist for Zozobra — a true believer. He’s been on the construction team since he was a kid, even traveling back to Santa Fe for two weeks every year while he was in college and law school on the East Coast in the 1990s. Since 2013, the 45-year-old has overseen all-things-Zozobra for the Kiwanis Club (which organizes the event), including building Zozobra and putting together the marketing.
“I get to light him,” he said, standing amid the head, body, and hands of a partially constructed Old Man Gloom in early August in the Zozobra warehouse at Santa Fe Place.
Initiated in 1924 by painter Will Shuster and his friends, the annual burning of Zozobra has become a late-summer institution in the City Different. To the delight (and dismay) of residents, it has changed with time. In the past few years, some changes occurred because Sandoval feels a calling to restore Shuster’s original vision for Zozobra, making it an evolving work of art whose look should shift with the times. He also wants to educate the public about Zozobra’s full story — he learned it by reading Shuster’s diaries, which he owns. It’s safe to say that Sandoval — who is the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s director of communications when he’s not working on Zozobra — knows more about the history of the event than just about any other living person.
“Shuster says Zozobra is actually a specter that all of us create throughout the year with our bad deeds. So as we go through and we lie to each other and let each other down, this negativity starts amassing,” he said. “By the time we get to August, Zozobra is fully formed.”
The history of Zozobra begins with Shuster and a collective of struggling artists called Los Cinco Pintores (The Five Painters). “When one of them would sell a painting or a sculpture, the other four would share in the profits,” Sandoval said. On Christmas Eve of 1923, one such sale paid for drinks at La Fonda, just off the Santa Fe Plaza. Despite the holiday and the booze, the men were in sour moods. Shuster painted a clear picture in his journal, Sandoval said.
“It’s snowing outside, they’re doing shots of tequila, they’re eating food, and they’re just pissy. He gets upset with them and demands that everyone [write] down what they’re upset with, then he lights it on fire on a candle on the bar — and the bartender kicks them all out. That’s part one.”
The following spring, Shuster and a friend went to Mexico for Good Friday, where they witnessed locals wheeling a 6-foot figure of Judas in a cart while onlookers threw shoes, spit, and yelled at it. At the end of the parade, the effigy was burned in the town square. In this ritual, Shuster saw elements of what he wanted to create for Santa Fe — a larger-than-life puppet that represented gloom; a place where Santa Feans could direct their collective bad feelings.
He wrote that he didn’t want his puppet to have religious or political symbolism, and he thought the event should be held at the beginning of September, during Santa Fe Fiesta. Established in 1712, the fiesta commemorates the 1692 reconquest of Santa Fe that occurred a dozen years after the Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spanish colonists.
When he returned, Shuster approached the Santa Fe Fiesta Council about adding this new party to the annual festivities. “Him being Anglo and from Pennsylvania, they tell him to get the hell out of there,” Sandoval said, chuckling.
Undeterred, Shuster and Gustave Baumann (a now-famous painter and printmaker who also made marionettes) forged on. They dubbed their event El Pasatiempo — meaning, loosely, an amusing diversion, or “what’s happening” — and held it on the Friday of Fiesta. El Pasatiempo featured two parades that mocked what they deemed to be the unnecessary seriousness of the Fiesta Council. At the Pet Parade, family pets were dressed as members of the council, and the Historical/Hysterical Parade lampooned the council’s dramatic historical reenactments. Both parades are still held, although neither is a medium for parody or satire anymore.
Shuster and Baumann built a 6-foot-tall Zozobra out of chicken wire and papier-mâché, stuffed him full of paper “glooms,” and burned him on that Friday night at Shuster’s house in 1924, and they did it again the following year. In 1926, they made the burning a public event, held on the site where the downtown branch of the Santa Fe Public Library now stands. In the first years, Zozobra was bare-chested, with his arms tied behind his back and a cigar in his mouth. By the end of the decade, he had grown bald and paunchy — less scary and more silly — so in the 1930s, Shuster redesigned him to be thinner and more ghoulish. By the 1940s, Sandoval said, Zozobra had evolved into the kind of terrifying spirit that could reach out and grab you.
Soon, El Pasatiempo became as beloved as Fiesta, and in the early 1930s, the council reversed its opinion, asking Shuster and Baumann to officially become part of Fiesta. Around this time, the burning moved to Fort Marcy Park. Zozobra had grown: At that point, he stood approximately 30 feet tall. In the 1960s, Shuster handed responsibility for the conflagration to the Kiwanis Club. In the 21st century, the event has become quite large, with 62,254 people attending in 2018. The crowds can get rowdy. Advance tickets are required, and hours of musical entertainment and speeches precede the burning.
But until the early 1970s, you could park your car right on the field, listen to the steady thrum of Native American drumming, and watch the fire dancer taunt the monster until it got dark. That changed when the city wanted to protect its new sprinkler system from damage, Sandoval said.
“Families would drive in when it was still light and eat picnics together and socialize. The children would run around and share desserts,” said Bernadette Garcia, 61, who doesn’t remember the first time she went to Zozobra. “It’s always been a part of my life.”
Santa Fe’s favorite holiday
Krystle Lucero has been going to Zozobra since before she was born. Her mother was well into her ninth month of pregnancy in 1984 when she decided she would brave the crowd so she could get a Navajo taco from a Plaza vendor.
“My dad said she was crazy,” said Lucero, a 34-year-old singer with the band Fun Addicts and a member of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council. In the lead-up to the burning, while Zozobra moaned and groaned, Lucero was kicking hard, as the story goes. She was born two days later — presumably gloom-free. “I feel like I was a part of the ‘Burn him!’ chant,” she said.
