El Niño Fidencio and the Fidencistas
Antonio N. Zavaleta
Antonio Zavaleta grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley between Texas and
northeastern Mexico. As a young man, during summer vacations from school,
he stayed with his grandparents on their ranch. They employed many migratory
Mexican farm workers, with whom he spent many hours. "My lifelong love for
Mexican folkore and of Mexico in general was kindled around the campfires
and the endless evening stories. It was there that I first heard the stories
of El Niño Fidencio." After receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology from
the University of Texas at Austin, Tony began teaching and served as a Brownsville
City Council member. He had been studying a well-known native healer in Brownsville,
and the idea of comparing these techniques with those of Fidencio was exciting.
He made several trips to Espinazo, the home of El Niño Fidencio. On
one such trip he met Maria, a follower of Fidencio, and together they worked
to learn the details of the healer's life. "It is rare that an anthropologist
has the opportunity to have firsthand, day-to-day knowledge of the inner
workings of a religious cult and to be accepted by it. They are as sincere
and profound as any religious group I have ever encountered."
Known as a land of mystery and paradox, Mexico today is the product of a
conflict between two distinct cultures, Native American and Spanish. In the
sixteenth century, Spanish explorers, seeking adventure and wealth, brought
to Mexico a mixture of medieval chivalry and religious devotion (Boone 1989).
Many of the Spanish military were members of lay religious orders and hoped
to re-create the crusades. Religious leaders, on the other hand, hoped to
establish a utopia and prepare for the second coming of Christ (Darley 1968).
A CLASH OF CULTURES AND ACCULTURATION
Spanish Catholicism included a
plethora of medieval practices. These ideas meshed with and enhanced the
superstitious world of the Native Americans. The friars, zealous in their
desire to spread Catholicism, quickly recognized that their success depended
on tolerance and acceptance of native beliefs and practices. Over time, many
Indian religious ideas were brought into the Catholic Church, both symbolically
and physically. This ultimately opened the door for the acculturation of
some of these beliefs into the official Catholic Church in Mexico.
Acculturation occurs when one
culture blends with another losing its distinctive traits in the process.
The result was the creation of an unofficial as well as an official Catholic
religion. Today, after nearly five centuries, there exists rich diversity
between the practice of Catholicism and of its alter ego, Mexican or folk
Catholicism (Madsen 1967).
Beliefs common to both Catholicism
and folk Catholicism include the concept of the incarnation of God in the
form of man, his life and teachings on earth, his death or departure, and
his promise of return followed by the establishment of a utopian society
(Morinis and Crumrine 1991). In addition, the concept of a virgin goddess
is essential to both belief systems, as is the belief in the existence of
a pantheon of lesser gods or "saints," who are believed to be physically
capable of affecting the lives of the living. Finally, the existence of sacred
or holy sites dedicated to the saints and the requirement of the faithful
to make pilgrimages to these sites are central features of both belief systems.
Although the two religions coexisted and shared similar beliefs, they served
Traditional Catholicism met the
needs of the Spanish, their descendants, and the affluent. Folk Catholicism
was more responsive to the needs of the poor, the Indians, and the racially
mixed descendants of the Spanish and Indians. Now, as then, the majority
of the Mexican people are spread across the country, living in small towns,
villages, and settlements. Their extended kinship groups live, for the most
part, a subsistence existence in isolation from the major religious, cultural,
and economic centers. It is among these largely rural people that the practice
of folk Catholicism flourishes.
SOCIAL STRATIFICATION IN MEXICO
The distribution of wealth and
power in a society describes its system of social stratification. Societies
vary tremendously in the extent to which people share, or refuse to share,
societal resources. An important feature of any stratification system is
the opportunity for individuals to better themselves materially.
Such movement is called social
mobility. Rates of social mobility differ considerably among societies. For
example, caste systems, such as those that exist in India, have very little
social mobility. Birth determines the shape of human existence, what jobs
members can hold, whom they can marry, whom they can interact with and how.
