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Zozobra, Santa Fe Fiesta

In 1924, renowned Santa Fe artist Will Shuster added Zozobra to the Santa Fe fiesta celebrations. Local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr. - "Will" (1893-1969) conceived and created Zozobra in 1924 as the focus of a private fiesta at his home for artists and writers in the community. His inspiration for Zozobra came from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico; an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and later burned.

Shuster and E. Dana Johnson, a newspaper editor and friend of Shuster's came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined as "anguish, anxiety, gloom" or in Spanish for "the gloomy one." The effigy is a giant animated wooden and cloth marionette that waves its arms and growls ominously at the approach of its fate. A major highlight of the pageant is the fire spirit dancer, dressed in a flowing red costume, who appears at the top of the stage to drive away the white-sheeted "glooms" from the base of the giant Zozobra.

The fire dance was created by Jacques Cartier, a former New York ballet dancer and local dance teacher, who performed the role for 37 years. His dance student, James Lilienthal took over the fire spirit role in 1970 and has continued it for 32 years.

Shuster constructed the figure of Zozobra until 1964, when he gave his detailed model to the Kiwanis Club to continue the tradition. Over the years the effigy has grown larger, reaching a height of 49 feet in 2001. Zozobra is a well-crafted framework of preplanned and pre-cut sticks, covered with chicken wire and yards of muslin. It is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper, which traditionally includes obsolete police reports, paid off mortgage papers, and even personal divorce papers.

Kiwanis became officially involved in 1963. Shuster assigned all rights, title and interest in Zozobra on June 19th, 1964 to The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which retains exclusive copyright and Trademark to the figure. Thus Kiwanis continues the Zozobra tradition, and as a major fundraiser has become a great way for Santa Feans to participate in community service.

A description of the first public Zozobra burning appears in the September 2,1926, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican:

Following vespers at the Cathedral, a long procession headed by the Conquistadores Band marched to the vacant space back of the city hall, where Zozobra, a hideous effigy figure 20 feet high, produced by the magic wand of Will Shuster, stood in ghastly silence illuminated by weird green fires. While the band played a funeral march, a group of Kiwanians in black robes and hoods stole around the figure, with four others seated before the green fires.

When City Attorney Jack Kennedy on behalf of the absent Mayor, solemnly uttered the death sentence of Zozobra, with Isadoro Armijo as interpreter, and fired several revolver shots at the monster, the green fires changed to red, the surrounding ring of bonfires was ignited, red fires blazed at the foot of the figure and shortly a match was applied to its base and leaped into a column of many colored flames.

As it burned the encircling fires blazed brighter, there was a staccato of exploding fireworks from the figure and round about, and throwing off their black robes the spectators emerged in gala costume, joining an invading army of bright-hued harlequins with torches in a dance around the fires as the band struck up "La Cucaracha." Following which the crowd marched back between bonfires lining the streets to the armory and the big baile was on. It brought out the biggest crowd of native merrymakers seen here for years...."