September 26, 2018 News » Cover Story

I went to Zozobra to burn my burdens in Santa Fe, and all I got was this T-shirt 

My meeting with Old Man Gloom

  • Courtesy Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal

So there I sat, soaking wet, on a Santa Fe city bus. Lightning had scared me off before I could get the photos I'd driven over 300 miles for. Failure gnawed like rats at my weary bones. And all I had to show for my troubles was a fucking T-shirt.

I was on assignment to write about a near-century-old Santa Fe tradition, the burning of Zozobra. It's been compared to Burning Man, in that they both happen once a year, and people torch a man-shaped construct at both. But beyond that, there's little in common.

Every year since 1924, on the Friday before Labor Day, the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe builds a massive, 50-foot marionette named Zozobra, or Old Man Gloom, on a hill beside the baseball stadium at Santa Fe's Fort Marcy Park. The community stuffs him with items representing their grievances, and after an evening of music and festivities, they burn the effigy down.

Pennsylvania-born artist Will Shuster, a World War I veteran whose mustard gas-related injuries forced him to move west post-war, started the event. Lacking any trade when he first arrived to town, he apprenticed under artist John Sloan and later became part of an art collective called Los Cinco Pintores, the five painters. Zozobra Event Committee Chair Raymond Sandoval — also the former Obama for America New Mexico State Director — credits that group with launching Santa Fe's reputation as an arts hub.

The burning of Gloom, Sandoval says, came from an incident in which Los Cinco Pintores got kicked out of a bar on Christmas Eve, 1923. The story goes they'd been sitting around feeling depressed, dampening a rare evening out for the then persistently poor artists. So Shuster demanded they write down what was bothering them on napkins. When the bartender left his station for some task, Shuster lit the napkins afire on the bar counter. He declared their gloom gone, burnt to ash. The unappreciative bartender returned to the mess and gave the artists the boot, but Shuster's idea lingered beyond the evening.

Not even rain can keep Zozobra from meeting his fiery fate. - COURTESY SUZANNE KLAPMEIER / SANTA FE REPORTER
  • Courtesy Suzanne Klapmeier / Santa Fe Reporter
  • Not even rain can keep Zozobra from meeting his fiery fate.

"It meets Zozobra a couple months later, when Shuster travels down to Mexico, and he sees an effigy of Judas in a cart that's being pulled through the city..." says Sandoval. "It ultimately lands up in their plaza, and they burn it away."

Marrying the effigy-burning and the cleansing of grievances with fire was all Shuster, but he didn't want it to be a political or religious effigy, so he came up with Zozobra, which means "anxiety" in Spanish. He presented a proposal to Santa Fe's Fiesta Council, the body that organized the city's then-200-year-old Fiesta de Santa Fe. He was rebuffed, but he and a few artist friends held their own event, El Pasatiempo ("the hobby/pastime/amusement"), a week before la Fiesta, which included the first burning of Zozobra, among other events. Over time, El Pasatiempo outshined la Fiesta in popularity, and according to Sandoval, the council requested what he calls a shotgun wedding between the two.

Zozobra's now the Kiwanis Club's main fundraiser, fueling grants for local nonprofits that support children. They make around 95 percent of their annual budget through Zozobra tickets alone, which start at $10.

"The planning is a year-round ordeal," says Sandoval. It costs between $320,000 and $350,000 to put on. Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe takes home between $75,000 and $100,000 beyond that after all the burdens are burnt. Zozobra himself costs around $20,000 to build. The rest goes into logistics and infrastructure, like security, fences and portable toilets for more than 62,000 attendees this year. That's massive in proportion to the surrounding town of around 80,000 residents.

Sandoval has been a Zozobra fan for a long time. He saw his first burning when he was a toddler, and while he says most kids that age think Zozobra's scary, he was amazed and delighted. When he was 6 years old, he invited the person who voices Zozobra's roars, groans and dying screams of agony — all delivered by loudspeaker before and while ol' Gloomy burns — to his elementary school for a show-and-tell presentation.

"Thirty eight years later," he says, "and I haven't been cured of the Zozobra bug."

click to enlarge Zozobra attracts a diverse crowd, like Chic Kelty (right). - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Zozobra attracts a diverse crowd, like Chic Kelty (right).

While I've never been to Zozobra, I have ties to New Mexico. I went to college in Socorro, 140 miles to the south, and to this day, the state holds a special place in my heart. I've wanted to witness this particular piece of New Mexico culture, and I finally made time on August 31 this year. And given the way Trump's calling me and everyone in my profession enemies of the state, I had more than my usual gloom to burn.

The day was warm and clear when I started down the highway that morning. Apart from a few midday showers near Raton Pass, that's the way it was forecast to stay until the evening desert chill descended. But Zozobra's wicked energy took hold early. Just outside of Trinidad, a spate of rain hit, and my driver's side windshield wiper came loose.