Rules are reinforced by the Hindu religion. Individuals born into a caste,
die in that caste. Moreover, their children will live and die in the same
caste. Class systems, characteristic of industrialized societies, such as
the United States, are those in which people have the opportunity to experience
upward or downward mobility. Another system of stratification that has more
opportunity for social mobility than a caste system but less than a class
system is called an estate system. Mexico had such a system.
Estate systems are typically rural
with those at the top owning or controlling most of the land. Because such
societies are not heavily industrialized, and because educational opportunities
are limited to the wealthy, most people are poor and will remain so.
Race can also influence the degree
of social mobility in a society. In Mexico, Spaniards and their direct descendants
occupied the upper strata and Indians were at the bottom. Mexicans, or mestizos,
a racial mix descended from the Spaniards and Indians, constituted the lower
and middle classes. The upper classes, living in Mexico City, controlled
huge provincial landholdings as absentee landlords. They led lives of privilege,
insulated from the middle class and especially from the lower classes of
Indians and poor mestizos. In spite of the early emergence of a mixed class,
there was little or no social mobility allowed in the system (Ricard 1982).
Limited economic and political opportunities for the Indians and mestizos
created a climate of frustration and hopelessness.
Mexico's history is filled with
the oppression and exploitation of the many by the few. The Spaniards, with
their twin missions of gold and God, subjugated the native population. And
often those who suffered the most turned to religious and "otherworldly"
beliefs for comfort.
ENTER A MESSIAH
By the mid-1920s, Mexico's underclass
had endured over four centuries of suffering. The country was rocked to the
core by revolution, civil war, death, and destruction. At the same time,
President Plutarco Calles (1924-1928) brutally attempted to rid Mexico of
the Catholic Church (Krauze 1987).
It is noteworthy that messiahs
usually appear during periods of oppression or economic catastrophe in order
to fulfill people's longing to end their suffering. Such a situation is characterized
as structural strain. Strain occurs when individuals' needs are not being
met through existing social structures. Such strain can produce a number
of different kinds of social movements that are categorized by sociologists
as collective behavior, some of which are messiah-led.
Messianic leaders are universally
charismatic. People follow them because they have personal characteristics,
distinctive appearance, or mannerisms that galvanize an audience.
Most messiahs are heralded by
unusual or unexplainable natural phenomena, such as "the star of Bethlehem"
signaling the birth of Christ. In Mexico volcanic eruptions and the appearance
of a comet in the skies over Mexico City set the stage for the Mexican Revolution
of 1910-1917. These occurrences were thought to foretell a messiah.
In 1926, unearthing of a monolith
in the central plaza in Mexico City was believed to prophesy that Indians
would regain their ancient rights (Brenner 1929). This prophecy had been
made some 475 years earlier by native priests who had witnessed the monolith's
burial by the Spanish. The priests concluded that after some indeterminable
period of penance, the foreign invaders would be expelled, and native culture
and religion would be restored. What they could not have foretold was that
the actual rediscovery of the monolith would coincide perfectly with the
appearance of a Mexican messiah in the desolate deserts of northern Mexico.
Nature of the Redeemer
Fulfilling the Mexican image of
a redeemer, José Fidencio Sintora Constantino came to the attention
of the Mexican press in 1928. This coincided with president Calles's persecution
of the Catholic Church.
His followers called him El Niño,
"the child." He was a peasant, as poor as the people who sought deliverance
at his hand. He claimed that his power was derived from God through the soil
and native plants of the desert. His spiritual gift, or don, had been granted
to him, through a direct revelation by Christ and the Holy Spirit, beneath
a sacred pepper tree in the center of Espinazo, a small village in northern
Mexico. Fidencio adhered to a simple credo: "Those who suffer have the Grace
of God. By suffering, health is reached, and it is necessary that this should
be so, because those who desire to be well, should be strengthened by sorrows
and pain" (Brenner 1929: 21).
Fidencio came to be regarded as
a living folk saint during his lifetime (Macklin 1973; Spielberg and Zavaleta
1997). Media interest in his healing power waned in a few years, but Fidencio
showed no more concern about the loss of newspaper attention than he had
shown interest in his previous celebrity status. He often said that his mission
on Earth was not to be famous, but to ease the pain of suffering humanity.
