It happens but once a year: Always on the Friday before Labor Day at Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Ballfield, the event known as “Burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra” occurs. Sometimes called the Burning Man of New Mexico, there is no comparison except both involve a burning. This event centers around “Zozobra,” Spanish for “Old Man Gloom,” anxiety, and worry. Zozobra is a marionette built out of wood, cotton, and wire. He towers about fifty feet above the park grounds atop what normally serves as a bleacher structure. Before the event day, bad thoughts—including even divorce papers and traffic tickets—of which people want to cleanse themselves are collected at a central plaza in Santa Fe. They get sewn into the marionette.
The artist Shuster lived in Santa Fe before his death in 1969. History recounts that in 1924, inspired by papier-mâché puppets he saw during a trip to Mexico, Shuster made a six foot puppet and symbolically burned it at a backyard party to rid himself of his troubles. Shuster’s antics live on today as a major Santa Fe tradition and television event, with watch parties as far away as Australia.
During normal times, “Zozo-goers” surge to 60,000. In 2021, the first time since the COVID pandemic prohibited any audience in 2020, tickets sales were limited to 10,000 which seemed like the perfect size crowd. Protocol required everyone to have been vaccinated or have a negative COVID test. $40 COVID rapid tests were available at the gate. Once inside, masks were recommended. Maintaining six-feet distances was nary impossible. Tickets varied in price with the most expensive giving closer access to the stage or to areas with folding chairs, but visibility was good from anywhere.
The event is exceptionally well organized and run by volunteers of the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe as a major fundraiser for children. Gates opened at four, but the actual burning of Zozobra didn’t start until—as the emcee from the TV station covering the event announced, the commercial break was over—around 9:20.
Waiting the nearly two hours after darkness fell before the burn began felt like a big tease. To ease the wait, hundreds of beach balls were released into the crowd. As the time grew near, the emcee coached the audience to a chant of “Burn him, burn him!” A Beetlejuice skit complete with a grave prop was performed in front of Zozobra followed by a highly stylized fire dance with pyrotechnics which assuredly had some storyline. At the climax, Zozobra was set ablaze as his mechanical arms flailed and he groaned. As his remains lay smoldering behind them, two characters seemingly costumed as pirates appeared waiving a flag, again undoubtedly with some significance. Beginning before the structure collapsed and ratcheting up afterwards, fireworks as spectacular as any I have seen exploded above.
The event reminded me of Mexican-style Kabuki in its simplicity and high symbolism and caricature with Latin colorization and sensibility. The fireworks literally lit up the evening sky and were a highlight.
Hopefully the burning worked to eliminate the bad energy of a pandemic year better to be forgotten.
While waiting for the burn, Zozo-goers could buy Zozobra merchandise or endure winding lines for food truck offerings and port-a-potties. Highly amplified video of motif 80’s recordings was broadcast on three large screens surrounding the park. In keeping with the theme, Zozobra wore a Michael Jackson jacket from “Thriller.”
Planning for next year’s Zozobra is underway. The theme: 90’s music. If you plan to attend in the future, note that parking is a problem, as you might expect. After the show, delayed reopening of surrounding streets meant traffic jams. Avoid the headache by taking Santa Fe’s commuter train to South Capitol Station (or just parking there) and catching the special shuttle from there to the park.