Friday, September 6, 2013

Pasa Tiempo -- And So To Zozobra... Finally.

2012 Burning of Zozobra, video posted to YouTube by Luke Fitch

2013 Burning of Zozobra, video posted by the Santa Fe New Mexican

Last night, among tens of thousands of other revelers, we hiked up to Fort Marcy Park above Santa Fe's Old Town for the singular experience of the 89th Annual Burning of (Will Shuster's) Zozobra, the fitting kick off to the final weekend of the  301st Annual Fiesta de Santa Fe, and like so many others at the event, we said "goodbye to care."

This was our first attendance at the Burning of Zozobra, as always before when we might have gone other matters intervened and we couldn't. Many -- many -- years ago we inadvertently attended the Entrada portion of Fiesta when we happened to be in the Plaza of Santa Fe as the re-enactors of the Conquistadores arrived on their horses with banners flying, settlers and refugees in tow, to symbolically reclaim the City Different from the uppity Indians who had driven them out in 1680. Little did we know...

The Entrada (actually wouldn't that be Re-Entrada?) was quite a spectacle, but it was far too solemn compared to the mockery of Fiesta and its solemnity that takes place up on the hill beforehand.

Zozobra is the product of one of the more humor oriented members of Santa Fe's artist colony in the 1920's, Will Shuster, whose other works are highly prized today, but none of them have the sheer brilliance of Zozobra.

Zozobra is a giant marionette, 40 or 50 feet high, strung from a crane and operated by wires and willing string-pullers, whose presence -- and burning -- every year since 1924 has enabled first the artists and then the People of Santa Fe to bid good bye to the cares that have troubled them throughout the previous year -- or whenever...

As we assembled on the lawn before the spectacle, the man next to me struck up a conversation as people in New Mexico are wont to do. He wondered where I was from, and I told him. He asked if this was the first time I'd been to "the burning of that mutha-fucker," and I said yes. He said he'd come to Santa Fe for the first time in 2002, right out of federal prison, and he looked to "the burning of that mutha-fucker" as the means of getting rid of the pain of his incarceration. I thought, "Well, isn't that special."

He was kind of drunk and talkative, and we chatted through the later preparations, after the lights went out, for doing the fiery deed. There is a pageant, you see, to get the crowd ready for what is to come. The little ones, the Gloomies, they're called, assemble and dance on the terrace over which Zozobra towers, and then they descend the stairs below his voluminous skirts and non-existing feet and they dance some more before disappearing as the torch bearers line up along the lower terrace, dancing in solemn majesty with enormous flaming torches before lighting the bonfires in front of them. Zozobra commences to moan.

Shortly a costumed character -- who strongly resembles Stravinsky's Firebird -- emerges and dances on the steps in front of Zozobra, as the giant marionette becomes animated and loudly protests with moans and groans and flapping toothless gums.

Fireworks explode all around and fly into the sky. Curtains of flame fall from the wires that hold up the ogre. His moans and groans intensify. The crowd cheers lustily, chanting "Burn him! Burn him! Burn him now!" as smoke and sparks envelop the creature, and then it happens.

It's as if a bomb went off in or near his head. Flames consume his sleeves and arms and hands and his head and mouth and eyes belch yellow and red. Even as far away as we are, we can feel the heat as more flames race up his skirts and momentarily the entire figure is wrapped in fire. More fireworks explode, and the creature's moans cease. For the 89th time, Zozobra meets his fate.

Suddenly, the entire construction collapses in a huge bonfire, and the crowd goes wild. Fireworks fill the sky as the bonfire that was Zozobra burns lustily on its platform. People start leaving -- as my new friend and his girlfriend soon did -- because getting out of the festival area will be something of a challenge for those who hesitate; there are only four narrow bridges across a ravine to handle the crush of spectators headed back to their homes or their cars after the release of care represented by the Burning of (Will Shuster's) Zozobra before a crowd of tens of thousands of (mostly) Santa Feans, for whom this particular event is one of their secret pleasures.

It's a very picturesque and paganesque ritual, after all, one that evokes similar events from many places around the world and one that is often frightening to children. They have to go to school the next day, after all, and tell what they saw the night before: "There was this giant man and he was burned to ashes and everybody cheered and said 'good riddance!' and they were happy, and I don't know why, this giant didn't do anything to them. Did he?"

Despite his fearsomeness, there is a lingering sense of innocence about Zozobra. He was never so mean as those who cheered his demise. Was he?

Not knowing any better, children do ask. The question of whether empathy is appropriate for Zozobra is almost never asked by adults, adults who look forward to this annual catharsis in Santa Fe.

The Burning of Zozobra is not like Burning Man in the Nevada desert at all, despite the similarity of some of the rituals and the crowds. While there is plenty of spectacle involved in both events, Zozobra's scale is much more intimate. You are amid tens of thousands of friends and family some or many of whom you encounter year-round. They're your neighbors, colleagues at work and school, people you've known all your life, even though in some cases you've just met.

"Do you live in Santa Fe?" I get asked all the time. "No, I live about 45 minutes out of town." "Oh, but you're local just the same."

Yes, I guess so.