In the end, numerous attempts to exploit him failed. He died as he had lived,
a simple, barefoot peasant.
El Niño's Childhood
Since the arrival of the Europeans,
Mexico has been home to a parade of prophets and miracle workers. All have
appeared during times of crisis. All have claimed supernatural powers, all
have had cultlike followings, all have had short-lived popularity, and have
all paled to insignificance when compared with El Niño Fidencio (Brenner
There are only sketchy facts known
about the early life of Fidencio. He was born in 1898, near the village of
Yuriria, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He and a younger brother were
orphaned as children. For a time they were removed from the village, but
by the age of 11, Fidencio was back in Yuriria, assisting the local priest
as an altar boy.
From an early age he showed a
great fascination with religion (Quiros 1991 ). At the age of 13 or 14, he
was contracted to work for a wealthy family as a kitchen boy. It is curious
that he was selected for household work because work in the fields was traditional
for Mexican boys at that time. He attended elementary school for a short
time; it was neither common nor expected for a peasant boy to continue schooling
beyond the age of puberty. As an adult, Fidencio was semiliterate.
Around 1921, at the age of 23,
Fidencio, in the company of his brother, settled in Espinazo, a small community
in northern Mexico. He never left this area.
El Niño the Healer
Fidencio's first attempt at healing
was the spontaneous act of setting his mother's arm, broken in a fall. Although
the splinting of an arm hardly seems remarkable, Fidencio was said to be
eight years old at the time (Quiros 1991).
At Espinazo, Fidencio developed
a considerable reputation for treating animals, especially assisting at births.
But it was not until he was called upon to assist with a human birth that
his ability and fame as a healer and midwife began to unfold.
During the course of his lifetime,
El Niño Fidencio had several supernatural experiences in the form
of revelations or visions--some, he claimed, were visitations by Jesus Christ.
In an early vision, Fidencio was
visited by a strange, bearded man who imbued him with the spiritual gift
of healing, which included profound knowledge of medicinal plants. Although
Fidencio never had any formal training in the healing properties of plants
and home remedies, he was expert in their use.
A second supernatural visitation
occurred in 1927. This mystical event played a significant role in Fidencio's
life. He felt it authorized him to share his gift of healing with the masses
of needy and, thus, begin his mission on Earth. From this time on, Fidencio
adopted the persona of a holy man and lived the life of an ascetic. He achieved
fame as a healer in 1928, at the age of 30. He died ten years later, a few
days short of his fortieth birthday.
EL CAMPO DEL DOLOR
In the early days of 1928, Mexico
was in the throes of the post-Revolutionary government's persecution of the
Catholic Church. Catholic clergy were expelled, imprisoned, and executed,
and church property was confiscated. During these troubling days, Mexico
turned her eyes to the northern desert as the first reports of miracles began
The earliest news coverage of
the strange young miracle worker described a man who neither claimed to be
a doctor nor prescribed any patent medicines. He nevertheless performed healing
miracles, including making the blind see and the dumb speak. Talk of the
young healer previously had been confined to northern Mexico, but in 1928
virtually all the major dailies in Mexico City carried articles on the miraculous
cures in Espinazo.
Throughout 1928 and 1929, articles,
supported by dozens of eyewitness testimonies, touted Fidencio's healing
abilities. News spread rapidly, and soon his fame extended throughout Mexico
and to the United States and Europe (Ha traspasado 1928; "The Worker of Miracles"
El Universal de Mexico, one of
the leading newspapers and among the first to give national exposure to the
phenomena in Espinazo, sent its top reporter, Jacobo Dalejuelta, and photographer,
Casasola, for a firsthand look. In February 1928, the paper reported that
the demented, the paralyzed, and the leprous, a thousand strong, had formed
a little town of makeshift huts and tents around the home of Fidencio. More
than a hundred small wooden huts had been erected to rent to the growing
crowd of miracle seekers. El Niño Fidencio worked near a sacred tree,
and the ill gathered around him for public healing sessions that ran day
and night for several days at a time. This scene eventually became known
as the healing circle or el círculo de curación (Dementes,
paralíticos y leprosos 1928).
