What the “Other Burning Man” Taught Me About Identity, Letting Go, and Having Fun
I remember the first time I told a non-Santa Fean about Zozobra. The burning, the screaming, the white sheets, the chants. The torches and processions. The concept of cleansing. The flames.
They looked deeply uncomfortable and asked me if I was in a cult. I could almost see the thought-bubble in the air asking “…or the KKK?”
I laughed — and with a hint of a spark in my eyes, said, “No.” Yes, Zozobra is a strange and bizarre ritual. Maybe a little unsettling. But no, Zozobra is not an offshoot of the KKK, or a cult. It does not promote a hateful rhetoric. It’s merely a local tradition from my hometown where we gleefully come together once a year to burn a giant marionette. It’s like Burning Man, but in my opinion, better. And, it’s not harmful to anyone — except the marionette, and the bad luck of yesteryear.
Old Man Gloom
We call them glooms, and once a year, in a tiny town that hugs the stars in the high plains of New Mexico, we collect them and burn them. In the months leading up to Labor Day, boxes appear at businesses around the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, into which locals deposit pieces of paper on which we’ve written our glooms, our woes, regrets, and sadnesses from the past year. Divorce papers. Break up letters. Parking tickets (hopefully already paid). Obituaries. Petty grievances. The name of that person who you just can’t get over. Deep sorrows. It all goes in the box.
We cull our sadness like a harvest, and stuff them as kindling into a fifty-foot-tall marionette named Zozobra, otherwise known as Old Man Gloom.
The Other Burning Man
What is Zozobra? It’s release. It’s freedom from sadness. It’s letting go, in the most spectacular fiery way. Zozobra, which means “anxiety” in Spanish, was first brought to life in 1924 by Gustave Baumann and Will Shuster, two artists who moved to Santa Fe and started the tradition in conjunction with the Fiestas de Santa Fe, a week of parades and pageantry that celebrate the Spanish retaking the city from the Pueblo Indians in 1712. Inspired by the paper-mache Judas effigies burned in Mexico during Holy Week, Shuster crafted the very first Zozobra puppet and burned it in his backyard. Friends were invited to the festivities, and gradually the burning grew bigger and more popular, until the Kiwanis Club took over the event in the 1960s, and opened it to the citizens of Santa Fe to collectively absolve themselves of their woes.
What began as a simple backyard affair has turned into an elaborate performance enacting the mythology and story of Zozobra and his reign of gloom over Santa Fe, featuring dancers, actors, and plenty of flames and fireworks.
On the big night, Santa Feans flow through the streets of downtown to crowd the field at Fort Marcy. The giant puppet of Zozobra is perched on an embankment, leering out over the revelers. His long white muslin robe hangs loosely over his wooden skeleton, which has been stuffed with the unhappiness of the locals. He has arrived to the festivities dressed in his black tie best: bowtie, buttons, and a cummerbund. His curly hair changes color every year: red, green, yellow, orange. His giant hands, index fingers with overgrown nails pointing and fingers curled into the palm in rage, swing about accusingly. His lips, plump and red, sneer as his beady eyes scan the crowd, his mouth gaping in hatred and disbelief. His head rolls from side to side.
As night falls, the ceremony begins.
As the story goes, Zozobra is a boogeyman, a harbinger of darkness and despair to the city of Santa Fe. Weary of his frightening children and striking fear into adults, the townspeople finally decide to rid themselves of him once and for all. So, they invite Zozobra to a fancy party in celebration of Fiestas. Zozobra arrives at the appointed time, dressed in his finest, but soon becomes agitated at being kept waiting. In anger, he casts a spell over the assembled children, turning them into his army of “Gloomies,” sending them off to spread gloom around the city. On the stage, children dressed in white gowns like ghosts parade about. But a brave group of townspeople step forward to confront Zozobra, breaking the spell of the Gloomies, who disperse.
Then the fun begins. Eerie music wafts over the crowd as Zozobra growls, swinging his head and brandishing his fingers. “You! You! You! You tricked me!” his actions seem to say. His eyes bore into us, accusingly.
One of the townspeople unravels a scroll and speaks. “Zozobra!” he announces in a booming voice. “For being a boogey man, scaring our children and bringing gloom and sadness to our town, we sentence you to burn!”
“GRAHHHHHH!” Zozobra wails in resistance to the judgement. The crowd roars. “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!” A frenzy sweeps the fields; voices mingle; fists punch the air. It’s almost time.
Then Zozobra’s enemy, the Fire Spirit, enters. As Zozobra continues to cry and moan, the dancer, clad in red and yellow and bedecked in a headdress streaming ribbons, lightly prances about, taunting the boogeyman. Finally, grabbing a torch, and with the aid of firecrackers that zip up Zozobra spine to ignite the inside of his head, the dancer sets Old Man Gloom ablaze. The crowd roars. Zozobra screams. His head is engulfed in flames as the firedancer lights the bottom of his robes. As fireworks erupt overhead, our giant marionette of woe burns, screaming as we scream back. “Burn him! Burn himmmm!”
It’s deliciously macabre and we eat it up, like the maniacs we are. We love it. We scream and jump and yell and feel the weight of a year of sadness turn into ash and blow away. It’s cathartic in the most wonderful, freeing way. And what’s best is that’s ours. Completely ours.
