IT’S MIDMORNING IN THE FIRST WEEK OF JUNE, in a mostly empty room next to the Boot Barn at Santa Fe Place Mall. Jacob Romero, Zozobra construction chair, oversees a small crew as the creation of Old Man Gloom begins with the careful sawing of wood to assemble the giant marionette’s frame.
Romero works from a book containing creator Will Shuster’s blueprints and specifications, instructions with which he’s quite familiar after years as deputy for construction and as lead for blueprints and design. He orders the lumber, works with suppliers, and keeps the building process on schedule. “We can build Zozobra pretty quickly,” says Romero, a professional engineer. “But we like to take our time. Because if we take our time, we know Zozobra is structurally sound. And given the winds we’ve been having lately, we want to make sure we have a solid figure.”
Romero saw his first Zozobra when he was five or six years old, but began volunteering when he was eight, making this his 23rd year on construction. Building Zozobra may not be rocket science—he’s “made up of two-by-fours and four-by-fours,” Romero says—but the process still involves several nerve-racking elements.
“One is attaching the neck to the shoulders,” Romero says. “That’s the most crucial part.” Then there’s attaching all the components and hoisting up the full figure at Fort Marcy Park. “You kind of have that roller coaster going down [feeling],” he says, “that pit in your stomach.”
Romero also rigs Zozobra to the pole, helps set up the pyrotechnics for the show, and keeps an eye on the whole situation throughout the night. “I feel very privileged to have this responsibility to be, essentially, Zozobra’s keeper,” Romero says. “The plans live with me. I’m one of maybe three people in Santa Fe or within the world who knows how to physically put together Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most cherished tradition.”