El Universal de Mexico described
Fidencio as a "young man of few words, muscular with a sort of yellowish
color and very simply dressed" (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928).
His room contained a crude wooden bed, a table, and a chair. However, according
to reports, he used these infrequently, preferring to sit and sleep on the
floor. He did not eat or drink with regularity, and mostly consumed liquids.
In spite of these abstemious habits, El Niño Fidencio worked for days
and nights without interruption, seemingly unaffected by fatigue (El curandero
de Espinazo 1928).
Significantly, from the earliest
days of his fame as a healer, El Niño Fidencio was a public man. He
performed his cures in the midst of thousands of onlookers, always allowed
photographs, and gave numerous interviews. During one of the public healing
sessions, El Niño reportedly turned to Dalejuelta and said, "Open
your eyes, go wherever you want, tell the people what you have seen, and
be sure to tell the truth." To the photographer, Casasola, he quipped: "Take
pictures of whatever you like, but be sure to give me copies, because if
you don't, none of them will come out" (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos
1928). As a result of this openness, hundreds of photographs document his
life and work. With the national press focused on El Niño Fidencio,
a massive response was predictable. The needy, the sickly, and the terminally
ill, people from every walk of life and social class, began converging on
the little desert village of Espinazo.
For the majority of the year,
the town bakes in unrelenting heat. When it is not hot, a desert chill descends
on the landscape and its inhabitants. As hundreds and then thousands of sickly
and dying people arrived in 1928, this desolate and unforgiving spot was
turned into the field of pain, el campo del dolor (El campo del dolor 1928).
The hopeful created their own accommodations by improvising shacks, stacking
thorny desert plants into the shapes of huts and lean-tos. The crowds, suffering
from insanity, paralysis, cancer, leprosy, and syphilis, were so large their
members had to wait for weeks, even months, to be seen. Thus, many virtually
became residents of Espinazo.
The newspapers' accounts contained
many case histories of El Niño's miraculous cures. One famous case,
retold many times, involved a young blind boy, the son of a Spanish immigrant.
The boy, age two, was the victim of a firecracker accident that caused him
gradually to lose his sight until he was completely blind. The doctors had
given him no hope of recovery.
As tales of the miraculous El
Niño filtered throughout Mexico, the child's parents decided to take
him to Espinazo, an arduous journey that required two weeks. The family lived
in a brush shack that they constructed, using their clothing to cover the
many openings. Weeks passed as they waited patiently. When the day finally
came for Fidencio to see their son, he would not allow the mother to explain
the cause of the boy's blindness. "It's not necessary that you explain it
to me," he said (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). Asking them
to be patient, El Niño Fidencio massaged the boy's eyes for a few
minutes. Then he lifted his head to the heavens in an ecstatic state for
several minutes, as if he were having a vision. When some time had passed,
El Niño lowered his head and continued to massage the boy's eyes.
Finally he said, "Ya estás curado;... [you're healed; bring me a handkerchief
to cover his eyes and be sure not to remove it until the early morning light]"
(Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). The family returned to their
shack. Early the next morning, as day was breaking, the boy's mother began
to remove his bandage. The boy exclaimed, "Ya veo [I can see]" (Dementes,
paralíticos y leprosos 1928). This documented case of restored sight
was later judged to be an extreme case of autosuggestion, which it very well
may have been. Such cases, however, caused frenzy among El Niño's
followers, adding to his fame and popularity.
Another interesting case typified
the cures for which El Niño Fidencio was famous. A woman reported
that her husband, who suffered from chronic dyspepsia, had consulted numerous
doctors. He had undergone unsuccessful surgery, and his condition was so
serious that he was expected to die. With no other hope available, the couple
decided to go to Espinazo. El Niño came into their tent and, without
asking any questions about the man's illness, began to massage his stomach.
