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santa Fe native shares Zozobra legend

What began as one man venting his frustrations almost 100 years ago has become a personal and sacred tradition for New Mexicans, particularly those from Santa Fe.

“We call it the Zozobra bug and once you get bitten by it, there’s nothing like it. You have to burn a 50-foot marionette to try to get over it,” Santa Fe Kiwanis Club member

Raymond Sandoval said to a room full of laughter Monday.

There were not just students attending Monday afternoon at the Eastern New Mexico University Campus Union Building for Sandoval’s presentation on the Burning of the Zozobra, which has taken place on Labor Day weekend in Santa Fe for 92 years now.

“We really don’t talk about all the goodness Zozobra does for our community,” Sandoval told his audience. “There’s something primal about bringing everyone together and symbolically burning your worries away; but at the same time, Zozobra actually funds $100,000 worth of scholarships and non-profit work in the city of Santa Fe.”

Sandoval said many don’t know that the proceeds from the Zozobra burning go back into the community, particularly to children with the proceeds having provided Santa Fe fourth-graders with dictionaries at one time. This year, the burning is supporting a campaign to combat hunger.

The burning of the Zozobra was conceived in 1924 by artist Will Shuster, said Sandoval.

While having a few too many drinks at a downtown bar in Santa Fe during Christmas time, Shuster decided that people were far too gloomy. So he handed out napkins to everyone, asking them to write down what was bothering them on the napkin.

Shuster then decided to burn all of the napkins.

“After the napkins had burned, he declared that everyone’s worry and their gloom was gone,” Sandoval said.

And the rest was history.

While in Mexico the following spring, Shuster witnessed the burning of a statue of Judas in a city, and inspiration struck him further.

“He decided to marry these two ideas, the idea that you could burn away gloom and you could do it in a figure that the community could decide that they hated, and so, he came up with Zozobra (called Old Man Groucher back then),” Sandoval said of Shuster.

Sandoval said Zozobra’s look has changed over time with the figure becoming more goblin looking over time as well as growing over time with Zozobra having started at 8 feet tall in 1924 and having grown to 50 feet tall today.

The marionette now also moves its arms and mouth and makes noise, according to Sandoval.

Area resident Geni Flores, who attended the presentation, shared with those gathered the memories her mother had shared with her about Zozobra. She said her mother told her that during World War II in the 1940s, people could not have bright lights or build large fires due to fear of attracting enemy fire.

“So they couldn’t have a big display of Zozobra and a fire, because that was too dangerous at the time,” Flores said. “So they built a Japanese Zozobra about 5-feet tall and put him on a wagon and took him to the plaza in downtown Santa Fe and just had a little fire there.”

Sandoval said it is also tradition for people to bring items they want burned to the Kiwanis Club, which runs the Zozobra event.

He said he has had everything from a wedding album to a hospital gown given to him for the burning.

Sandoval said the most touching article he was ever given to burn was the hospital gown.

It was given to him by a woman who was diagnosed with cancer; she was told by doctors her hospital gown was the last garment she would ever wear. After going into remission, the woman wanted the gown burned at the Zozobra burning.

“It means a lot to a lot of people, who symbolically get this,” Sandoval said. “What’s so amazing about Zozobra is that even though you’re in a crowd of 40,000 people burning this huge effigy, it’s still a very personal experience, because each one of us knows exactly what it is in our life that we want to symbolically leave behind or regret or something you want to leave behind.”


©2015 The Portales News-Tribune (Clovis, N.M.)

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