Sunday, August 5, 2012

What’s the big deal about burning a huge papier-mâché doll in the middle of Santa Fe in September?

In Chapter 15 of The Zozobra Incident, BJ Vinson describes the history and background of the Burning of Zozobra to Darrel, a black architect who has only recently arrived in New Mexico. At the end of the noisy, spectacular extravaganza, Darrel says, “Never seen anything like it. Of course, coming from Mississippi, I don’t cotton to hoods and bonfires too much.”

To which, BJ replies, “Different time, different place, different message.”

Zozobra at Dusk
How true. Zozobra’s auto-de-fe began as a light-hearted play on the Mexican folklore tradition of consigning one’s problems to Old Man Gloom to be burned up in the fire rendering the ogre into a pile of ashes. Santa Fe artist Will Shuster conducted the first Burning of Zozobra (Spanish for Anxiety) for the amusement of a group of friends in 1924. It became an annual event that outgrew the Shuster backyard and was moved to Santa Fe’s plaza. Eventually, it became such a huge event it had to be shifted to its present location, Fort Marcy Park. Somewhere along the way, it became the opening event of the Santa Fe Fiesta on the Thursday following Labor Day of each year. Great…but what is the significance of the Santa Fe Fiesta?

Last week, we looked at the Province of Santa Fé de Nuevo México, the Pueblo Revolt against Spanish rule led by the Tewa spiritual and political leader, Po’Pay, and the significance of that revolution. Po’Pay seems to have gotten the tip of the historical hat when he ended up as one of two significant figures honored by New Mexico in the US Statuary Hall in Washington.

But the doughy Don, Diego de Vargas, who retook the province with an army of around 160 soldiers and pro-Spanish warriors in 1692, wasn’t to be forgotten. In 1712 the Marquis de Peñuelo, the governor of New Spain, staged the Santa Fe Fiesta as a celebration to mark the re-conquest of the city and province. The grand affair has been going on ever since. As BJ says to Darrel, “They say that makes it the oldest civic celebration in North America.”

Zozobra Burning
I first attended the burning with my two sons around 1970. At that time, it had the air of a big community picnic with some 2,000 or so spectators sitting on the grass and talking to neighbors and newly-discovered friends. There was no security, no angst about getting through a checkpoint with whining wands designed to discover if you had weapons hidden on your person. We wandered down to the huge puppet and stuffed pieces of paper spelling out what we considered our problems of the moment. My boys didn’t confide what woes they consigned to Zozobra’s skirts.

As a sign of the times, last year, gaining entry to Ft. Marcy Park was something akin to boarding a crowded aircraft rumored to be the target of a terrorist bomb plot. Zozobra, all fifty feet of him, was mounted on some steps it was impractical to climb, so your cares and woes were scribbled on pieces of paper and taken to the Old Man by staff of the Santa Fe New Mexican. For me, these changes leach some of the fun out of the event, but apparently 30 or 40 thousand people disagree with me each year. They continue to come: the Hispanics to celebrate victory, the Anglos to have a party, and the Native Americans to show they’re big enough to accept the verdict of history.

Next: Let’s take a look at Albuquerque.

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