Over the years, Zozobra has had many looks: a pencil mustache, a black comb-over, pointy, elf-like ears, a grandmotherly coif (think short and permed), bulbous lips that bring to mind the likes of Steven Tyler, a revolving door of eyebrow configurations (all of them more or less angry). But the long and short of it is, we know what to expect when it comes to Zozo’s appearance: a belted white frock with buttons running down the center, a bow tie, glowing eyes and some very strange hand gestures. Zozobra is and isn’t formulaic, a caricature not of anyone in particular, it would seem, except for that ambiguous non-being, “Old Man Gloom.” In that way, Zozobra shares the same vague category of Burning Man’s “The Man.” Still, I’ve always circled back to the same question: What exactly is Zozobra?
I haven't been since college. Then, the event felt like a smoke-filled haze, chants of "burn him" shaking Fort Marcy Park. Effigies have that effect. They are infused with the collective energy of "the people," united by their dislike for a particular (and typically) political and politically divisive figure. Effigies of Donald Trump in Mexico City's Easter Celebration have burned two years running, not to mention the countless piñatas that bear comb-overs and spray tans even more ghastly than the originals. Enrique Peña-Nieto hasn't escaped symbolic immolation either. And when Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke, anti-Thatcher activists lit her likeness on fire in South Yorkshire.
For better or worse, effigies make the particular abstract, and in the process do what politics can't: enact a collective and symbolic catharsis. But who is the "him" for Zozobra?
Gloom and the past, yes. Perhaps former lovers, too? POTUS? Bad employers? Bad employees? A blank slate for everyone's respective projections? A reason to party? All of the above? I mean, there aren't anti-Zozobra activists like there are anti-Trump activists. The giant marionette is supposed to be gloom itself (who can forget the moans?) made manifest with old divorce papers and police files, as well as the grievances that attendees can write on-site. Once there was even a wedding dress that went up in flames. He is a reason to say goodbye to the past with friends, family and strangers by your side.
At least commercially, the burning of Zozobra is the kick-off event for Fiestas; when he succumbs to the fire dancer and burns into a pile of ash, "the crowd dances joyfully as they sing the Fiesta Song, and the centuries-old Fiestas de Santa Fe return to bring happiness and hope to the people of Santa Fe," as the event's website (burnzozobra.com) tells it. It's certainly a rosy way of describing a marionette, part monster part ghost, that gets burned to the ground. But so it goes.
Or does it? There's a strange plot twist, here; Zozobra kicks off the reenactment of Santa Fe's self-styled (and deeply questionable) origin story, DeVargas' "peaceful" re-entry into Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt. And while Fiestas have been celebrated since DeVargas' death in the opening years of the 18th century, it was Edgar Lee Hewett, a non-Spanish identifying white archeologist, midwesterner and Museum of New Mexico founder, along with a handful of tourism boosters, who first initiated the Entrada in 1919.
Hewett is one thing. And so is the Entrada, a blatant whitewashing of history. But Zozobra's strange place in Fiestas is one of those paradoxes that's hard to ignore once recognition hits. Zozobra's burning rids us of the gloom of the recent past only to take us further back in time. The result is that we land in an era of invented Spanish colonialism, the 20th century. In that, the giant muslin-rigged marionette shares his birth with the birth of Santa Fe's collective "Spanish" identity. Constructed in 1924 by transplant artist Will Shuster, the earliest Zozobra took the form of a conquistador replete with a goatee, his first appearance a parody of Fiestas and the Entrada.
Since that time, Zozobra has gained a reputation as Santa Fe's most beloved (and goofy) antihero, save for his role in 1943, the height of WWII. Then, Zozobra was fashioned by Shuster into a caricature that appeared to recall Hideki Tojo, general of the Japanese Imperial Army and Prime Minister of Japan from 1941 to 1944. With exaggerated facial features and a pair of round spectacles, this particular Zozobra was nothing short of racism fueled by xenophobia and hyper-nationalism. It was also more broadly reflective of wartime propaganda.
As we march toward Zozo's 100th birthday, with celebrations of individual decades along the way(it's the 1950s this year), it's clear that he's worn a few different hats. Now, mostly it seems Zozobra is just himself, a mix of pageantry and pyrotechnics.