When he departed, Fidencio, who often used fruit as a medicine, left a large
bunch of bananas for the patient to eat. The wife remarked that her husband
could not eat them because fruit made him very sick. However, having begun
to feel a little better, the patient asked for a small piece of banana and,
to his wife's great surprise, asked for more a short time later. Within two
hours, he had eaten four bananas, causing him to vomit violently. Fidencio
returned the next day and massaged the patient's stomach with a paste made
from fruit, soap, and medicinal plants. By the second day, the man had improved
remarkably, and by the fourth, he was able to walk for the first time in
months (Curaciones hechas por El Niño Fidencio 1928).
Among the early curiosity seekers
was a medical doctor from the city of Torreón who was afflicted by
paralysis. Fidencio cured him after only one week of treatments. While in
Espinazo, the doctor witnessed many cures, which he later reported, including
the notable cure of a young man from Monterrey who had gone insane. The doctors
had declared his insanity incurable, so his father had brought him to El
Niño, who immediately began to extract the young man's teeth. Following
this procedure, the youth rapidly regained his lucidity. The young man's
insanity, the doctor from Torreón reasoned, had been due to an infection
in his teeth that had affected his nervous system. The young man, grateful
for his cure, stayed on to work in El Niño's household. It was a familiar
pattern in Espinazo for the healed to volunteer service to the community
(Aspectos de el campo del dolor 1928).
THE MYTH OF EL NIÑO
If the press played a large role
in spreading the news of El Niño's cures, it may have played an even
larger role in promulgating the myth of El Niño. He was said to have
had special powers, particularly clairvoyance, since childhood. According
to some reports, when an incurably ill person approached, Fidencio would
remark to the crowd, "A person is coming who is wasting his time; tell him
to go off and prepare for his death; I can't help him except to pray for
him" (Aspectos de el campo del dolor 1928). Dalejuelta reported in El Universal
de Mexico that the well-known General Peraldi came to Espinazo with an incurable
illness. El Niño told him to stay if he wanted, but that he could
not help him. He must make peace with God because "Your sufferings are going
to take you on an eternal adventure" (Curaciones hechas por El Niño
Fidencio 1928). According to the report, General Peraldi died before the
end of that day.
Followers and observers alike
reported that El Niño Fidencio often seemed to enter a trance while
healing. He denied being part of the spiritist movement that was common in
the early part of the century and was popular in Mexico (Kardec 1989). A
very religious person, Fidencio asserted that he was in communication with
the Heavenly Father, who healed through him. He seldom referred directly
to the supernatural, but simple comments like the one he made to the photographer
Casasola--about the photographs not coming out if he were not given a copy--were
passed on by word of mouth. The press repeated the stories, greatly enhancing
the belief that El Niño had the supernatural ability to affect the
outcome of events.
Not all the effects of notoriety,
of course, were positive. The growing reports of miraculous cures enraged
the medical community, and claims of fraud and deception grew more common.
In Mexico City, Dr. Neumayer, a professor at the national medical school,
gave a public demonstration on the types of psychic cures performed by El
Niño Fidencio. Neumayer claimed that Mexico was fertile ground for
these types of healings and predicted that El Niño's ability would
soon wane (Opinión de un médico 1928).
A PRESIDENTIAL VISIT
The media reports of miraculous
cures in Espinazo reached a fevered pitch in the early months of 1928. On
February 8, 1928, the presidential train Olivo made a special stop at Espinazo
so that President Plutarco Calles could have a private consultation with
Fidencio. The president's visit came at the height of the government's persecution
of the Catholic Church, and naturally led to speculation that Calles intended
to expand his efforts to control the church. However, eyewitness reports
indicate that Calles suffered from a serious skin ailment and came seeking
relief from El Niño Fidencio. Calles's visit protected El Niño
from serious interference by local and state governments, as well as by the
church and medical communities (Condal 1977.)
Medical associations called for
immediate intervention, not on the basis of Fidencio's practice but on the
basis of what was not being done to protect the community at large. So many
seriously sick people had congregated in Espinazo that the fear of contagion
became an increasingly valid issue. Many believed that the situation posed
a serious health threat to all of northern Mexico (Dos veces por semana habrá
caros por Espinazo 1928).
