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Editorial: Give Zozobra changes a try

Burn him! The Kiwanis Club is proposing changing the schedule for the traditional burning of Zozobra. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Burn him! The Kiwanis Club is proposing changing the schedule for the traditional burning of Zozobra. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Judging from the public reaction a couple of years ago, nothing stirs up emotions in Santa Fe like Zozobra.

When weather helped make the burning ritual an interminable disaster on a Thursday night in September 2012, the vox populi exploded – attending the torching of Old Man Gloom had gotten too expensive, it wasn’t on Friday night anymore like it should be, baby strollers weren’t allowed. Zozo had become an overly long and elaborate show for tourists instead of a simpler tradition for local families. And hip-hop had replaced mariachi.

After a good, lower-priced comeback in 2013, new Zozobra guru Ray Sandoval now wants to shake things up. He and his Kiwanian brethren who stage the burning propose separating Zozobra from Fiesta weekend and moving him forward a week, from the Thursday night before Fiesta to the Friday night of Labor Day weekend.

Sandoval’s motives are many: Just about everyone except the police, who have to control a potentially rowdy weekend night crowd, want the burning back on Friday; more people are likely to show up on a Friday instead of on a school night, helping to finance the burning and Kiwanis charities, and keep ticket prices lower; and having the burning at the start of a long holiday weekend will make it easier to market it to tourists, and for exiled natives to come to back for the strange and wonderful, paganistic demise of Old Man Gloom.

The whole slew of big Fiesta events used to take place on Labor Day weekend – Zozobra on Friday night, with a big party on the Plaza afterward, followed by the Saturday/Sunday combination of blessedly low-key food and music offerings on the Plaza, and religious events in the cathedral and at the Cross of the Martyrs.

That all changed after a brawl involving motorcycle riders about four decades ago. To help keep agitating outsiders away – or reduce local resentment of said outsiders – Fiesta left Labor Day behind and moved back on the calendar to the following weekend.

Next, torching Zozobra was moved from Friday to Thursday – and the night-time Plaza party afterward was abandoned altogether – when a teenager was shot to death on the crowd-filled Plaza post-Zozobra in 1998.

The history of violence shows there were good reasons for the changes in the Zozobra-Fiesta schedule over the years. Regular attendees at Zozobra have to acknowledge that the ritual is safer, even feels safer, on a Thursday night.

But enough time has passed since the 1998 tragedy to try something new. Sandoval says his crews practiced security at Zozobra last year with an eye on handling bigger crowds down the line.

There’s a lot of tradition attached to having Zozobra burn on Fiesta weekend. But the burning, the invention 90 years ago of artist Will Shuster, has always been only an unofficial attachment to the historical and religious Fiesta.

Sandoval should be given a year or a few to see if his proposals work and how they sit with Santa Feans. He has a unique thought for Santa Fe – that something like burning Zozobra can work for both locals and tourists at the same time.

We’d love to see that post-burning Plaza soiree return, too. Other cities somehow have huge, crowded events of celebration in urban spaces without being cowed by thuggery. Santa Fe should be able to do the same. Revelers would have to put up with increased security or checks for weapons and simply behave. But it would be great to see the return of what was literally dancing in the streets after Zozobra’s execution.

One thing we’re not sure about. To help make everything work – including lower ticket prices – Sandoval wants to seek out national sponsors for Zozobra. The money would be nice and, as he argues, help keep ticket prices low.

But it would be very disturbing to end up with the Doritos Burning of Zozobra© or Zappos’ Zozobra®. Now that would be something to riot about.

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