The caption on SFR’s Sept. 9, 1987 edition is both nostalgic and ominous: “Zozobra, Old Man Gloom, goes up in flames Friday night: Then, look out!”
The 50-foot marionette has been publicly burned in Santa Fe since its 1924 conception and has become the unofficial start of the Fiestas de Santa Fe. Ritualistically held the first weekend in September following Labor Day, with Zozobra’s annual burning, so perish Santa Feans’ woes. The Boogeyman-esque effigy is both loved and hated. Tens of thousands have chanted in unison “Burn him!” across the years. It’s the mayor’s role to dictate a death sentence amidst fire dancing and pageantry. Jubilation ensues.
Leading up to his burning, the Santa Fe New Mexican would run fictitious stories detailing “this freak of nature in human semblance’s” exploits.
Somewhere along the way, the line between fiction and reality blurred. With crowds rising alongside revelry, the burning at Fort Marcy Park was moved from Friday to Thursday evenings in the mid-90s after a fatal shooting occurred in the Plaza post-Zozo festivities.
Kiwanis Club event committee chair, Ray Sandoval, is out to change that.
“We have decided to file the permit for Zozobra for Friday, August 29,” Sandoval tells SFR. “This has come after a year of studying whether or not we should be on a Friday, and what Friday we should be on.”
Sandoval says the decision to burn Zozobra during Labor Day weekend was made with full knowledge of the Fiesta Council and taking into consideration public safety concerns.
“What we got last year was, ‘You guys did a great job; you really brought it back.’ However, the problem is that it’s not kid-friendly no matter what you do because people have to go to school on Friday mornings.”
The awkward date, he says, also handicapped Santa Fe expats from coming back to visit their families and stage school reunions the weekend after the holiday. The initiative is not new.
“Last year, when we approached the city about going back to Fiesta Friday, we said that we would study the issue and come back with a recommendation,” Sandoval says. Given last year’s flaming success—thanks to renewed emergency exit procedures, street closures and heaps of security—Sandoval considers this the time for the puppet to make its weekend return.
“One of the things that [SFPD] Chief [Ray] Rael said last year before he left was that it was almost impossible to secure the two venues—the Plaza and Fort Marcy,” Sandoval says. “We worked out a compromise where rather than trying to either close the Plaza early or mess up the Fiesta Council schedule.”
Mayor Javier Gonzales welcomes the change.
“I think that it’s timely to have a discussion in the community on moving it to Friday evenings,” Gonzales tells SFR.
He remembers driving up inside the field in a car full of cousins, armed with a bucket of KFC and taking the festivities in. “I grew up watching Zozobra on Friday nights, and I think there are a lot of people that would like to see that happen,” Gonzales says.
Sandoval thinks it’s a win-win, as the Plaza is closed that night for the installation of Labor Day Arts & Crafts Fair. Another idea to retain the crowd longer in Fort Marcy Park, Sandoval says, is the addition of a big-name headlining act or a top DJ “to allow the crowd to disperse at a slower pace.”
Sandoval and Fiesta Council president Gilbert Romero plan to request the permit from the Parks Division on Wednesday morning.
“First of all, the kid in me wants it on Friday and wants it on Fiesta Friday,” Sandoval muses, reiterating that the compromise to move the burning to the weekend prior is a good one. “It puts public safety first,” he says, “and it listens to the need of this tradition.”
If all goes well, Zozo’s move to Fridays will be a permanent one.
“I’ve had conversations with the downtown merchants, and we’re looked at as a pariah—they’re kind of afraid of this night and they just want to get it over with,” Sandoval says. “That should not be the case…this vampire has to die."