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Night for firsts

September 4, 2018

The monster was huge and I was small.

I still remember being in my grandmother’s arms, standing beside her car in the ballfield. There were rows of cars — hundreds, if not thousands of them. Everyone seemed to be honking their horns and cheering as the monster bellowed in pain with flames rising and fireworks bursting across the night sky.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Two? Maybe 3? But the scene is burned in my memory, lasting for more than 60 years — far longer than the scary puppet who was burned to the ground in a bizarre ritual I couldn’t comprehend.

Yes, it was my first Zozobra. My first Fiesta.

It would have been in the mid 1950s — back when the celebration was so small and local they used to allow cars out on the field for Zozobra’s burning. I wasn’t even a Santa Fean then.

Or maybe I became a real Santa Fean that night, though my family didn’t actually move here until 1968.

Once I got over my fear of giant burning demons, the hardest part was trying to explain the whole thing to my friends back in Oklahoma. I always had the feeling that nobody believed me.

“It’s really cool! It starts out when everyone in town goes to this ballpark and they have this 40-foot puppet with curly hair and a bow tie. Then this guy dressed in red comes out. No, he’s not supposed to be the devil. He’s the good guy. He dances around and sets him on fire. Then there’s all this fireworks like it’s the Fourth of July. …”

“They burn a big puppet? Why?”

“To get rid of all the gloom. Then everyone goes down to the Plaza and eats tacos and burritos. And there’s music and parades with these guys with beards and cool helmets riding horses. …”

“What’s a plaza?”

It never got any better.

Once I moved here, I didn’t miss a single Zozobra all through high school and college — except one time in the early ’70s when my party-going friends and I didn’t get to Fort Marcy until everyone was leaving. I couldn’t believe Zozobra started without us.

In 1981 I became a father. By the time Fiesta rolled around, my little girl was 8 months old. I held her during the actual burning, making sure she could see. If she was frightened that year — or in subsequent years — she never showed it, though at some point she began calling Zozobra “the mean puppet.”

My other child, my son, was a little older when he first saw Zozobra. I believe it was in 1997 when he was 5. The burning itself that year wasn’t nearly as memorable as its aftermath.

After Zozobra went up in flames, most of The New Mexican reporting staff went to a party at a nearby Washington Avenue house. We were all having a good time when everyone’s beeper (it was 1997, remember) started going off. There had been a shooting on the Plaza and, as it turned out, a young man was killed in what police said was a gang-related crime.

Though other reporters actually covered the shooting that night, my son and I walked down to the Plaza. It was our first crime scene together, a precious bonding moment for a father and son. His little eyes grew as big as saucers when I showed him the police chalk drawings near the food booth.

That was the last time Zozobra was held on Fiesta Friday.

The separation of Zozobra and Fiesta meant some of the magic disappeared. But both endure. And every year, I can’t help but think about all the little kids at Fort Marcy looking wide-eyed and a little fearful at the mean puppet destined to burn — and think wistfully at the wondrous ritual about to be burned into their subconscious and reinforced every year they return.

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