The fix came easy, that is after the price of 10 nerve-wracking minutes hunting through the ever-so-slightly-too-blue fluorescence of a highway-side Walmart to replace a socket wrench head missing from my set. For that and maybe no other good reason, my anxiety was keyed up like an investment banker — every bump, rumble and squeak foretold catastrophic failure.

Still, the endless skies of the northern New Mexico grasslands stretched, clear and overwhelming, for a hundred more miles of rolling interstate. Under that vast, impossibly blue dome, I was an ant crawling the arches of the Coliseum. And as the interstate curved west into the Santa Fe National Forest, the rolling hills grew more jagged and dramatic, bearing ruddy dirt to the desert sun, where oak scrubland overtook prairie grasses.

I'd made arrangements to stay with friends at a campsite outside of town, at the end of a winding road that was eventually free both of pavement and cell signal. There's a smell to the air there — dry, warm, perfumed. A sentimental soul could find the scene intoxicating, and I ached to ditch my date with Old Man Gloom for an arroyo-side trail I'd all-too-briefly meandered once before.

But time ran short. After wolfing down a green chile cheeseburger back in town, I began my search for parking. The Zozobra event website, burnzozobra.com, brought me to an event hotline, on which a lifesaver of a human gave me the address for a commuter rail station. There, buses shuttled attendees to near the park.

To accommodate all of the foot traffic in the area, the city shuts down an entire neighborhood. They begin blocking off roads at 6 in the morning, moving outward from the site so as few people as possible get their cars stuck in the secured zone unprepared. Residents get special passes in the mail prior, so they can come and go by foot, but like attendees, they must pass through a security checkpoint each time.

I exited the crowded bus around 7:30, half an hour before the cutoff to add our misery to Zozobra's doomed body. The stream of attendees flowed through the streets to the ticket booth and security checkpoint. From many directions, they gathered alongside the Masonic temple, a century-old building stuccoed as rich and red as Garden of the Gods.

As our horde rounded the temple, I saw small groups of protesters, only about a dozen total, in the middle of the crowded street. They carried signs reading "Sorry for how some Christians act" and "God adores you." They stood in response to three sturdy-built men who waved signs threatening infinite hellfire for the faintest transgressions, squawking warnings about the creeping threat of heresy and temptations to lust. One bore a sign assuring damnation for, among other "evils," yoga pants.

click to enlarge Zozobra fans' love for the annual event runs strong and deep. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Zozobra fans' love for the annual event runs strong and deep.

It's true, Sandoval says, that between the 1980s and late 2000s, the event had a problem with pre-festival drinkers. Since taking over, he's worked to return it to a tri-generational event, and has, by his words and our eyes, seen some success.

While any protesting came off as farcical, the event security wasn't. Set up in the parking lot north of the temple, the lines for a pat-down and bag search stretched and clustered like a pop-up TSA checkpoint, complete with a smattering of cops in green tactical gear. Tension shimmered like heat. When asked, an officer said this was all "just in case," and neither the tactical cops nor the alarming golf cart marked "bomb squad" had ever seen action at a Zozobra burning. Still, I wasn't allowed to go back 50 feet for a water bottle without an armed guard accompanying me.

Security in the rearview, the streets were convivial. Residents had gathered friends and families in driveways and on decks for communal festival meals. Aged folks led young grandchildren through the streets. Families carried bags of burgers and baskets of homemade supper. A menagerie of hippies, artists, punks, college students, families, couples, locals and tourists mingled across the grassy park and into the adjacent baseball field. One family of hippies with a multicolored painted van, led by one Chic Kelty, paraded through the crowd with signs promoting peace, love and simple living. Not 50 feet away, some twenty- or early thirty-something longhairs had warning-taped off a triangle of park and were dancing with fire poi and fire hoops, something I hadn't seen happening so casually since I'd broken bread with the punks, goths and body modders of Albuquerque's alternative scene.

I made my way to the stand where they were collecting the last grievances and gloom to burn, now only minutes before deadline. I thought back to something Sandoval had said when we spoke by phone, when I asked what people tended to put into Zozobra. Apparently report cards and divorce papers are common, but the festival staff will burn anything that's not dangerous. There was one thing, a couple of years ago, that stood out for Sandoval.

"This woman had asked one of our security guards if she could come talk to me. As she approaches me, she looks to be holding what I thought was a folded blue blanket..." he says. "It was a hospital gown. She explains to me that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and that her previous doctor had told her that she needed to make plans about her passing, that that gown was the last article of clothing that she would ever wear. Well, she went into remission, and she was able to fight the cancer, and she wanted to burn that hospital gown in Zozobra."

