Zozobra: A Time To Celebrate?

By Sasha LaPointe and Christine Trudeau

Santa Fe, NM –   Murales Road is stopped in a slow moving crowd of people. It looks as if the entire city’s population has been funneled into the narrow residential street in an attempt to make their way into Fort Marcy Park. The park’s entrance is a circus of families, groups of glow stick clad teens, toddlers on shoulders, and couples holding each other in anticipation for the night’s events. The sun hasn’t set, and already there is a number of men drunk and swaying against a backdrop of the red flashing lights of a police cruiser.

A group of teenagers pass a family in line, shouting about “E” and “Molly”, more commonly known as Ecstasy, and flick their cigarette butts to the pavement. The event has brought out an eclectic variety of New Mexicans, with one common goal: to kick off Santa Fe’s Fiestas with the burning of Old Man Gloom. Old Man Gloom, a fifty foot paper mache puppet, looms in the distance, it’s eyes glowing green and it’s paper mouth eerily falling up and down with the breeze, creating the illusion of speech.

Many of the events attendees have little to no idea of the event’s history, its origin or its connection to the fiestas celebration. A tourist from England admitted to having no clue to what the event was even about, just that some locals had hyped Zozobra the night before at a bar. Person after person enthusiastically praised Zozobra for bringing the community together, and many people even admitted to just being there for the drugs. But mainly, people were at Zozobra to celebrate community.

“It’s good for the kids, you know,” says Joe Padilla as he waits in the ticket line, “It’s great to see the kids and the families come out.” Padilla, a coach at St. Michaels High School has been coming to Zozobra for ten years.

Brandon from Albuquerque was looking forward to the burning of Zozobra. “You throw all your gloom away,” he continues cheerfully, “you throw it into Old Man Gloom and watch it burn.”   Brooke, from Gallup accompanied Brandon in the crowd and explained that this was her first time, and that she had some apprehensions. “I was actually told not to come here,” she laughs, “ cause I heard people got shot here.”

There is a lot people getting drunk, taking pictures, buying Zozobra souvenirs and not a lot of people able to engage in an informed dialogue regarding the purpose behind all of it.

Donald Stout and Chuck Higgens, two informed festival goers, offer a knowledge of Zozobra history, the first of the evening. Stout, a Santa Fean of 28 years, Higgens for 12, were married in Iowa last year and in a celebratory mood.   Even though Stout hadn’t been to Zozobra in over 15 years, he was versed in the event’s beginnings. “I Know it started with Will Shuster in the 1920’s. And the first Zozobra was in his backyard and he made this puppet, probably three feet high or something, burned it in his back yard and it just grew from there.”   When asked about the connection between Zozobra and Fiestas Stout laughs and answers, “Well that’s the big question. It does not have a direct connection to the original fiestas. You know, which was of course the reconquest of Santa Fe after the Pueblo revolt of 1680. But it soon became an integral part of Fiestas. It was the evolution of Fiestas.”

Chuck Higgens   laughs at the concept behind Old Man Gloom, and the burning of personal glooms. “what’s interesting,” he says, “is that fiestas is kicked off with a Pagan ritual. This burning is kind of like a Pagan rite.”

Stout joins in the laughter. “Yes, which is very interesting considering the Catholic overlay of Fiestas.” Both men laugh and look at each other. Higgens adds with a smile, “I’m sure the original Padres are turning over in their graves.”

Higgens and Stout   will join the rest of the festival goers to throw old love letters, old deeds and divorce papers into the mouth of Old Man Gloom and set fire to their past regrets. Some of them are also just here to get drunk and watch something really, really big burn.

Perhaps the original Padres are turning over in their graves. But what’s more interesting about fiestas and specifically the Zozobra event, is the lack of awareness behind what is really happening.   There is a level of disconnect present on the faces of crowd.

According to Jeanette De Bouzek’s   documentary “Gathering Up Again,” a film that follows the lives of several individuals participating in different events involved with the celebration, Zozobra’s purpose is to serve as an outlet for the Anglo community during Santa Fe’s Fiesta’s. Fiestas are rooted in the Spanish community. People within the anglo community here in Santa Fe have embraced Zozobra as a way of celebrating and have succeeded in turning the event into a phenomenon.

People are excited. They’re excited to be gathered in the city at sunset, preparing to say goodbye to their gloom. They’re excited in the way people attending public executions are excited. There is a fifty foot man made of paper and wire, complete with his own voice, a prerecorded booming wale that echos over the parks grounds. When the sun completely sets, Old Man Gloom is engulfed in flames, people cheer, some children scream.

