The heat of summer is past, New Mexico's beautiful winter hasn't arrived, and in September it's shirt-sleeve weather: sunny and pleasant. We have driven up to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on Thursday, the first day of Fiesta de Santa Fe, heralded by the burning of Zozobra.
As far as we're concerned, this is the highlight of la fiesta. Just after dusk, a 50-foot effigy called Zozobra will be burned in the central park, accompanied by dancers and drumbeats. Zozobra is also known as "old-man gloom". Santa Feans believe that when he is burned, all of your troubles go up in smoke with him. However, depending on who you talk to, there will be no troubles either for the next five days or in the coming year.
On an elevated structure at one side of the park stands this year's Zozobra. He has big ears and wears a bow-tie and a scowling expression. This year he also wears something new: cufflinks made from pizza pans. Over the past two weeks, the massive paper effigy has been constructed in a 4-H barn on the Santa Fe fairgrounds. Basically, he's a muslin figure stuffed with shredded paper. Before he's strung up, his head and part of his insides are laced with explosives. Once mounted, he's secured by stout steel cables to a sixty-foot metal pole and a twelve-foot crossbar. The steel wires attached to his arms, head and mouth allow the puppet's movements to be manipulated from the ground. Though Zozobra has been designed and built as a marionette puppet, until dark he will remain a motionless, sullen, spectator towering above the happy festivities.
Kiwanian Dan Clavio reads this year's proclamation of the death of Old Man Gloom: "Zozobra, for being a hideous 50-foot bogeyman, a toothless, empty-headed façade with no guts, no legs, but lots of noise and growling, for scaring the children of Santa Fe and making dogs howl at the moon!"
This fire dance was originally performed by Jacques Cartier, a dancer from the east who was the official fire dancer at Zozobra for over 30 years. We learn later by watching a video presentation on the history of Zozobra at the New Mexico History Museum in the Governor's Palace on the Plaza. "It damn near killed me half a dozen times," Cartier says on the museum video, and he even broke both ankles "thank God, not at the same time." Cartier also supervised the little gloomies. Cartier says the idea of Zozobra "grew out of a gang of Santa Fe deep-thinkers who met in something called 'Society of Quien Sabe'?" (Who knows?) He says they "met once a month", and membership was based on "how well you could tell yarns."
On the museum video, author Tony Hillerman says, "Zozobra provided a more diverse and light-hearted side of fiesta; an affigy to be burned at fiesta. Whether or not it's true, it's a great idea."
Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in the U.S., was called the "City of the Holy Faith" by the Spanish in the seventeenth century. At the time Spanish soldiers, officials, and Franciscan missionaries struggled to conquer and convert the native Pueblo Indians. In a massive revolt, the Indians attacked and nearly burned all of Santa Fe to the ground. But in 1692, Don Diego de Vargas led a bloodless siege that enabled him to enter the city and take it back for the Spanish without firing a single shot. An annual religious fiesta in honor of Our Lady of Peace and honoring Vargas' reconquest was established in 1712, and La Fiesta de Santa Fe remains the oldest such continuing event in the U.S.
By the time the torch is lit, as many as 25,000 people have gathered on the open field chanting, "Burn 'imburn 'imburn 'im!" Zozobra waves his arms, shakes his head from side to side, and emits a loud, eerie, groaning howl.
Harold Gans, the "voice" of Zozobra is also interviewed on the museum video. "I've been involved in my whole adult life," he says. "It's something nobody else does."
Feature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.