Reflecting on that poignancy, fully aware that none of my concerns touched upon anything as severe as my own mortality, I passed kids kicking a soccer ball and the merchants selling turkey legs and brightly flashing children's toys. I heard the end of what sounded like a quiz show on the main stage, where a welcoming emcee wished two visitors from New York a fun Zozobra.

At the far end of it all, past the park and baseball diamond's structures, stood Zozobra, Old Man Gloom himself. As storm clouds gathered to blot out the dying orange dusk, the spotlights gave Zozobra's bulbous features an ominous gravity. His shock of hair was gray — it changes annually and is a source of speculation among the community, I'm told — and he wore a turquoise bolo tie, a fashion sin some would consider worthy of death by conflagration.

Nearly to the grievance intake booth — what festival shouldn't have one of these? — I rooted through my camera bag for my burdens: a few personal objects with painful stories and a printed article on the Capital Gazette shooting. Then I rooted again, my anxiety suddenly flaring. They weren't there. How could they be, I realized, when I'd set them on my desk at home before breakfast, and simply neglected to pick them up on my way out the door.

In silent despondence, I turned my gaze to that giant gloomy bastard on the hill. I stared into his dead white pupils, all surrounded by dark turquoise shadowing like some demented raccoon. The peace sign his left hand was curled into was a lie; the right was a fist, clenched tight as if around the throat of my hopes. Clearly, this beast had cursed me — how else could I have forgotten my fucking burdens at home?

click to enlarge Attendees hide from rain as Old Man Gloom looms large. - COURTESY EDDIE MOORE/ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL
  • Courtesy Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal
  • Attendees hide from rain as Old Man Gloom looms large.

As I seethed inside, a group of costumed presenters gathered on the far side of the fence at Zozobra's feet, welcoming the local attendees, then the travelers, some of whom they said had come from France, Japan and Korea. A mariachi band from Texas played a few danceable tunes as both crowd and presenters danced. Once they finished their set, a duo took to the stage for a set of '60s standards — Neil Diamond, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel included. After came a Latin-inflected rock and brass band. Like the event itself, the music reflected in turns both the city's New Spanish roots and the artists and hippies who came later.

By now, the sun had set; where bruise-purple clouds had previously dominated the sky, the dome of night now enclosed us. Lightning cracked on all sides, distant yet awe-inspiring all the same. A storm was inevitable. And while the rain itself wasn't a threat to me, it was to my camera equipment.

I made my way against the flow of people entering the park, back toward the merchandise pavilion, the closest thing to a building I could find. I'd noticed on the way in that the Zozobra shirts came in plastic bags. I'm not a fan of tourist shirts, but far better $25 go to the Kiwanis Club than $500 to Nikon. Besides, Santa Fe artist David Di Janni's design was pretty cool.

Then came the rain, sudden and heavy, accompanied by the rapport of lightning a little too close and a little too bright. The picnickers pulled their jackets on, dove under picnic blankets, flipped camp chairs and bunkered down. Few packed up to leave.

But nobody's met my price for standing in a field in a thunderstorm. I made for the exit as the monsoon rain ran in rivers down the street, flowing as I did past the crowds still jamming the ticket booth and security checkpoint, more than willing to accept the lightning risk to see Old Man Gloom in flames.

David Di Janni's Zozobra 2018 T-shirt design. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • David Di Janni's Zozobra 2018 T-shirt design.

So there I sat, soaking wet, on a Santa Fe city bus. Though my camera was intact, it had none of the dramatic, cathartic images I'd hoped to catch.

I sat next to a couple from California; this was supposed to be the husband's first Zozobra since he was a child. Across the aisle, a woman talked about how excited her adult daughter got about the event; she'd never seen Zozobra burn before. They were disappointed, but far from despondent. After all, here we all were, making light of our misfortune and, in their case, asking after a good margarita.

I would later discover that I'd left at a good time. In a statement released the following Sunday, Sandoval says that a communication breakdown resulted in a slowed-down security checkpoint and a lack of communication between him and his team. When he made the call to start burning Zozobra early for safety reasons, some people rushed the gate and broke the perimeter, he says, and "a decision was made not to allow anyone else in." As an apology, the event offered ticket refunds and discounted accommodations for the 1,500 to 2,000 people who were shut out. (Perhaps a 2018 calendar would be a good stuffing for next year's Old Man Gloom.)

But for all the bad energies and misfortune surrounding my trip, I don't regret a moment of it. Santa Fe's gorgeous, though it's hard to separate the area from my memories of it. And I see the appeal of embodying one's misery in a colossal boogeyman and torching it, watching it flail and scream until only ash remains. Maybe I'll go back next year. But I'll keep the memories of my near-miss brush with this Santa Fe tradition. And hey, at least I got the damn T-shirt.


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