Zozobra & Me: Performance and Place at the Santa Fe Fiesta

“Burn him! Burn him!” overwhelms the chanting of “Viva la Fiesta!” These chants are accompanied by numerous screams and cheers as the audience’s voices crescendo. A torch illuminates the larger-than-life effigy, which becomes barely visible as the fire twirls and taunts Old Man Gloom. The fire dancer sets him alight, and a huge display of fireworks fills the sky. His mouth moves open and closed as his moaning reverberates through loudspeakers. Every fall in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a 51-foot marionette named Zozobra goes up in flames.

Zozobra represents the freeing of the past year’s gloom, which is released in the burning of the effigy. This process begins with its construction, a three-week-long community effort leading to the public event in Santa Fe. Even children are taken to see it on field trips where they contribute letters or documents of their choosing to the jumble of recycled paper, shredded police reports, divorce papers, even news stories. The gloom is intended to be both individual and collective, an event for anyone to join. That is, everyone except Zozobra, the scapegoat, who—myth has it—wears a tux because he has been invited to a Santa Fe party in his honor but comes down from the mountain only to be captured, sentenced to death, and burned. Friday will be the 93rd Zozobra.

The author's sister next to a Zozobra piñata. Photo by Leslie Lakind.

The author’s sister next to a Zozobra piñata. Photo by Leslie Lakind.

My relationship with Zozobra began before I could walk. When I was younger, I would watch Zozobra burn while seated on top of a bus known as the “hippie bus,” an apposite name for a van painted with swirling colors and smelling of marijuana. Overlooking thousands of people gathered in a park just north of downtown, I could see the effigy on a high bank. Sitting atop parents’ shoulders, babies everywhere burst into tears as Zozobra ignited.  As a kid, I remember my anxiety subsiding just in time to open my eyes and catch the end, the sky filled with bright lights. This event became rooted in my calendar, as important as any holiday celebrated during my upbringing. It was part of my being, a myth that informs who I am, and an annual reaffirmation of my identity as a Santa Fean.

In Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach theorizes how place is created out of the process of remembering. According to Roach, time and space are connected through memories, and our sense of place is repeatedly shaped and channeled through performances and their use of symbols. Moreover, identity—formed through participation in, and repetition of, cultural activities—is bound to memory. Our lives come to have meaning through the symbolic, such as the witnessing of a memorable image or experience associated with an event. We use the word witness to connote an action that is more than just the physical act of looking. The distinction is often made between looking and seeing, between listening and hearing. Every year, I was actively involved with Zozobra’s symbol, witnessing it burn. Zozobra became an evocative entry into Santa Fe’s site-specific customs. Participating year after year, through my actions and experiences, I constructed memories. These memories are part of the imagery I use to define myself, a patchwork of pictures, feelings, and associations with this tradition.

Two young girls in blue dresses stand outside a house holding up a large white Zozobra pinata.

The author (right) and her sister with their Zozobra piñata. Photo by Leslie Lakind.

Zozobra’s Place in the Santa Fe Fiesta

Zozobra is also a dynamic illustration of the changes New Mexico has undergone via Anglo migration. Anglo is the homogenous term used locally for white, non-Hispanic residents. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, Anglo migrants reshaped Santa Fe. Northern New Mexico became a magnet for predominantly white middle class ranchers, military and government personnel, and artists, like Zozobra’s creator Will Shuster, who were attracted by the sunny, dry climate, among other features. Shuster moved to Santa Fe from Philapelphia after doctors prescribed the dry air of New Mexico. Zozobra is reflective of these newcomers: it is neither Catholic nor Hispano; nonetheless, it kicks off the Santa Fe Fiesta.

The Fiesta is a tradition honoring Spanish conquistadors, specifically Don Diego de Vargas, who led an expedition to re-conquer Santa Fe in 1662. When people from across the Rio Grande Pueblo region refused to acquiesce to Spanish rule, De Vargas presented an ultimatum: either they submit or undergo attack. The history of Spanish presence in New Mexico is marked by violence. Fiesta, however, erases this history and venerates the Spaniards by honoring the diplomacy of De Vargas during this event by praising it as peaceful. Over time, the tone and intention of the ceremony has changed, but De Vargas’s “peaceful re-conquest” is still the dominant story told during the Santa Fe Fiesta.

