Gillette family burns COVID in effigy

Mike Moore, Gillette News Record photo Attendees cheer and watch as ‘The Big Man,’ symbolizing the unsavory year the COVID-19 pandemic brought to residents of Campbell County, burns during a Zozobra event at Twenty Mile Land Company north of Gillette April 17. The ceremony was based on a 96-year-old tradition from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

GILLETTE — A 23-foot body made of chicken wire and cloth hung outside the Daly Ranch.

Around its neck was a chain that spelled out “COVID.” The belt buckle was “19.”

Dangling from operating forks hoisted high into the air, the grinning effigy with bloodshot eyes symbolizing COVID-19 was anchored to the ground by several thin ropes, waiting to be set ablaze.

“The Big Man” is what its creator, Wilson Restrepo, 58, named the effigy. While oversized as a representation of a person, its dwarfing presence was appropriate for how large the pandemic has loomed over everyday life for more than a year.

As the wind gently rocked The Big Man and the sky slowly grew darker, Restrepo stood by its side. Soon, he would set fire to the project he spent many hours creating, all in an effort to put the last year behind him.

Sandy Daly, who lives on the ranch, brought the idea to Restrepo near the end of 2020 and he ran with it. The burning of Zozobra, which Daly once experienced in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the inspiration to burn COVID-19.

“It’s been such a bad year,” Daly said. “I thought that we might try to burn COVID in effigy and have some closure and go forward.”

Concepts began percolating in Restrepo’s head. In Colombia, his native country, there is a similar tradition called Año Viejo. During that December ceremony, an effigy is burned to bid good riddance to the woes of the past year.

In the tradition of Año Viejo, flammable figures are built to resemble people, size and all, before they are ignited. It didn’t take much research for Resrtrepo to realize that the burning of Zozobra is on a far greater scale.

The late summer Santa Fe tradition of the burning of Zozobra has gone on for 96 consecutive years. First created as a 6-foot puppet in 1924, the creature has since grown to 50 feet tall constructed of wood, wire, cotton cloth and stuffed with bags of shredded paper.

As the legend goes, each year Zozobra collects the anxiety, anguish and fill-in-the-blank bad feelings from the people of Santa Fe. Through the year, those feelings feed his life-force as he stores the bad vibes with a plan to unleash them back onto the town.

In the yearly ceremony, the Fire Dancer, performed by a real person, plays the foil and taunts Zozobra at its feet with a torch that is eventually used to set the monster ablaze. The fire consumes Zozobra, setting off explosives planted inside and creating a nighttime spectacle of flames, lights and restored hopes.

Besides the aforementioned fire-starters, Restrepo and the Dalys’ project focused on another prominent form of kindling borrowed from Zozobra: notes of sorrow memorialized on paper to be turned to smoke and ash.

Before the fire began, attendees jotted messages to be added to the flames. Writing can be therapeutic. By putting into words and focusing thought on what’s heavy on the mind, a certain catharsis can be reached.

And 2020 provided local residents plenty to vent about.

In their notes, they lamented lost time with loved ones and loved ones lost. They wished away a year of time marked by isolation, except for when divisiveness seemed to be all that drew people out.

Some simply wished COVID-19 would go away. Others were glad they could hug their grandchildren again.

Zozobra deals in sorrow. His existence, according to lore, is ostensibly on a single track toward conquest through harboring negative energy and collective angst. Of course, at least for the past 96 years, his goal has ultimately fallen short.

The Big Man isn’t so different. He represents all things bad from the past year, and watching him burn brought relief, even for Restrepo, who spent countless hours this year listening to classic rock and building the figure in his workshop.

It earned the name The Big Man for obvious reasons. Atop his head, red prongs poked out made to resemble the spike proteins on the COVID-19 virus structure and adding to its height.

Although The Big Man lacks the backstory attached to the creature that inspired his creation, there may be more years ahead to develop his own myth.

By merging the traditions of Año Viejo and Zozobra, in honor of something resembling a new post-COVID era, Restrepo wanted to honor both traditions.

In the process, he may have created one of its own.

After first moving from Colombia to New York City, Restrepo found himself brought to Wyoming for his job as a pipeline worker. It was then that he said he fell in love with the Cowboy State. He called his wife, Mary Luz Piedrahita, to come with their son, Pedro Piedrahita, to the least-populated state in the country.

In Colombia, they lived near Medellín and found similar comfort in the countryside and stillness Wyoming offered them.

Pedro knew no English when he moved to the United States. Mary Luz, 46, said that Pedro, then 18, began his studies three days after they arrived in the United States and has not stopped since.

“When we first came, I didn’t know any English,” Pedro said. “We were here in a totally different country with a different culture and we didn’t know what was going to happen with us.”

Now, Pedro is a month away from graduating from the University of Wyoming with a degree in electrical engineering. Two years ago, he became a U.S. citizen. With his degree, he hopes to spend his life with his family in Wyoming, the new home they have embraced.

“It’s been really tough, a really, really tough year,” Pedro said. “I lost two family members because of COVID, so it’s just been really, really tough last year for us. I hope this can help us kind of let all those bad things go and hopefully we can start (over).”

When it was finally time to symbolically burn away the virus-induced plight of the past year, the crowd migrated toward the towering figure.

With the group assembled, Restrepo soaked a cloth with gasoline and wrapped around the end of a long pipe, almost like a damp metal Q-tip. He then turned it to a torch, which he stuck inside of a teepee-fashioned pile of logs and planks. As smoke began drifting and the fire began to spread, Sebastian Toro, Restrepo’s nephew, lowered the crane holding The Big Man so his foam feet touched the flames.

The few dozen gathered before The Big Man threw their notes into the fire. Quickly, bright flames spread throughout the rest of the giant flammable body.

Restrepo stalked the perimeter of the fire with a small red fire extinguisher as more than 20 feet of flames burned on. While the cloth exterior burned, the craftsmanship and hard work he put into building The Big Man was exposed. He looked on as his creation disappeared, leaving behind a wire skeletal frame dangling above the bonfire.

What began as an errant idea became a cultural blend of a legacy ranch, an immigrant family and a shared understanding of the challenges of the past year.

A New Mexican tradition with a Colombian twist burned under the wide open skies of Wyoming, all in an effort to bring closure to an unprecedented year marred by loss of all kinds caused by the pandemic.

“Goodbye, COVID,” Restrepo said.

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