As a kid, Lucero thought Fiesta and Zozobra were held in honor of her birthday. She’s not the only one with such a strong connection to the puppet. Emiliana Sandoval’s birthday falls on the same weekend. She grew up on Washington Avenue, not far from Fort Marcy Park. Her family’s tradition was to park her father’s truck in what was then an empty lot off Otero Street. They watched the burning of Zozobra with the same families throughout the 1970s, and those nights are among Sandoval’s favorite childhood memories. Sandoval, who lives in Michigan, turns 50 this September. She has such affection for Old Man Gloom that she scheduled her 2006 wedding around the event.
“It’s my favorite holiday,” she said. “I love it. It’s so New Mexico and historic and unusual and fun. Most of our guests were from out of town, and we knew it would be something totally different for them to come to Santa Fe for Zozobra.” Sandoval said that when dies, she wants to be cremated and have her ashes put inside Zozobra, so that her spirit will float up to the sky while everyone’s glooms go up in smoke.
“I’m not kidding,” she said.
For Garcia, Lucero, Sandoval, and many other Santa Feans, Zozobra will always be inseparable from Santa Fe Fiesta. For decades, everyone went to Zozobra and then to the Plaza for food, music, and dancing. It was so entrenched in Santa Fe life that workplaces gave employees that Friday afternoon off. Many started the night’s party around noon, often with drinks at La Fonda — the same bar where Shuster and his pals first burned their glooms.
In 1997, a shooting on the Plaza after the burning prompted city officials to move Zozobra to the Thursday night before Fiesta began, so that law enforcement could better control the crowds for both events. Sandoval flew in from law school in Boston to try and dissuade the Santa Fe City Council from changing the day of the event, but he did not prevail. Since then, the half-day of vacation has fallen by the wayside for most workers. When Sandoval became the Kiwanis Club event chairman, he lobbied to get the burning moved back to Friday night. He was partially successful: Since 2014, it’s been held on the Friday night a week before Fiesta.
“We need to have Zozobra on Friday so that it’s not on a school night,” he said. “We need kids to be able to come, and become Zozobra fans, or there will not be a next generation to carry on the tradition. There is a standing invitation to the Fiesta Council to reunite Fiesta and Zozobra.”
A modern man of gloom
Though he now stands at a little over 50 feet, Zozobra has had a pretty consistent look over the years: a white dress with big buttons, a bow tie, a cartoonishly grotesque face, and a funky hair color, such as orange or green. But under Sandoval’s leadership, Zozobra has undergone some cosmetic changes. In 2014, the Kiwanis Club introduced the Decades Project, which celebrates each decade of Zozobra as it moves toward the event’s centennial in 2024.
In 2014, Zozobra sported a handlebar mustache to commemorate the 1920s; in 2015, he was designed in grayscale to convey the darkness of the Great Depression. To recognize the World War II years, a candlelight memorial was held in 2016 to honor victims of the Holocaust. That year, he wore a white suit and white fedora. For the 1950s, he dressed as a cardigan-wearing Father Knows Best figure, and for the 1960s, his fashion statement was a bolo tie, which had become very popular with men in the American West during that era, Sandoval said. This year Zozobra dons a white leisure suit from the 1970s disco craze.
Some Santa Feans miss the standard-issue Zozobra built by Sandoval’s mentors, Harold Gans and Gus Denninger, in the 1970s and ’80s. Sandoval understands the feedback, although he thinks it’s somewhat misguided. “If they hadn’t picked up the mantle from Shuster, Zozobra wouldn’t exist,” he said, “but they weren’t artists.”
Shuster was. In his diaries, he describes Zozobra as a new art form. He saw the night sky as a canvas on which flames and fireworks functioned as paint, which is why Zozobra is never lit until the sky is completely dark. He was interested in what he saw as the dichotomy of being surrounded by a mob screaming “Burn him!” while also having the intensely individual experience of leaving your unhappiness in the past. “You know what you want to get rid of and what you regret,” Sandoval said. “As soon as he starts on fire, it’s almost like a gasp of relief, almost in unison. When he falls to the floor, there’s a huge emotional release.”
He explained that his vision pays homage to Zozobra’s origins.
“Our gloom is not the same today as it was then, so making a cookie-cutter Zozobra is not the point. We have to make our own imprint, our own artistic impression of what the year was like. The creator gave us flexibility.” ◀
▼ 95th Burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra
▼ Sunset on Aug. 30; gates open at 4:30 p.m.
▼ Fort Marcy Park, 490 Bishops Lodge Road
▼ $10 in advance; $15 day of the burning; 1-855-ZOZOBRA, burnzozobra.com
• • •
What do I do with my glooms? You can submit them on pieces of paper until 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30. Just slip them into the gloom box in Fort Marcy Park, and it will be stuffed inside Zozobra before he ignites.
What if I live in the area? Street closures begin on Friday, Aug. 23. Organizers recommend that you get home at least 30 minutes before the closure for your road. If you are unable to make it, be sure to have a current driver’s license or a utilities bill with you. For details: bit.ly/2019ZozoRoadMap and bit.ly/2019ZozoRoadClosures
Where can I park? On the street (meter rates), at Santa Fe city parking facilities ($7 from 6 p.m. to midnight), and the South Capitol parking lot, shuttle available, beginning at 5 p.m. (free). A specially marked shuttle for seniors and disabled people will be available in the lot.
What about the bus? Santa Fe Trails buses will be running all routes on normal schedules (free after 5 p.m. Friday). For bus routes: santafenm.gov/route_maps_and_schedules
What if I ride a bike? Check out the new Bike Valet at the west side of the Masonic Lodge parking lot, located just to the west of the Scottish Rite Center on Paseo de Peralta at Bishop’s Lodge Road (free).
What if it rains? The Old Man burns whether it’s raining or not.
For other rules and recommendations: burnzozobra.com