Lots of people stand in a line under a tent while several kneel toward each other in the middle of the street. Zozobra was not yet part of the rituals of the Santa Fe Fiesta.

The 1921 performance of the De Vargas’s “peaceful re-conquest” of New Mexico. Photo by Albert Fagerberg.

In the early 1900s, Shuster was drawn to the celebratory elements of Fiesta. Yet he also thought he could improve on the ways Fiesta had become “dull and commercialized.” A group of newcomers asked the Fiesta Council to interject some fun, but the Council was uninterested in their ideas. So, they created a counter-event. Shuster didn’t want to erase Fiesta, but he wanted to transform it to include his desires. Inspired by a Holy Week celebration from the Río Yaqui in Mexico where the Yaqui burned an effigy of Judas on a donkey, Shuster created his own effigy. Zozobra’s humble 15-foot beginnings began at a private backyard party in 1924. Shuster’s party garnered attention, and by 1926 he was asked by the Fiesta Council to make it public. Shuster may have created Zozobra as an outsider, but he was officially integrated into Fiesta and, consequently, became a Santa Fe legend.

Zozobra provides a point of entry for newcomers to participate in a Santa Fe performance. Indeed, for me, it was always easier to participate in Zozobra rather than in the Fiesta pageant because of the latter’s ties to Catholicism (as I am not Christian) and to a violent colonial history that is both difficult to process and not something I deliberately celebrate. Zozobra’s official incorporation enabled people like me, the non-Hispano migrants, to participate in Fiesta in a completely different way. I have come to see Zozobra importance to Santa Fe as a spectacle, as defined by Guy Debord: “a social relation among people, mediated by images.” It produced social interactions that would otherwise not have taken place. These types of performances and shared events can provide audiences with a spirit of togetherness, even if the feeling can be fleeting (as is the case in organized sports). The concept of ridding oneself of gloom is meant to be universal, making the symbol of Zozobra accessible. The cheering (like the suffering the audience is intended to purge) belongs to everybody who attends. This openness in concept invited me in and provided me with a way to participate.

Zozobra, a 50-foot effigy, with its arms raised burns against a black background.

Engulfed in flames, Zozobra looks eerily down on the spectators. Photo by nicolicreer, September, 2012.

As an audience member at Fiesta, I wasn’t positioned as an outsider, but rather as an active participant through the performance of Zozobra. While the Fiesta Court was comprised of Hispana beauty queens who performed their reenactment of De Vargas’s conquest, the plaza was also filled with music and booths; people shopped for jewelry, ate, and danced. At Zozobra, crowds poured in early to buy glow sticks, roasted corn, and Navajo tacos. The foods I ate at these events were one way to repeat the tradition, and my body remembers the sensations and tastes them as familiar and known. Even though my family didn’t make corn or Navajo tacos at home, they became part of my identity eating them year after year. This is not to say that I identify with being Navajo—as if that is a self-contained, self-aware, and self-stable cohesive identity—but rather that my identity is continually forming in responses to my experiences, constructed from sensations, feelings, and encounters. The “taste” of Santa Fe is unique and composed of intermingling histories, cultures, and materials. Remembering also happens in the body. Eating roasted corn, Navajo tacos (and, of course, green chile) has co-formed who I am, the multiple identities I inhabit. We come to understand ourselves through a process of affiliation and interaction with others and our environment.

Reflecting on Performance and Identity

Over the course of the 20th century, the performance of Fiesta did not disappear. Rather, it underwent a transformation to accommodate the incoming Anglo population. In cultural encounters, loss of prior ways of life is not evenly distributed among the various parties. The population shifts in Santa Fe led to acculturation. Unlike concepts like assimilation, which can imply an erasure of past customs and identities, acculturation implies that, in situations of encounter, cultures mesh. Instead of one dominant culture overriding another, some prior cultural repertoires are lost alongside some gain and enrichment of culture. Zozobra, a paradigmatic example of acculturation, is both new and tied to the past. Zozobra illuminates how cultures have been amalgamated, and in turn, have conjured something new. Importantly, Fiesta and Zozobra are not two separate events for two separate audiences, nor did one event erase the other. Instead, the city sponsors both. While Zozobra stands outside of the historical re-telling of the original Fiesta, its position within Fiesta calls into question Zozobra’s separation from the re-telling. As an attendee of Zozobra, I am not sure I can refuse ownership of the history that is being commemorated in Fiesta. In attending Zozobra (which is part of Fiesta) both have become tangled in my past; I am affiliated with all aspects of Santa Fe Fiesta even if I only partake in some.

Reflecting on our relationship to place is part of a process of untidying the narratives, seeing history as contradictory, messy, and full or ruptures.

Reflecting on Zozobra, it’s easy for me to problematize the celebration of De Vargas’ conquest. Yet, Zozobra’s insertion begs the question: How might both these rituals of theatrical re-creation be detrimental? It seems possible that a cathartic event like Zozobra, an act of releasing worry while experiencing a feeling of togetherness, might purge the need to resolve issues of dominance that persist in New Mexico. Or, that participating in Zozobra and feeling connected to Fiesta risks affirmation of a reductive or romanticized notion of multiculturalism, harmony, and unity. Diana Taylor, performance studies scholar and Founding Director of the Hemispheric Institute, asks pointedly, if “theatrical re-creation is not the ultimate form of violence, nullifying the possibility of real action?” When I am home in Santa Fe, I feel belonging and ownership of place. Yet, coming from an East Coast family, I am constantly figuring out which parts to claim. In claiming Zozobra, I necessarily take responsibility for the complex layers of settler colonialism past and present. It is a risky endeavor to be open to an identity-in-formation, full of internal incoherence and conflicts. Yet, maybe within these contradictions are openings to forge connections and build coalitions.

The light of sunset bathes a church at the end of a one-story commercial strip.

Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Kent Kanouse, August 2011.

Zozobra’s incorporation into Fiesta provided newcomers with a ritual that became a tradition, shifting their role in Fiesta from spectator to participant. The participants at Fiesta are not experiencing the re-conquest, but in retelling it, the spectator witnesses the event, which forms and reforms the city’s sense of its past and its present. In Danya Al-Saleh and Heather Rosenfeld’s Edge Effects interview with geographer Laura Pulido, they discuss how cities wrestle with foundational racial violence. It is common to erase, forget, or re-narrate difficult pasts. Reflecting on, and complicating, our relationship to place is part of a process of untidying the narratives, seeing history as contradictory, messy, and full or ruptures. There are no distinct lines between Zozobra and the Fiesta pageant, both are part of Santa Fe. Likewise, I will always be both distinctly of Santa Fe, and partially an outsider, a migrant, without clear boundaries telling me which messy pasts to claim as my own. As an adoptee of a vernacular, an amalgamation of images and experiences conceived by someone else’s ancestors, what happens when I claim the identity of being a Santa Fean, of being “born here all my life”?

Participation in Zozobra is part of the way in which my Santa Fe identity was established and performed. Recognition and familiarity with the symbols of place, such as Zozobra, tether our identities to place. Place is experienced though and with the artifacts, aesthetics, and memories tied to it. The symbols carry meaning embedded in the structure of the local idiom, which leads to claims including that which we claim to know or to own. Thus, to understand identity formations rooted in a sense of place, as Devon Peña suggests, requires engagement with symbols of the past and analysis of their purpose in the present. The feelings of authenticity connected to place, relationships tied to a local way of being, are intimately bound up in associations and participation with symbols and performance. Knowledge is scraped together from ritual moments. Thus, remembering Zozobra is a way to remember myself. The act of remembering is always an act of creation. Memories do not recall the past. They re-envision the past. They create the self that we are constantly remembering in every breath we take.

Featured image: Zozobra stands 51 feet tall before he is set on fire. Photo by Tobias Royba, September, 2011.

Alexandra Lakind is a doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction and Environment & Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the co-founder of Terra Incognita Art Series, a fellow at the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, and a CHE graduate associate. She is interested in human/environmental futures and educational pedagogy. Through academic and performative routes, she hopes to foster supportive communities prepared to process unanswerable dilemmas together. Her past contributions to Edge Effects include “Transparent Walls: The Work of Do Ho Suh” (February 2017) and “Built to Last” (September 2016). Contact.

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