In less than a year my paternal family lost three people in our family. My beloved tía Asunción Madera Cruz, who was like my second mother, passed away due to Alzheimer’s, which we now know could be linked to her diabetes. The second person was her sister, the youngest of my dad’s 13 siblings. Two months later, Natalia Cruz died from diabetes complications. Shortly after, my 32-year-old niece, Mariah Rosas Madera, who is the granddaughter of my tía Asunción passed away from breast cancer. 

My cousin Luz, my tía Asunción and her parents, my paternal grandparents from Huejuquilla el Alto, Jalisco.

As we come closer to Día de los Muertos, I want to remind myself and so many others that death is not something we should fear, particularly the death of our loved ones. But that does not mean we are not in shock, or a shock to our soul known as susto across the Latina/o/x, and Indigenous communities.

Much of the world has probably suffered from susto recently, given that many of us have lost so many loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indigenous, Native American, Black, and Latine/x communities are the hardest hit. We have the lowest incomes and unequal access to healthcare, and as a result, have had the highest death rates. 

The pandemic caused us to lose jobs, housing, education, and the way we communicate and process everything and it has taken a toll on our mental health. We are now trying to readjust to this changed world. Most people are still dealing or trying to accept that we are in a very different world and some of us are still or trying to recover from all the changes and shock to our bodies and our mental health which is called susto. 

I am writing from the Indigenous perspective of what susto is and how we can find healing of susto through Indigenous “remedios,” or remedies. Susto is a combination of sadness, depression, or traumatic events that cause pain that lives in our bodies, souls, and spirits. Susto affects every aspect of our being and can paralyze us mentally, physically, and spiritually, preventing us from finding our true selves. 

Susto is a shock to our bodies and sometimes we do not know we have it, until an elder or someone with knowledge of susto in our communities knows how to read it, see it, or call it out. When we know or someone indicates to us that we have susto, we seek a community healer for that specific ailment. It’s important to clarify that this is not brujería, and people often mock and underestimate those who have indigenous healing knowledge. When we have susto, we seek remedios, of various kinds, depending on the type of susto we have. 

There are so many remedios, that I grew up with the Wixarika Mexican Indigenous perspective from Huejuquilla el Alto Jalisco to do cleansings of susto. My grandmother would use an egg or eggs, brooms, herbs, and teas. Remedios are dependent upon what the susto is and where it came from. Also, remedios are very distinct to each Native or Indigenous community. The one remedio or healing that most Latin Americans use widely today to celebrate our losses and the ones we loved who have passed is during Día de los Muertos, a remedio against angst or fear when it comes to death. Our indigenous ancestors have given us this gift of being able to not only accept death but to celebrate those who have moved into the spirit world. This helps us accept death and feel closer to our loved ones in the spirit world. In my tradition, we have altars and pictures of our loved ones all year long. Día de los Muertos is a time when we just add more to the altar like flowers, or special food or drink, that the person loved while living to honor them.

My beloveds who are in the spirit world. Que descansen en paz. 

Día de los Muertos is more than 3,000 years old in the Americas and is an Indigenous ceremony to honor our ancestors who have passed onto the spirit world. Indigenous cultures used handmade candles, flowers of all kinds, but specifically ones that are called cempaxochitl, known as marigolds, and corn, squash, specialty foods, and drinks according to the region to put on the graves of their ancestors. Indigenous people did not have white sugar or flour during that time. Today in the Americas offerings include pan dulce, flour tortillas, and sugar skulls. Christian symbols, like crosses and La Virgin de Guadalupe, are used to decorate grave sites or altars at home, along with Indigenous foods like corn, flowers such as, cempaxochiitl, and candles.  Today, people in the Americas celebrate Día de los Muertos incorporating elements of Christianity and symbols such as crosses, La Virgin de Guadalupe, and other Christian deities into the indigenous celebration of death. 

I utilize the theoretical framework of “Mestizaje desde Abajo” by Lourdes Alberto, where she argues that when we use the word mestizaje it often creates erasure instead of agency for Indigenous people. She argues that “Mestizaje desde Abajo”… “represents a form of mestizaje from an Indigenous perspective rather than a mere attempt to reclaim Indigenous heritage.” This is decolonizing mestizaje. According to Alberto, “Mestizaje desde Abajo”, serves as a reaffirmation of Indigenous culture that has been passed down through generations and is rooted in our oral traditions and Indigenous ancestors’ epistemologies. Today we see this example in Día de los Muertos, which is not Halloween and is instead rooted in Indigenous culture.

In the Nahuatl language, Miccailhuitontli: pronounced (Mikail weetontli) means “Feast of the Ancestors,” or “Feast of the Dead.” Miqui: Dead; Huitontli: festival, celebration. They celebrated the dead during the summer months of early July to late August or early September. We can also connect this to the planting of the corn, which happens in late June or early July when it is born and sprouts until the corn is ready to pick in late August. 

Diego Duran, a 16th-century priest, witnessed the Aztecs offering food to altars for their deceased ancestors and wrote about his accounts in his book, “Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar.”

As Día de los Muertos approaches, I still feel sad and still have some susto in my body that reflects the shock that my beloveds are not with us in the physical world. My family members have their own susto. They are processing and trying to heal. As a collective, we heal by talking, reflecting, and performing our own remedios as we remember and feel our loved ones as they visit us in our dreams and daydreams. We will continue to honor our loved ones at their grave sites, and at home as we do all year round and on Día de los Muertos. 

We celebrate all those lives who have passed prior to, during, and after the pandemic and I pray for all of you who have susto to heal.

Dr. Maria Elena Cruz is a descendant of the Wixáritari (Huichol indigenous Mexican Nation) who was born in Northern California. Dr. Cruz is the first person in her family to graduate from college and...