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Plan to burn Zozobra’s cousin for governors’ meeting raises ire

SANTA FE – As part of the National Governors Association conference in Santa Fe next month, the local Kiwanis Club will give visitors a “Zozobra-related” event.

Though he goes by the moniker Tio Coco – “Uncle Boogeyman” – the 50-foot marionette effigy that will be burned the night of July 21 at Fort Marcy Park is actually a cousin of Zozobra, the equally tall marionette that goes up in flames every year at the park, according to Ray Sandoval, chairman of the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe’s Zozobra Committee.

“This is a huge honor and an amazing opportunity to highlight Santa Fe’s history and culture to elected officials and dignitaries from all over the world,” he said. “We hope to wow their socks off.”

Unlike Zozobra, which attracts close to 50,000 people for the unofficial opening of the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe, the burning of Tio Coco is a private event and only about 750 people are expected to attend, according to city documents.

Governors, their families and special guests, possibly to include foreign dignitaries, will be invited to the “La Noche de Fuego” closing out the three-day conference.

But not everyone is happy about it.

Ray Valdez, who produced the Zozobra events for 17 years prior to Sandoval taking over, says the Kiwanis Club has no right to hold such event. He says that in 1964, Will Shuster, the Santa Fe artist who had created Zozobra 40 years earlier, signed over Zozobra’s rights to the Kiwanis Club and stipulated that “Old Man Gloom,” as he’s called, would be burned only once a year as a kick off event for Fiestas.

“They are diminishing everything Zozobra means to Santa Fe,” he said. “Tio Coco does not represent anything culturally significant to this amazing city we live in.”

He also says it’s unwise to be setting anything aflame during a drought.

“The main issue is the fire component,” he said. “Our mountain is currently under full fire restrictions and we can’t even walk in there. And we’re going to burn an effigy without telling the neighborhood?”

Sandoval said he contacted neighborhood associations and sent an email to neighbors of Fort Marcy Park – where Zozobra burns – to let them know of a planned event there next month. But in the interest of security, details were vague.

He also says there’s nothing in the 1964 transfer of rights that prohibits the Kiwanis Club from creating another marionette to burn. In fact, Shuster did it himself in 1940 when he created Tio Coco, a 36-foot tall effigy burned during a celebration of the premier of the film “Santa Fe Trail,” which starred Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and featured future president Ronald Reagan.

“Shuster himself made an exception as a way to showcase the ‘City Different’ and its culture, so we think this is appropriate,” Sandoval said.

Tio Coco returned in 2013 when he went up in flames at Fort Marcy as part of a private event held during the Kiwanis International Southwest District’s midyear conference.

Sandoval said the Kiwanis Club took the idea of burning another effigy for the governors conference seriously. So much so that the club held a meeting of the full membership last October to discuss it. After a robust discussion, the 72 members in attendance voted unanimously to go ahead with it, he said.

Asked what kind of impression he thinks Tio Coco will leave on those invited to attend the July 21 event, Sandoval said, “They’ll either think it’s one of the most amazing things they ever saw in their life, or they’ll think this is a strange city and never want to come back.”