Learning to love my hometown through Zozobra
Growing up, this was a tradition I watched from the fringes. My parents, concerned about the crowds, never let us go to the burning of Zozobra. On the day of the burning, at school I would listen to classmates excitedly whisper and get ready for the big night, and then the next day, be regaled by stories of how epic the fireworks were; whether it was a good or bad burn that year (oh yes, there are wrong ways to burn something and Santa Fe knows them); what color his hair was that year, and just how much fun it was. I wanted to go, but every year, didn’t ask. I watched videos, I saw pictures. I just never went. Eventually, Zozobra became nothing but background noise to me.
As a teen, I could have gone to Zozobra, but I didn’t. I stayed home and studied, determined to go to a top college far from home. And being as studious as I was, I wasn’t a frequent invite to the high school party circuit. Following the burning, high schoolers all over town went to after parties or loitered on the Plaza downtown, taking swigs from brown paper bags and passing joints. At the parties, people made out in dark corners (or so I heard) and did typical teen things. As I had zero interest in booze or drugs, and despite my best efforts no one wanted to make out with me. So I turned up my (unpopular) nose at the popular crowd’s Zozobra parties and forged ahead. Zozobra became just another part of the wash that was Santa Fe… weird and all too familiar.
In high school, like most of my classmates, I was restless with the small-town life of Santa Fe and looked toward college as my escape. Desperate to get out, I loathed Santa Fe for its compactness, for what I saw as a lack of opportunity. I was baffled by the hordes of tourists that descended upon the city like a heatwave in the summer, stifling the locals, soaking up the culture. I failed to see what was so INTERESTING about Santa Fe, with its mix of Pueblo and Spanish culture (clearly I didn’t get out enough when I was younger). All that culture and history was too familiar to me, something that had always been there and therefore failed to interest me. I was an apathetic teen. I had lived in Santa Fe my whole life, and I was bored with all of it.
But I ended up going to a local college, barely a twenty-minute drive from my childhood home. Now a college student in the town I grew up in, I was a hot commodity among the newcomers, who came to me to learn all about where to party, where to eat, what to do. And all eager to take part in that most Santa Fe of traditions, Zozobra. And I was the one with the scoop. “What’s it like? Is it cool? Is it scary? You HAVE to take us!”
As someone for whom unpopularity in high school had stuck to like the mono I never got, suddenly being the one that everyone sought out for information was such a high. I had to experience the burning for myself, at long last.
So, freshman year, my roommate and new friends packed into my Honda, and I went to my first Zozobra.
I finally understood what the fuss was all about: the excitement, the sense of community, the wildness that took over Santa Fe for a night like an extremely liberating but still very controlled mob scene or a laser-focused Purge. As a community, the whole town came together for this cathartic piece of performance art that was tailored just for us. We didn’t have to share it with other towns, like Christmas or Easter. It was outlandish and fantastic and I felt a million pounds lighter as I walked off the field at the end of the night. I loved it. I was hooked.
I continued going to Zozobra throughout college, and it had an unintended but welcome side effect — it helped me fall back in love with Santa Fe. As an independent college student, I explored and came to know the City. I grew to love it even more, not just as my home, but for what it was. I loved the narrow streets hemmed in by adobe buildings; the people, who were artists and tree huggers and creators and weirdos and kind, good citizens; that everything food related could come smothered in green chile; that thousands of people would turn out in the rain to scream and burn a giant marionette. It’s a town of pyromaniacal freaks; who wouldn’t want to live there?!
But college ended, and from elsewhere in the world, life and opportunity were calling.
At my final Zozobra, I did something I’d wanted to do since I first had the idea a few years before, but I had been too shy to do. But if there was a place to be myself, Zozobra was it. I put a bra on over my shirt, wrote a giant ZO on each cup, and proudly walked onto the field wearing my Zo-Zo-Bra (trademarked and patent pending).
I was nervous, and I definitely got some weird stares. But then people started getting it. They laughed and high-fived me. They asked for a picture. They loved it. Zozobra helped me feel comfortable bringing out my weird, wacky side in public — and that side of me was embraced and understood. Because that’s what Zozobra is, a place to be completely yourself, with no shame about your baggage or issues. It’s just you and everyone else, all looking for a reset and a bit of fun.
As Old Man Gloom became a pillar of flame and the crowd around me cheered, I felt that a small bit of gloom hadn’t been burned away that year. I don’t think it ever will be.
It’s been two years since that burning. I now live in Chile, and every year, when the day of the burning comes around, I join the scattered legions of ex-Santa Feans around the world who continue celebrating Zozobra in their own small way (and who we hope don’t violate local fire laws to do so).
We craft our own tiny Zozobras out of paper and fabric, using markers to create his iconic look: giant red lips, curly hair, beady black eyes. We pull up the livestream video and feel the collective energy of Santa Feans in all corners of the globe and in the crowd at Fort Marcy, coming together to burn away our glooms from the past year.
And as the lights of the field go down, as the firedancer twirls her torch, and as Zozobra wails as the flames explode inside his head and climb up his lanky frame, we all set matches or lighters to our tiny Zozobra, screaming along with the crowds on the livestream. Burn him! Que viva la Fiesta! Que viva la Santa Fe!
Because even though we leave, we still have Zozobra. We still celebrate it. I’ll always set aside that night, no matter where I am in the world. No matter what life throws at me each year, how many problems I face, how low I get, Zozobra is a reminder that there is always a restart, a chance to pull yourself up and look toward a better future. And that burning stuff up is just really, really fun. (We really are just a town of pyromaniacs, aren’t we? Maybe we should talk to someone about this…)
Que viva, Zozobra. I’ll see you in 2024 for the 100th burning, you old boogeyman.