For hundreds of years, people have participated in the Fiestas de Santa Fe, which commemorates Don Diego de Vargas’ 1692 reoccupation of the “City of Holy Faith,” what is today Santa Fe.
Historically the burning of Zozobra has unofficially marked the beginning of the days-long celebration.
But burning of the 50-foot effigy wasn’t always a part of the tradition.
Zozobra was the creation of Santa Fe artist William Howard Shuster Jr., who was himself a spirited rebel. The inaugural construction of his giant burning puppet in 1924 was part of a larger rebellion. It all began when Fiestas de Santa Fe organizers announced they would charge fiestagoers a fee to attend the event.
Shuster, fondly known to his friends as Shus, and other local artists scoffed at the idea, saying the requirement would prevent the city’s poorest members from participating in the revelry. They decided to create a free parallel event in protest and called it El Pasatiempo. Their fiesta included a pet parade and the hysterical pageant.
And of course, the burning of Zozobra – a large marionette made of cotton cloth and wood stuffed full of the world’s glooms.
Shuster burned the first Zozobra that year in his backyard during a private party for his friends. Zozobra would make his first public appearance in 1926 when the two fiestas combined.
The artist was known as much for his eccentricity as well as his professional accomplishments. When he first came to Santa Fe, Shuster met famed Ashcan School artist John Sloan, who served as his artistic mentor. Shuster, Willard Nash, W.E. Mruk, Josef Bakos and Fremont Ellis formed the original Santa Fe Art Colony, Los Cinco Pintores, in deference to the city’s Spanish heritage. The five artists showed their work throughout the U.S. Shuster’s work hangs in the permanent collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Shuster got the idea for Zozobra when he traveled to Mexico and witnessed the Yaqui Indians carrying a cartonería (papier-mâché sculpture) of Judas around the Stations of the Cross during Easter Holy Week. The villagers stuffed the Judas effigy with firecrackers and set him ablaze when they completed the ceremony. It was Shuster’s friend E. Dana Johnson, editor-in-chief of the Santa Fe New Mexican, who chose the fearsome name.
The old Spanish dictionary defined Zozobra as “the gloomy one.” It also translates to anxiety.
Shuster was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 26, 1893. He started his professional life as an industrial engineer but abandoned that career to join the military and fight in World War I. He was gassed by the Germans and suffered permanent lung damage. He came to New Mexico on the advice of a cousin who was a doctor. Shuster recalled the conversation in a newspaper interview.
His cousin told him he “could stay in Philadelphia and maybe live a year or go to a high, dry climate in the West where he had a good chance of dying of a snake bite, old age or bad whiskey.”
He never did run into that deadly snake and I can’t speak for the whiskey but he did indeed die at an old age. He was 75 in February of 1969, when he succumbed to emphysema, leaving behind a ritual that survives to this day, although Santa Fe officials at one time considered abolishing it over safety concerns.
Burning of Zozobra event chair Ray Sandoval said some broken storefront windows at the hands of a biker gang in the ’70s and a 1980s gang shooting on the plaza after the event pushed officials to consider ending the tradition. The solution was to move it from a Friday to a Thursday to make it more “family friendly.” Sandoval said the move impacted turnout, dropping the average attendance to about 18,000.
The fiery spectacle has since returned to Friday. The burning takes place Labor Day weekend, which is the weekend before the Fiestas. Last year, nearly 64,000 went to Fort Marcy Park to witness the spectacle.
Of course this year is completely different. There will be no in-person viewing and instead KOAT will broadcast the ceremony on Friday, Sept. 4.
Sandoval said now more than ever the world needs Zozobra
“2020 has created a lot of gloom for everyone,” Sandoval said. “Zozobra is a
specter created by all of us. All of our bad acts. But the fire specter is created by all of us too. By our good deeds.”
Community members will still have an opportunity this year to stuff their glooms into the marionette before he’s set afire. For a dollar fee, anyone can submit their gloom online at burnzozobra.com/gloom. The money raised pays for the ceremony and goes to help youth-centered nonprofit organizations in the community including Girls Inc., Santa Fe Youth Symphony and Cooking with Kids.
Shuster attended his last Burning of Zozobra ceremony in 1968, having witnessed decades of burning, and seeing something he started in his backyard turn into a cultural phenomenon.
In a 1966 New Mexican article, Shuster reminisced about past fiestas. He recalled the year he and some friends had a parade float they called “Still Life in America” featuring an old copper still.
“We were all acting drunk and I guess we were a little intoxicated,” he said. “One man on the float was called Demon Rum and he was carrying a jug in his hands full of a suspicious liquid. When the police tried to arrest him for drinking in public, they found only tea in his jug.”
Although Shuster handed over construction of the puppet in 1964 to the Kiwanis Club, which still
handles the event today, he seems to have never given up his fighting spirit. In the same article he had this to say.
“The townspeople don’t participate in Fiesta the way they used to,” he said. “They just watch the activities and don’t join in any of them. The whole fun of fiesta is getting involved in it and, well, raising some hell.”
If ever there was a year that epitomized raising some hell, 2020 is it.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at email@example.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?