There were hippies there, lots of hippies it seemed to me, most of them as young as I was when I was a hippie, and not reconstructed, either, not even the older ones. Wait, I thought for a minute, how can this be? Hippies, appearing in no particular way different than the images I still have in my head of the Haight when time was? Have I slipped via a wormhole into another dimension? Good heavens.

There were lots of what seemed to be gay couples, too, which was appropriate due to the recent lifting on the bans against gay-marrying in Santa Fe County and many other New Mexico counties as well (some county clerks are being stalwart hold outs, but for how much longer is anybody's guess. This, the most Catholic of US states, seems to be embracing same sex marriage with barely a qualm.)

There were many family groups as well as assorted groups of young people out for the evening with their friends. There were fewer older people than I expected, though while we were waiting for the festivities to begin, a group of middle-aged and older Hispanic women (along with a few younger Hispanic men) set up camp behind us and were chattering away about this and that, quite amusingly I thought. They had purchased their dinners of roasted corn and "Big Ass Turkey Legs," Navajo tacos and horchata to drink at the very popular and crowded food carts over across the way. In fact, it seemed that practically everybody came to Zozobra having not had their dinner beforehand. They wanted the delicious offerings of "state fair food" that were available last night.

Most of the older people who were there were Anglos, though there were a few older Indians and Hispanics as well. There were, I thought, a surprising number of Indians in attendance, and when I pointed this out, Ms Ché said, "Well, what else are you going to do on a Thursday night?" Although the Burning of Zozobra is the kick off to the Fiesta de Santa Fe which celebrates the "bloodless" re-conquest of Santa Fe and New Mexico from the perfidious savages, there is little about the burning that signifies a specifically "Hispanic" event. Even Fiesta itself is not entirely a Hispanic celebration. To the Indians, it's not a celebration at all, of course. Indians see Fiesta as a tragedy.

The point of Zozobra is release from gloom, and so, as part of the festivities, participants and spectators are encouraged to write down whatever is making them gloomy -- this year's top item was war and rumors of war -- and place their offerings in a Gloom Box which would in turn be put inside Zozobra to be burned along with him. And sure enough, the fire cleansed the crowd of their multiplicity of glooms.

My new friend, who said he'd first come to Santa Fe in 2002 and was attending Zozobra to lift the gloom he still sometimes felt from being a prisoner so long ago, told me that being there and watching his gloom be burned away in the rubble of Zozobra was a release, liberating. When the deed was done, he was glad, and he could go home feeling cleansed.

Many others left the scene cheerful and full of positive spirit. As we made our way through Santa Fe's' Plaza area toward our parked car, we felt were among friends and family, most of whom we'd never met of course, nor would we ever actually meet them, but with whom we felt kinship nevertheless.

We can spend hours considering the deeper meaning of it all, but in the end, we were brought together for the purpose of release from gloom.

And so it would be.

Below is a video of an hour long documentary made in 2000 about Zozobra including much archived footage and the history of Zozobra as told by many of the early participants as well as documents from Will Shuster himself.

[Someday, we may post some of our own pictures and videos from last night as well...]

ADDING: What I left unsaid yesterday was my impression that the Burning of Zozobra, like other, similar spectacles, is ultimately a symbolic lynch-mob scene, and therefore has many aspects that can (and apparently at one time did) lead to more than a little actual violence and mayhem.

After all, the National Guard was called out one year to put down the "Zozobra Riots" that afflicted Santa Fe, and there have been a number of other unfortunate incidents during or following the Burning. So many, they say, that the whole event is now infested with police, both uniformed and undercover, throughout the event site and all over the Downtown area, to prevent trouble. The Burn Day was changed from Friday to Thursday several years ago in an effort to curb the mischief and lower the murder rate associated with Zozobra.

It's not as clean an neat an "artistic" affair, in other words, as its advocates have long made it out to be. There is a dark undercurrent....

The lynch-mob mentality is never all that far from the surface in America, and its history is long and dreadful. When Zozobra was inaugurated back in the '20's, lynching and the mobs that went with it, were relatively commonplace and were accepted by many Americans as righteous and worthy. I wouldn't ascribe bad intent to the artists who originated the Zozobra event, nor do I think the Kiwanis who took it over in 1962 have a malicious intent in keeping it going. Yet I can't help wondering...

One thing I noticed was that hardly any of the people I saw at the Burning were what one might call los ricos de Santa Fe. It's an upper stratum of Santa Fe society that carries on a very active social life -- well apart from that of the gente or el pueblo. They don't do things or mix with the commoners, in other words. At least not if they can avoid it. Zozobra is by its very nature something they would avoid. At the same time, according to reports, they conduct private Zozobra parties, probably privately burning their own "cares" as it were, out of view of the masses, and engaging in doG knows what sort of pagan rituals...

Children are the ones who ask, "Why are you burning this giant? What did he do to you to deserve to be burned?" because children are the ones for whom justice truly matters. How do you explain that the giant isn't real, and the giant didn't do anything to us to deserve his fate. He is a scapegoat, an image of the Boogeyman, and his annual burning is symbolic, that's all.

Isn't it?

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