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Fear Not El Kookooee

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What is it in the nature of humans that makes us want to gather in the dark as the days shorten and the air cools and set big scary dudes on fire?

The question was on my mind as I walked through a yard littered with giant body parts made of wood, cardboard and papier-mâché.

“There’s the head over there,” Joanne Eekhoff told me. “Over there is the torso with some arms. There’s some hands in progress over there.”

El Kookooee will be burned tonight at Rio Bravo State Park behind the South Valley Library, 3904 Isleta Blvd. SW. Festivities begin at 6 p.m., and it’s free.

No, we were not walking through Zozobra’s boneyard. This was the South Valley staging area for the construction of this year’s El Kookooee, that other guy we like to gather around and yell, “Burn! Burn!”

While Zozobra is a relatively modern martyr sacrificed to exorcise our collective worry and gloom, El Kookooee (or El Cucui in Spanish) is one of a stable of fabled bogeymen whose ancient legends serve to keep petrified children in line and whose annual burning is a way to clean the slate of fear for another year.

Gather around, children, and listen to Eekhoff and her husband, Chris Reisz, the artist who has designed and overseen the building of El Kookooee’s effigy in his yard for three years now, explain the legend of El Kookooee:

Chris: “It’s a big-eared troll that lives in the mountains and comes to get children for misbehaving.”

Joanne: “I’m sure the ear represents that he hears everything that you say. He knows when you’re naughty and he sees everything that you do.”

Chris: “He’s like the bogeyman.”

Joanne: “A lot of the kids down here when you say El Kookooee, they know. It’s ‘El Kookooee’s going to get you.’ ”

Like La Llorona, the wailing woman who snatches children when they play too close to irrigation ditches or the river, El Kookooee is a reminder to mind your parents and stay safe.

Because they’re both big burning effigies, comparisons to Zozobra are inevitable, Eekhoff and Reisz said. But a look at the Zozobra/El Kookooee balance sheet shows the differences:

The Zozobra figure is a 50-foot-tall marionette whose tradition goes back to 1924. El Kookooee is a static object who usually stands around 30 feet tall (although one year he reached 42 feet) and whose burning tradition dates to 1990, although his legend is centuries old.

Zozobra has become a big enterprise in Santa Fe, and attending the burning can set you back $20. El Kookooee remains a grass-roots South Valley volunteer affair, and it’s always free.

Also, except for his hair color, Zozobra is the same guy every year – big ears, big lips, decked out in a flowing white gown with an empire waist and a bow tie. El Kookooee (pronounced just the way it looks – koo-koo-ee) is designed by local schoolchildren each year, and so he is never the same. He might look like a tall, slim Tinkertoy one year and a squat caveman the next. El Kookooee has appeared in drag, and one year his bride, bedazzling in pink, burned in his stead. A fork or a spoon or a spear is often involved because El Kookooee eats disobeying children.

When author Rudolfo Anaya launched the El Kookooee Educational Association in 1990 with the aim of building an El Kookooee figure, stuffing it with the community’s fears and setting it on fire every year in late October, his aim was to bring the colorful El Cucui legend to life to promote the cultural heritage of the Hispanic South Valley.

To that end, the whole annual El Kookooee production involves a community board, a design contest held in neighborhood schools and big volunteer parties to get El Kookooee built, painted and decorated and moved in pieces up Isleta Boulevard to Rio Bravo Park just behind the South Valley Public Library for the burning.

The winner of last year’s contest, which results in this year’s El Kookooee, was RaeLynn Lajeunesse, a fifth-grader at Adobe Acres Elementary. When she imagined El Kookooee, she saw a green monster. The mockup she built, which Reisz is interpreting and super-sizing, was a plastic gallon milk carton covered with leaves with tin foil arms and head and chicken bone fangs.

Reisz had 2012 and the Mayan prophecies on his mind when he started sketching out a larger version of Lajeunesse’s design. He settled on a version of a god of the underworld, and this year’s El Kookooee’s 7-foot-tall head sports a third eye, fangs and a crown of skulls.

That brings us to another big difference between Santa Fe’s Zozobra and the South Valley’s El Kookooee: Zozobra is about worry and gloom, and El Kookooee is about fear, which kicks the scary factor up a notch.

South Valley neighbors and people who come down for the event write their fears on pieces of paper, which are stuffed into big burlap bags and placed inside the El Kookooee bogeyman to act as fuel as the big guy burns. Eekhoff told me most people jot their fears down just before the burning. Others take a more methodical approach. “People come with their own little boxes or notebooks or journals they’ve kept during the year,” she said.

Using fear as fuel to light up a cold, dark night? No wonder the El Kookooee tradition has stood the test of time. Fear is one of those universal emotions whose usefulness is obvious if you stand back and give it a look. Fear makes us cautious, and caution keeps us from harm. We avoid the danger we fear and we live another day, a day in which we can gin up some new fear.

Me, I’ve got plenty. I’m afraid of riding my bike at night. Of rock ledges when I’m high on a mountaintop. Of nukes in the hands of terrorists. Of a phone call directing me to a hospital ER. Of snakes.

What would you write if someone handed you a piece of paper to stick in El Kookooee tonight?

I asked Eekhoff and Reisz the same question, and frankly, they were too deep in the making of El Kookooee to see much beyond cardboard, contact cement, papier-mâché and deadlines.

“My fear is that I won’t get it done on time,” Reisz said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal