Fiery fate awaits puppet at fiesta

March 09, 1997|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN STAFF CORRESPONDENT

SANTA FE, N.M. — SANTA FE, N.M.-- Picture a moaning victim tied to a stake, while torch-bearing dancers taunt him with flames and a huge mob calls out, "Burn him, burn him."

Sounds like a primitive rite from a far distant land, doesn't it? But it happens in Santa Fe every year in September, when the city fiesta opens with the ritual burning of a 40-foot-tall puppet known as Zozobra.

Despite the multicultural setting, with Spanish, Native American and cowboy influences, this bizarre, seemingly pagan tradition has distinctly unglamorous roots: It was launched in the 1920s by a member of the local Kiwanis club.

According to the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, a local Kiwanian named Will Schusterdecided the annual festival known as La Fiesta de Santa Fe needed some spicing up.

The fiesta commemorates the 1712 peaceful takeover of Santa Fe from the Pueblo Indians by Spanish leader Don Diego Del Vargas. The result is not a universal cause for celebration among the current population, which still includes many Indians as well as those of Hispanic descent. But there seems no lack of enthusiasm.

Zozobra provides all the townspeople with a common foe.

Alternatively dubbed "Old Man Gloom" by his creator, Zozobra was modeled after puppets Schuster had seen during visits to Mexico. Burning him was justified as akin to banishing Old Man Trouble or destroying a villain.

Crowds gather before sunset to get a good view of the fire dancers, who taunt and torture Zozobra mercilessly. But the real damage is done just after sunset, when the dancers touch their torches to the strings that hold Zozobra's arms.

Fireworks shoot off as the flames race toward the puppet's body. Zozobra turns his head back and forth, moaning. His bulging eyes light up and his arms flail wildly as the fire approaches.

Finally Zozobra's head and body reach full blaze. It's easy to feel sorry for Old Man Gloom.

But this form of mock execution seems to be catching on.

For the past 10 years or so, hundreds of people have been gathering in the Nevada desert to burn a 40-foot-tall wooden man, equipped with blue neon lights and stuffed with fireworks. They call him "Burning Man."

Similar rituals have been reported in other parts of the country, but the folks in Santa Fe believe Zozobra was probably the first.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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