Long Before Burning Man, Zozobra Brought Fire And Redemption To The Desert

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Zozobra has become so popular that in Santa Fe, NM, a city of just over 80,000, almost 56,000 people have come out to see him this year.
Melinda Herrera/The Santa Fe Kiwanis Club

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For those of us who grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., there are few figures that loom larger than Zozobra. I mean that literally, as much as figuratively: The 50-foot-tall marionette is as familiar as Santa Claus — only, instead of stealing away with cookies and milk, Zozobra ends its holiday each year by being ritualistically burned to death before a crowd of tens of thousands of screaming people.

Zozobra, which takes its name comes from the Spanish word for pain or despair, “represents all of the gloom of Santa Fe,” says Kenneth Garley. The self-diagnosed Zozobra fanatic is secretary of the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club, which builds the massive, scowling puppet and puts on the annual burn. “The burning of Zozobra is the burning of all the gloom.”

In the weeks leading up to the burn, thousands of people anonymously drop slips of paper containing their handwritten woes into the Gloom Deposit Boxes spread around town. Zozobra’s body — built mostly from wood, chicken wire, and papier mache by hundreds of volunteers — is then stuffed with all the gloom that’s fit to burn.

That means Garley, who was less than a year old when his parents brought him to his first burn, has seen a lot of gloom go up in smoke. In the 53 burns he has attended, he says he’s seen wedding dresses, mortgage papers, severance notices. Last year, when one of his fellow Zozobra builders passed away, he placed some of their ashes inside the puppet, “and that way she became a part of Zozobra forever.”

Elizabeth Harris, who has been attending Zozobra since shortly after she moved to Santa Fe 30 years ago, says her annual contributions these days are usually minor complaints. “But about 25 years ago, I was diagnosed with a stage 4 cancer,” she says. “So, I took a copy of the pathology reports, and I stapled 10 pages of paper right onto the two-by-fours. So that was a pretty fabulous burn that year at Zozobra.”

But the ritual isn’t just about the gloom. It’s also a way for parents to scare their children into obedience, a rite of passage for young teenagers, and the biggest party of the year for everyone else.

~~~  READ/LISTEN  ~~~

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