The annual burning of El Kookooee incinerates fear and defines culture in the South Valley
El Cucui: He's the monster under your bed, the shadowy figure parents use to frighten their children into obedience. "If you talk back/don't eat your dinner/don't stay in bed, Cucui's going to get you," they might say. Author Rudolfo Anaya likens the beast to another local ghost. "The parents used to scare little children into obeying and being respectful, much like La Llorona, the crying woman."
The South Valley's been lighting El Cucui up in effigy yearly since 1990, though when Anaya began the tradition with other artists in the area all those years ago, he opted for a phonetic spelling, which seems to have stuck. Up rose "El Kookooee," a 25-foot-tall creature fashioned differently every year.
A design contest for the massive doll is held between two schools in the South Valley. The 2007 Kookooee will be built based on the winning model of an eighth-grader at Harrison Middle School. "It looks kind of like a dragon and kind of like a transformer," says Tom Powell, the artist in charge of organizing the construction of the flammable bogeyman these last few years.
No one knows what El Kookooee looks like, says Anaya, and his curiosity prompted him to develop this annual ceremony. "I wanted to bring back a custom that is in the oral tradition and do something visual with it," he says. "I wonder about these characters I heard about as a child. It was always ambiguous. Who was the Kookooee? Would he really get you?"
Maybe not, as Powell says with glee, when he's made out of "things that burn." Wood, cardboard, bamboo, tree branches, cloth mâché and paint are used over six weekends to build the basic pyramid pedestal, atop which sits the body and head, the solidified vision of those faceless childhood monsters. Kookooee is then stuffed with pieces of paper on which burn-attendees have written their fears.
Powell's been involved with the building of Kookooee for seven years now, though he attended the very first one, 17 burns ago, as a curious UNM art student. From the first, he found the burning of his fears cleansing, cathartic. "For many, people do not ever really think about what they're afraid of. They just keep suppressing it and suppressing it. It comes up all the time and gets in our way." But when, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you write down your fear on a little piece of paper, the confession gets incinerated. "A lot of times, it's the first time people have actually been allowed to confront that issue. The public takes that very seriously. People don't bullshit. They actually do look inside."
One can't help but notice the similarity between the fear-burning tradition of Kookooee and the worry-burning of Zozobra. Powell insists Zozobra started the worry-burning tradition after the South Valley's effigy started kicking around in 1990. "They copycatted us," he says, and he's got no shortage of scorn for the popular, successful cousin of El Kookooee. "Zozobra's become a big commercial event that goes on in Santa Fe. It's sort of like the Burning Man, which has become a big-ticket item and a money-making thing." That's something the Kookooee folks have consciously avoided, he adds. "We keep it to ourselves. We're not trying to recruit, and we're not trying to privatize, and we're not trying to make it a commercial success."
If anything, he says, Kookooee's moving the opposite direction, toward his community and the local consciousness. "Other communities can burn their own things," Powell says. "Effigy burning is incredibly powerful, and historically, it has been a way for people who have no power to try and gain control over the spirit world or other powers." Cucui, he says, is an ancient bogeyman with profound cultural roots, not some made-up tourist attraction. Kookooee's publicity usually amounts to some signs at Bridge and Rio Bravo. "Maybe the TV cameras come down here, and maybe they don't. We don't really care," he says.
The Kookooee burning and the Dia de los Muertos Marigold Parade, which takes place on the first Sunday of November, are becoming significant cultural events for the South Valley, says Powell. "They are helping us define ourselves as a community apart from Albuquerque, which we've always been in the shadow of." Both events, he adds, give Valley residents a sense of ownership and pride.