It’s a release of the years gloom, a way to reenergize and reground, start fresh, which speaks to many of the community members of Santa Fe. But what about the historical trauma that floats around the very heart of Fiestas? The reconquering implies the conquered, but is anyone burning anything for the hundreds of Pueblo lives lost through out the revolt?

“Zozobra has always struck me as strange. I think the reason they keep the celebration is that it’s a huge money maker for the city and Fiesta,” says Diane Reyna, Student Success Coordinator at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Videographer on ‘Gathering Up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe’. “I’ve never been comfortable with it.”

In 1990, Reyna and Jeanette De Bouzek, director of ‘Gathering Up Again’, set out to make a documentary that concentrated on what cultural contributions were being made during Zozobra and the Fiestas from different communities in the Santa Fe area, and more importantly, who was framing the perspective on historical events.

“We wanted to show how the ‘three cultures’ celebrate Fiesta,” says Reyna. “Pueblo people didn’t participate for the past 20 to 30 years so we didn’t really know how we were going to show the non-participation of the Pueblo people. However, it was very clear how the Hispanic community did that, and the Anglo community did that.”

Chip Lilienthal of the Kiwanis club, a Caucasian man who ran the Zozobra event the year the documentary was filmed seemed to believe that prior to 1926, Caucasians were underrepresented during Fiesta season. “Santa Fe is a city of three cultures: You had a representation of the Indian, you had a representation of the Spanish,” said Lilienthal. “There was not a lot of representation of the Anglo, and the gringo needed to have some kind of say in the whole operation.”

It’s difficult to tell how much Zozobra has aided the city of Santa Fe’s understanding of the larger history at work here with what the season is commemorating. A large majority of tourists and locals alike from various cultural backgrounds, might find it enlightening to discover what exactly is being represented during Fiesta season. All Indian Pueblo Council member, Herman Agoyo of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, was unaware of the history behind Fiestas for much of his early life.

“Indian people do not write their history down in books,” said Agoyo in ‘Gathering Up Again’. “When we went to school, we learned very little about the New Mexico history, and in fact, I never heard about the Pueblo Revolt until after I got out of college.” The revolt united the Pueblos in 1680 to rise up and force the Spanish out of New Mexico for a dozen years.

The documentary also features Historian Dr. John Kessel, Professor at the University of New Mexico, specializing in New Mexico and Southwestern history. In the film he is featured as a guest speaker at one of the Fiesta events.

“The real reconquest began in 1693 with the ill-starred expedition of colonists who intended to stay,” said Kessel. “At their head, Governor Vargas – impatient and over confident – reappeared before Santa Fe in the dusty cold of December. Despite his best efforts, negotiations broke down. Retreat was out of the question.   So, with the timely aid of one hundred and forty armed Pecos Indian allies, he assaulted the place, and the snow ran red with blood. After the battle he ordered seventy Pueblo Indians executed. ”

An interesting aspect to consider, especially when you take a look at the current   2012 official site of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council (www.santafefiesta.org) states under their history section that “[De Vargas] accomplished this difficult and remarkable mission without bloodshed on September 4, 1692.”

“By implying during Fiesta that the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico was bloodless we not only distort the past, but we also deny the dignity and humanness, good and bad, of New Mexico’s Hispanos and Indians who fought, endured, and lived together for in this beautiful and unforgiving land of little rain,” says Kessel.

Throughout Fiesta season various ceremonies and celebratory events are held. One of these events is called the Entrada, which has been held since the inception of the Fiestas in 1712. The Entrada is meant to be a re-enactment to honor and highlight events that took place during the reconquest of Santa Fe. During the Entrada re-enactment, individuals from Hispanic and Pueblo communities are chosen to portray various historical figures. In ‘Gathering Up Again’, Randy Kaniatobe, from Santa Domingo Pueblo, was chosen to portray one of the Pueblo tribal leaders of 1692 who apparently met with De Vargas to discuss and agree upon a peaceful resettlement of Santa Fe. During a Fiesta council meeting in the film it is enthusiastically announced by Caucasian council member Ed Barry that “this year for the first time in many, many years we have an Indian, from Santa Domingo Pueblo,” referring to Kaniatobe. In the film, Kaniatobe reflects upon the events he participated in: “If I stopped to take a hard look at the reason why it’s been celebrated, I probably wouldn’t of done it.”

Mariano Chavez, a Fiesta council member himself, reflected toward the end of ‘Gathering Up Again’ that “The Indian has no reason to celebrate the Fiestas. The local people are celebrating the so called bloodless reconquest of the Indian. Now, I mean, Americans don’t celebrate Pearl Harbor Day; Indians don’t celebrate Fiesta.”

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