Candy Martínez recently earned her doctorate in Latin American and Latina/o Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and has been awarded a postdoctorate position at UCLA (in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance) for the 2022-2023 academic year. Her research interests include cultural memory, indigenous epistemologies, emotional healing, cine comunitario, and decoloniality. A first-generation college student who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, Martinez is committed to expanding the language of emotional wellness beyond pathologies and incorporating indigenous knowledge into discourse on healing.
Never heard of susto? It’s all over Latin America.
For many Latin American communities, susto is a life threatening health condition caused by severe shock or fright. While susto at times is clinically defined as “trauma” (Gonzales 2012), it is not always culturally appropriate to reduce descriptions of this illness to suit colonial definitions, especially given the stigmatization of the word “trauma” in Latin America. In Oaxaca, Mexico, susto has many names. In San Dionisio Ocotepec, a Zapotec community in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, susto may be known as dxiibi. In Teotilán del Valle, a Zapotec community thirty one miles away from San Dionisio Ocotepec, susto is known as xhibí. Xhibí is also commonly used to name fright in Mitla, another Zapotec community within the Central Valley of Oaxaca.
Latin American healing experts attribute mysterious and physiological symptoms to susto. The illness can be an elusive phenomenon that one feels but cannot see: a load of negative energy, weak or altered blood, an emotional impression that causes one’s spirit to move, paralysis, loss of control or “aire,” the separation or loss of one’s soul, or a sentiment that makes a person feel as if they are missing their heart.
Prevalent across Latin America, susto’s causes and explanations are often mysterious and include negative energies, offenses made to Mother Nature, or traversing a mysterious place. Particularly within Indigenous communities in Mexico, susto can arise when one’s animal guide (tonal or nagual) goes missing. The cause of susto may also include more easily identifiable environmental factors such as an accident caused by a vehicle, fear provoked by an animal, a natural disaster, a near-death experience, physical harm, domestic violence, stressful news updates, sexual violence, familial tensions, malnutrition, witnessing death, witnessing an accident, and/or witnessing violence.
Despite being Zapotec, I did not grow up with susto rituals. I speculate that because my parents were part of the first generation of migrants from their community who settled in the United States, they did not have a network and system set in place to continue conserving and valuing their local Zapotec practices with others. Moreover, my Zapotec parents raised me as Catholic, and as anthropologist David Tavárez explains in the The Invisible War (2011), there have been colonial and Catholic efforts to eradicate and prohibit Zapotec rituals. Disapproval of contemporary Zapotec rituals has especially been apparent during the Catholic masses that I have attended in Oaxaca where priests have scolded mass attendees for practicing limpias (indigenous cleansing rituals involving medicinal plants), relegating such practices to superstitious and pagan beliefs.
Individual Oaxacan families may also be complicit in hindering the dissemination and continuation of indigenous rituals outside the walls of the Catholic church. I was taught at a young age that curiosity about all pagan knowledge was taboo. I recall a time in middle school when I ventured into the botanical side of my neighborhood public library and I brought a few books home on Wiccan practices. My parents scolded me, and I was prohibited from borrowing any more books on the Wiccan religion. My parents had a similar aversion to teaching me anything about the forces of susto.
While my parents and grandparents have knowledge about susto and susto rituals, as they practiced these rituals with their own family members when they were young (when Catholic surveillance was not so strong), they did not share that knowledge with me or my siblings.
My interest in susto was piqued in graduate school while I learned about tiricia (known as profound sadness in Mixtec communities) through the films of Jorge Perez Solano and Ángeles Cruz. I compared tiricia to susto, and decided to turn to my roots. My knowledge on susto stems from two years of dedicated qualitative research in the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where I have many family and community connections. Now that my family has witnessed me explore susto within a higher academic academic setting, they do not reject or question what I am learning but rather have learned to validate the existence of the condition and its need for recognition. In fact, while I conducted research in Oaxaca, I bought criollo (organic, cage free) eggs, rosemary, and basil and performed a limpia ritual on my sick grandmother. None of my family members questioned my actions. In fact, they saw my actions as a logical practice, a demonstration of facilitating care as part of my familial responsibility.
