What, or Who, Is Zozobra?
The Burning of Zozobra is a unique cultural event in Santa Fe staged annually by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe on the Friday of Labor Day weekend as an exciting and fiery finale to the last days of summer.
The History of Zozobra
Artist William Howard “Will” Shuster, Jr. created the first Zozobra in 1924 as the signature highlight of a private party for Los Cinco Pintores, a group of artists and writers who made their way to New Mexico in the 1920s. He was inspired by Easter Holy Week traditions in the Yaqui Indian communities of Arizona and Mexico, in which an effigy of Judas is led around the village on a donkey and ultimately set alight. Shuster and his friend, E. Dana Johnson, editor of the local newspaper, came up with the name Zozobra, which in Spanish means “anguish, anxiety, or gloom.”
Shuster’s creation first burned in his backyard in 1924 as a 6-foot effigy, and over the years, has grown to a towering 50-foot high marionette. Made of wood, wire and cotton cloth and stuffed with bushels of shredded paper, which traditionally includes obsolete police reports, paid-off mortgages, and even divorce papers, Zozobra is a dark and eerie character, part ghost and part monster. Since those early days, the people of Santa Fe, families, and friends new and old, have annually made their way to Fort Marcy Park, a few blocks from the historic Santa Fe Plaza, to view this one-of-a-kind Labor Day Friday pageant.
Shuster personally oversaw the construction of the Zozobra figure until 1964, when he gave his detailed model and an archive of drawings and scripts to the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe for their successful continuation of this historic tradition.
In an interview, Shuster commented on one reason for his continuing interest in producing the annual Zozobra show:
“… the look in the youngsters’ faces as they saw this monster who might have stepped out of a fairy tale go up in smoke. That is a reason for Zozobra. He appeals to the childish fancy – in all of us. It is a scene from a fairy tale of our own making.
A gigantic wood, wire and cloth effigy, Zozobra is one of the world’s largest functioning marionettes, able to wave his arms and move his head, using his mouth to growl ominously prior to meeting his demise. His arch-enemy, the Fire Spirit, dressed in a flowing red costume and headdress, is armed with a pair of blazing torches with which to end Zozobra’s reign of terror. The role of the Fire Spirit was originated by Jacques Cartier, former New York City ballet dancer and local dance teacher, who performed for an amazing 37 years. Cartier was succeeded by one of his students, James Lilienthal, who took over the Fire Spirit role in 1970, performing it for over 30 years and passing the role on to his daughter. Today, this coveted role is held by Santa Fe native, dancer Helene Luna.
Cartier talked about his experience over years spent as the Fire Dancer. “It damn near killed me half a dozen times,” he said, “and I even broke both my ankles; thank God, not at the same time.” Cartier noted that, “The idea of Zozobra grew out of a gang of Santa Fe deep-thinkers who met in something called ‘Society of Quien Sabe.’ They met once a month and membership was based on how well you could tell yarns.”
The First Zozobra
A description of the first public burning of Zozobra appeared in the September 2, 1926, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican:
“Following vespers at the Cathedral, a long procession headed by the Conquistadores Band marched to the vacant space back of the City Hall, where Zozobra, a hideous effigy figure, 20 feet high, produced by the magic wand of Will Shuster, stood in ghastly silence, illuminated by weird, green fires. While the band played a funeral march, a group of Kiwanians in black robes and hoods stole around the figure, with four others seated before the green fires.”
When City Attorney, Jack Kennedy (on behalf of the absent Mayor), solemnly uttered the death sentence of Zozobra (with Isadoro Armijo as interpreter) and fired several revolver shots at the monster, the green fires changed to red, the surrounding ring of bonfires were ignited, red fires blazed at the foot of the figure, and a match was applied to its base, the fire leaping into a column of many colored flames.
As it burned, and the encircling fires blazed brighter, there was a staccato of exploding fireworks from the figure and round about. Throwing off their black robes, the spectators emerged in gala costume, joining an invading army of bright-hued harlequins with torches in a dance around the fires, as the band struck up “La Cucaracha.” The crowd then marched back between bonfires lining the streets to the armory and the big baile was on. It brought out the biggest crowd of native merrymakers seen here for years.”
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe became officially involved with Zozobra in 1963, and on June 19, 1964, Shuster assigned all rights, title and interest in Zozobra and retains exclusive copyright and trademark to the figure. The Kiwanis Club has faithfully continued the Zozobra tradition, and as the Club’s major fund raiser, the event has become a rewarding way for Santa Fesinos and visitors from around the globe to have fun and at the same time, participate in valuable community service.
A little known fact in the history of the burning of Zozobra is that the old grouch has an elusive and equally grouchy cousin, Tio Coco, whom he summons to attend parties when he is unable or unwilling to make an appearance. Tio Coco was first introduced in 1940 at the behest of Warner Bros. Studios for the premiere of the movie “The Santa Fe Trail,” starring Errol Flynn, Olivia De Haviland and Ronald Reagan. Tio Coco was invited by his cousin Zozobra to appear again at the special guest for the Convention of the Southwest District of Kiwanis International.