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Solitary gloom: Drive-in watch parties will celebrate as Zozobra burns in empty Fort Marcy Park

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

Months ago, Ray Sandoval had many questions about how – and if – the burning of Zozobra would take place in 2020.

With the pandemic causing public events to be canceled, Sandoval and his crew made a pivot to put the event on sans crowd.

“We thought it would be easy,” Sandoval says with a laugh. “Not having a crowd, you would think it would be easier. As we moved forward to a virtual event, more questions arose.”

Sandoval thought about how the pandemic has shifted the world. New Mexico events with long-standing traditions were being canceled left and right.

“2020 is the banner year for gloom and doom, and the public needed this tradition to continue,” Sandoval says.

The next question was, how would a group construct and carry out the event adhering to health restrictions?

“It became very clear to me,” Sandoval says. “There was no way to build Zozobra the way we were used to building him in three weeks,” he says.

Nayeli Ortiz, 12, of Santa Fe, with the head of Zozobra at Santa Fe Place Mall on Aug. 15. The burning of Zozobra will be televised and webcast by KOAT from 8 to 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4. For this year’s online Zozofest, art and more information, go to (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sandoval approached Santa Fe Place Mall and asked whether the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe could use the space for construction.

In previous years, more than 200 people would work on bringing the marionette to life.

This year, no more than four people at a time worked on building Zozobra.

“We all had surgical masks or face shields,” Sandoval says. “We worked on different sections. We were confident to do it safely, and it turned out well.”

Every year, tens of thousands crowd into Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe on the night Zozobra burns.

This year, KOAT will broadcast the event from 8 to 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4.

One of Zozobra’s hands at Santa Fe Place Mall. This year, because of the pandemic, only a small number of volunteers worked on the marionette. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’ve always said Zozobra has great friends,” Sandoval says. “Everyone stepped up to help us keep the tradition alive. This is our 96th year, and it’s needed more than ever.”

The 50-foot-tall marionette’s look changes each year.

Sandoval says the color of Zozobra’s hair is always the final reveal – often kept secret until the day of the event.

This year, there was no question about the hair – the gloomy giant’s tresses absolutely had to have the appearance of the coronavirus.

“Made of silver shredded paper, red hair scrunchies molded into resin triangles and complementary orange pingpong balls, the top of the monster’s head is a visual reminder that Zozobra indeed behaves like a virus, trying to infect humankind with dark thoughts and sad feelings,” Sandoval says.

Zozobra will also be addressing those pesky murder hornets.

“Zozobra insisted on a super-fashionable outside too, so he grabbed a pair of those scary flying menaces, dipped them in gold and will be wearing them as cuff links,” Sandoval says.

To complete his overall look, Zozobra will don buttons with “2020.”

Sandoval says it’s a privilege to be the keeper of this tradition.

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

“(The Kiwanis) promised we would burn Zozobra in perpetuity in 1964,” he says. “I felt the weight of history on my shoulders. We made the hard decision to move forward and present it for free to the community.”

As Zozobra sits waiting in Fort Marcy Park, Sandoval says, he will be filled with glooms until 8:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4.

This year, the gloom program will still help the Kiwanis Club support local nonprofits.

“This means gloom-burners will do a good deed when they extinguish the woe and anxieties of this difficult year,” Sandoval says.

Glooms can be submitted for $1 at

“The entire event asks if you are spreading gloom or spreading light,” Sandoval says. “It’s really important to think about these things. Zozobra spreads gloom, which is why we burn him. The fire dancer represents the light and the ability to take the gloom away. Which one do you choose?”

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