In my many interviews, Oaxacan community experts on susto mentioned that indicators of the illness involve changes in one’s mood, social behaviors, nutritional intake, sleeping behaviors, and prevalence of pain. More specifically, those suffering from susto may report the following symptoms:
- lack of eating
- the loss of appetite
- sleeping too much
- nightmares or difficulty sleeping
- lacking a desire to sleep
- inability to socialize
- inability to focus
- flojera (lethargy).
- bodily pain in the back, chest, shoulder, or stomach
- poor blood circulation
- bodily inflammation
- sudden onset of headaches, fevers, vomiting, diarrhea, and a cold
- skin conditions such as jaundice, paleness, white spots in one’s skin, change of skin tone, eczema, and shiny skin
Anthropologists including Libbet Crandon, Toomas Gross, and Michael Kearney have found susto’s causes and symptoms to be limitless in Latin America. Moreover, susto does not always fit neatly within Western medical trends of diagnosis. The high variability of susto symptoms, as Crandon notes of susto within Indigenous Bolivian communities, are elusive to clinical measures for understanding severe emotional injury. For this reason, health practitioners who seek an understanding of susto must pay attention to the local knowledge of emotional wounds held by curanderos trained from personal experience and collective knowledge.
Illness and Interconnectivity
While one may argue that susto has many diverse symptoms and causes, its main objective involves intentional acts of interconnecting and relating with non-human elements in their environment. Interconnectivity connotes the relations people make between their lives and the other-than-human elements surrounding them, including the sun, the moon, the earth, water, stars, plants, mountains, and maize (Barabas 2006). My Oaxacan interviewees, many of them healers, explained that susto rituals embody the four cardinal elements (water, wind, earth, fire). For instance, when interviewees from San Dionisio Ocotepec (a municipality in Oaxaca) reflected on what it means to enact a susto ritual on a hill for migrants, they explained that the wind from the highest hill captures energies from multiple directions because the wind at such altitudes can reach a lost soul and send its message. Water may be represented in a susto ritual in the act of spitting mezcal or alcohol. The element of water signifies movement, cleansing, and revitalization. In some indigenous rituals of healing, Oaxacans are either physically immersed in water or spat on with water; otherwise they might release water through the tears they shed. Meanwhile, earth and territory are embodied in conditions when individuals smear their whole body with dirt from the location where they suffered their fright.
On the one hand, it may appear as if susto is an individualistic and self-reflective psychic journey. Susto’s life-altering symptoms prompt Oaxacan community members to obtain closure about their griefs, traumas, and fears. The process of experiencing susto and recovering involves a physiological cycle that requires Oaxacans to breathe deeply, exhale out, and wipe off the negative energies and the injury that their body has endured. Medical anthropologist Elizabeth Cartwright (2007) refers to susto in terms of corporal memory, and demonstrates how individuals suffering from susto learn to carefully recognize the effect of their emotions on their bodies. Yet susto involves more than a self-meditative process because one must communicate with elements of nature in order to recover. For instance, Oaxacan community members may purposefully invite provocateurs of susto to drive frightful elements out of their lives out and one’s essence back in. In these circumstances, Oaxacans ask a healer or a close family member to spit mezcal or water on their body. The abrupt sensation of liquid on the skin elicits a shock, and the person with susto responds with heavy respiration. The importance of corporeality in susto is also evident in how individuals spread a susto herb called “cuan dxiib” in San Dionisio Ocotepec Zapotec and other unnamed medicinal plants all over the body. Healing modalities for susto demonstrate that medicinal plants and water are not passive ingredients in the healing process. Medicinal plants and water enable interconnection with the sources of life.
The centrality of interconnectivity moves beyond the four cardinal elements. Interconnectivity can also be discerned through the offering component of susto rituals. Susto offerings in Oaxaca are often made to the chaneque, the spirit that holds the individual’s soul. Influenced by Catholic concepts of good and evil, one interpretation of the chaneque is a malignant spirit that causes susto. Another interpretation of the chaneque is that it is a powerful entity that stores the memory of fright. When one makes an offering to the chaneque, they engage in the process of communicating with the place where they suffered fright and ask forgiveness for perturbing that space. An offering to the chanque demarcates the respect that Indigenous communities ascribe to the lands where they work. They recognize that their susto may disturb the ground that they enter. Meanwhile, an offering helps a person make amends and restore harmony with a territory marked by susto.
