SANTA FE, N.M. — Ray Sandoval thought it would be a good idea to move the burning of Zozobra to the Friday before Labor Day, and the decision seems to be paying off.
The organizer for the 92nd annual burning said he expects from 45,000 to 50,000 people to show up at Fort Marcy park tonight, dwarfing the estimated 18,000 that showed up in 2012, the year before Sandoval took over one of Santa Fe’s most beloved events. Last year’s ritual drew in a record 48,000 revelers.
The burning is now in its third year on the Friday before Labor Day, instead of the Thursday before the Fiestas de Santa Fe, because Sandoval wanted to entice people to come for the three-day weekend.
“Putting it on a holiday weekend was a good thing,” Sandoval said. “We wanted to make sure people came back to enjoy Zozobra.”
Sandoval won’t know this year’s attendance until some time after the event. He said that a drone will fly over the crowd just before lights go out and will takes several photos. Those photos are then run through a computer program that does over a million computations, he says, and takes about 24 hours to kick out an attendance estimate. He said they never go by ticket sales because they give so many away to various organizations, and kids under 10 get in free.
Sandoval said Zozobra was once one of Santa Fe’s best-kept secrets, but he said social media has helped interest and awareness explode. This year, people from as far away as Japan and Australia bought tickets.
“People are really finding out about Zozobra,” Sandoval said. “Humans love fire and we all have regrets that we want to leave in the past. Those two characteristics are a huge draw for people. We hear so many stories about bad stuff happening in the world.”
The big fella will sport a slick comb-over and pointy, bat-like ears this year. Sandoval said Will Shuster, who created the event when he burned a much smaller figure in his back yard in 1924, used fabric for the hair in the 1940s, so The Santa Fe Kiwanis Club, which inherited the event from Shuster in 1964, is using fabric this year to honor that.
One hand will point at the fire dancer, the arch nemesis who sets the old man ablaze, while the other hand will have all five fingers out in an attempt to swat the dancer. Zozobra is now in the third year of the Decades Project, which will feature an Old Man Gloom from every decade each year until the 100th anniversary in 2024.
Although Zozobra is arguably the biggest party in Santa Fe, the biggest problem for law enforcement during the event isn’t illegal drug or alcohol use, but rather lost children. That’s why Santa Fe police officers are going to have a booth set up near Old Taos Highway and Paseo de Peralta, where officers can give a child a bracelet with an ID number so they can match them with their parents. Capt. James Lamb said officers will take a photo of the child so they know whom to look for when a parent reports them missing.
Lamb said public intoxication is a minor problem and people caught smoking marijuana are asked to “put it out or get rid of it.” People who cross the line and need to be detained are taken to a temporary holding facility at the nearby city fire station. Lamb said officers also have the option of giving marijuana smokers a civil citation, but they mainly try to keep the peace.
“We try the best we can to not disturb the event,” Lamb said.
Lamb said the burning typically goes on with few incidents because of all the planning that goes into it. He said planning for the next year happens almost immediately after the last event – they start having meetings about it in January. He said one public safety emphasis is having barricades so no one in a car starts running people down.
“Our concern is mixing vehicles and pedestrians,” he said. “We don’t want something like what happened in (Nice) France.”
One major change this year is that patrons will be able to enter Fort Marcy only through Old Taos Highway, since Bishops Lodge Road will be used only for emergency vehicles, Lamb said. He also said Cross of the Martyrs will be closed and patrolled by police so no one goes up there. Beer bottles, drug paraphernalia and other trash are often found at that scenic spot after Zozobra. “We’ve just had too many issues there,” Lamb said. “We just decided it would be easier to close it.”
There will be free bus fare on all city routes after 5 p.m. today, and Uber will offer a $15 credit with the code “ZOZOBRA2016.” Uber drivers will drop passengers off at Paseo de Peralta and Washington Avenue. Lamb said drinking and driving hasn’t been an issue in the past, and, when it is, it’s from people who are partying downtown or elsewhere afterward.
Regardless of what some bad eggs might do, Lamb and Sandoval just hope the community can come together for one night and get rid of the gloom. The growth in attendance will bring in a lot of newcomers – newcomers who might think it’s strange to ritualistically burn a 50’6″ marionette, but Sandoval said it will all make sense quickly.
“It’s kind of cool, but at the same time it’s something that’s weird,” Sandoval said. “My response is that we’re the City Different, and we do things differently. The idea of cleansing yourself finally kicks in, and the DNA of the person takes over, and they forget it. It’s something they grasp really quickly.”