New Mexico's Zozobra 2020: Burning gloom away in the age of COVID-19
- The Burning of
Zozobrais typically one of the top tourist attractions in Santa Fe, New Mexico, attracting 64,000 people in 2019.
- This year's burning was a no-crowd affair, but was broadcast live on local television.
- Zozobra began in 1924 in the backyard of artist Will Shuster. According to the Albuquerque Journal, "Shuster based Zozobra on a Yaqui ceremony he witnessed in Mexico: an effigy of Judas, loaded with firecrackers and set ablaze."
- Zozobra is filled with "glooms": mistakes, regrets, and bad vibes, written on pieces of paper, that people would like to leave in the past.
I first heard of Zozobra while watching the local news in an Albuquerque hotel room, the anchor reminding viewers that there was still time to send in their "glooms" to be burned, saying it as if that's just a normal thing that normal people do.
"What the heck is a 'gloom?'" I said out loud (using a word other than "heck"). Six weeks later, I watched 100,000 such glooms — essentially: bad vibes from the previous year, written down on pieces of paper and stuffed inside a 50-foot, 2,000-pound marionette — burn up at Zozobra 2020 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
There have been a lot of bad vibes in 2020; this year's Zozobra reflected that. The marionette itself had a head full of hair modeled off the coronavirus (with cufflinks modeled off the giant "murder hornets" that began appearing in the US late last year). And because of the pandemic, the usual crowd of some 60,000 people was reduced this past Friday to a couple dozen socially-distanced staff and reporters, most experiencing the spectacle while sheltering in place and watching television at home.
Zozobra began in 1924 in the backyard of artist Will Shuster. According to the Albuquerque Journal, "Shuster based Zozobra on a Yaqui ceremony he witnessed in Mexico: an effigy of Judas, loaded with firecrackers and set ablaze."
In addition to cultural appropriation, the festival began with depression: Shuster, according to Mark White of the New Mexico Museum of Art, had PTSD from having served in World War I, where he experienced chemical warfare. "He had a depression through much of the 1920s," White told local ABC affiliate KOAT, "and Zozobra was a way for him to exorcise that depression."
White people taking an indigenous event and making it their own is of course a good bit short of "ideal."
But Zozobra was also a counter-cultural answer to Fiesta de Santa Fe, a celebration of the Spanish empire reasserting its control over New Mexico's native population. It starts a week after the burning and, while a major tourist attraction, has in recent decades been the subject of intense protest from the region's indigenous peoples. Only in 2018 did organizers finally drop the most controversial part: an actual reenactment of the Spanish conquest known as the "Entrada."
That is how today's organizers choose to see Zozobra: as a tradition that is not steeped in conquest and settler-colonialism — the victory of an empire over the indigenous.
"Zozobra actually was a protest [of] not being inclusive enough; a lot of that is going around these days, talking about inclusivity and rethinking some of our public events," event committee chair Ray Sandoval told the Santa Fe New Mexican. "Zozobra was actually 100 years ahead of its time because this is exactly why Zozobra was created: so that the entire community, not just segments, could celebrate Santa Fe Fiesta."
Zozobra's 96th burning was quite unlike any previous year's: it happened during a once-in-a-century pandemic (fingers crossed), making what is typically "one of Santa Fe's largest and happiest events" an even gloomier, no-crowd affair.
There were other differences, too. At the first recorded burning, as published by the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1926, Santa Fe's city attorney read a death sentence for Zozobra and then "fired several revolver shots at the monster."
In 2020, no guns were involved. Instead, a dancing woman, said to represent a "Fire Spirit," whirled up to the gigantic marionette, torches in hand, and set the damned thing ablaze.
To empower said spirit, attendees — whether tens of thousands or a handful in the press section — are supposed to yell, "Burn him!" And people do. It feels good.
In 1926, Zozobra burned to the sounds of "La Cucaracha." In 2020, this reporter heard a lot of Phil Collins and Journey. And fireworks. So many fireworks. Too many fireworks? No. But, really, a lot of fireworks.
Just when you think this thing has finished — it's all burned up and time to go home? Yeah, more fireworks.
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