An image of flowers lain in front of an empty chair, taken at the house of Doña Queta, an eminent Zapotec healer and midwife in Oaxaca. The author participated in the ritual of susto by receiving a ritual cleansing (limpia) that required a flower offering. The photograph was taken by the author with Doña Queta’s permission.
Susto is a mental, corporal, interconnective, and collaborative cycle of illness and recovery. It is a process that involves family participation. Family members may console the individual undergoing the susto. As a symbolic gesture of their support, family members may circle the individual with susto. In this circle, people pass around food made especially for the ritual. One male elder interviewee likened the susto ritual to a picnic, implying that it was pleasant for the family members to participate and that it was not a dreadful responsibility. Healers and family members alike also engage in the ritual. They may engage in the spiritual cleansing component of the ritual by spitting liquid at the individual’s body or calling out the fright and calling back the lost soul of the individual. Family members might tell the invisible lost soul to leave the place where they were cast out due to fright and return to the individual’s essence. Exhibiting gestures with their hands, they might plead: “Come on! Get out of there already. Let’s go!” [“¡Vámonos! Ya salte de allí. ¡Vámonos!”]. These evocations do more than tell the individual that they are there for moral support; they physically move bodies, spirits, fluids, and medicinal plants for the sake of helping the individual become relieved of their emotional injury.
A selection of items used in a susto ritual in San Dionisio, Ocotepec. The author obtained permission to take the photograph by the family undergoing this ritual on 3/27/2018.
In the past, Oaxacan community members may have commonly linked susto to sudden encounters with poisonous animals, like snakes, while one is harvesting their food. In most recent decades, susto scholars such as Michael Kearney and Arthur Rubel, Carl O’Nell, and Rolando Collado-Ardon have connected susto to inequalities related to gender violence and burdening and changing societal roles in Oaxacan communities. I am also interested in the relationship between social changes in local understandings of susto. I ask, what role does migration play in terms of how Oaxacans adapt and understand susto rituals?
Although I’m still learning about susto, it’s clear that when Oaxacan migrants leave their hometowns and encounter difficult circumstances involving their citizenship status and labor, healing practices are creative responses for restoring harmony and a dignified sense of belonging.
Barabas, Alicia. 2006. Dones, dueños y santos: ensayo sobre religiones en Oaxaca.
Mexico: Miguel Ángel Porrúa.
Cartwright, Elizabeth. 2007. "Bodily Remembering: Memory, Place, and Understanding
Latino Folk Illnesses among the Amuzgos Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico." Culture,
Medicine and Psychiatry 31(4): 527-545.
Crandon, Libbet. 1983. “Why Susto.” Ethnology 22(2): 153-167.
Gonzales, Patrisia. 2012. "Calling Our Spirits Back: Indigenous Ways of Diagnosing and
Treating Soul Sickness." Fourth World Journal 11(2): 25-39.
Gross, Toomas. 2016. “Letting the Air Out: Aire as an Empty Signifier in Oaxacan
Understandings of Illness.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 40(4): 707-725.
Kearney, Michael. 1969. "Los Conceptos de Aire y Susto: Representaciones Simbólicas del
Ambiente Social y Geográfico Percibido." América Indígena 29: 431-50.
——.1986. The Winds of Ixtepeji: World View and Society in a Zapotec town. Prospect Heights:
Rubel, Arthur J., Carl W. O’Nell, and Rolando Collado-Ardon. 1984. Susto: A Folk
Illness. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tavárez, David. 2011. The Invisible War. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Below: Image of a susto herb known as Cuan Jeeb (Susto Herb) in San Dionisio Ocotepec Zapotec. This is a crushed blend of the cuan jeeb herb, a plant native to the region. The author obtained permission to take the photograph from a person who collected this herb for personal medicinal use.