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES OF EL NIÑO FIDENCIO
Because of the thousands of seriously
and incurably ill people flocking to the village, it was inevitable that
the death rate in Espinazo would rise. In fact, so many people had died that
two new cemeteries had to be created. "A New Cemetery for the Miracles of
Fidencio," reported the Monterrey newspaper (Un nuevo panteón 1928).
How could the president of the Republic go there and not see the truth of
what was happening? "Was some deal made to protect Fidencio?" asked El Universal
de México newspaper (Pretende ser mejor 1928). In a small village
where one death might be recorded every year, 44 persons had died in less
than one month (Un nuevo panteón 1928). The focus of the Mexican press
turned from reporting the issue to hosting a debate between the medical and
spiritist communities (Kardec 1986). With such negative publicity, the governments
of the northern states of Nuevo León and Coahuila experienced extreme
pressure to resolve the case of the young healer.
The early newspaper accounts also
were among the first to mention El Niño's cult following that emerged
from among the loyal masses of the healed (Dementes, paralíticos y
leprosos 1928). A small army of faithful, called the brigada roja (red brigade),
encircled, sheltered and protected El Niño from the constant attacks
of the press, the medical community, the government. and the church. During
the early months of 1928, the Mexican press outside Mexico City varied sharply
in its opinions on the Espinazo phenomenon. The provincial dailies in the
major northern cities of Monterrey, Saltillo, and Torreón agreed with
the need for local government control and concurred with the outrage of the
medical community. "Monterrey is threatened with being converted from a mecca
of health into one of suffering and death," read one headline (Espinazo he
convertido 1928). The article claimed that Monterrey and all of northern
Mexico were in danger of a major epidemic. Health authorities in the state
of Nuevo León clamored that all manner of persons with every possible
disease had congregated, and that it was now time to end this farce. In all
probability, such articles were expressing embarrassment about the international
attention. It did not help matters that the area had been plagued by a rash
of scandalous healers and miracle workers throughout the early part of the
A real plague of miracle workers has invaded Coahuila and Nuevo León.
The competition between the saviors of mankind intensifies every day, without
the caravan of believers knowing who to visit first. since every one of them
claims to have derived power from God. (Pretende ser mejor 1928).
The Mexico City press, on the
other hand, was largely supportive of El Niño Fidencio, if only in
a cynical way. The news generated in the north was an appreciated diversion
from the serious problems plaguing the country in the midst of civil war.
Dr. Charles Morpeau, a French physician in Mexico, spoke in favor of Fidencio
in the Mexico City press. He stated that it would be medical folly to "negate
in the name of science the cures of the spiritual forces of the world." He
added, "Because all of life is based upon illusion or suggestion, we doctors
have not tried to completely understand the nature of our successes. There
are many things that happen in medicine that are completely unexplainable.
If the truth be known, many have died because of our autosuggestion and inability
to treat an illness" (El doctor 1928).
Tales of El Niño's philanthropy
were becoming inscribed in lore as his cures and "miracles" were told and
retold. The stories of miraculous cures and healings were transformed into
lyrics and then into folk songs and religious hymns. These popular songs
voiced El Niño's successes and expressed thanks to El Niño
Fidencio and to God for their cures. The Mexico City press reported that
"the festive songs were sung of the curandero in Espinazo and across the
country in all of the little towns and public places" (Los poetas campesinos
Day and night, in the face of
adversity, Fidencio continued to console the suffering. He tirelessly attended
to his sick; it was his mission. From around the nation, thousands came to
Espinazo, accepted his medicine, and listened to his gentle words of spiritual
healing. Most returned to their homes without El Niño ever knowing
their names. The journalists remarked that the people had been helped by
simply looking on the face of El Niño.
Throughout the remainder of 1928
and for several years thereafter, more people bought train tickets to Espinazo
than to any other destination in Mexico. This tiny desert village, which
formerly had no need for a mail service, was forced to establish a post office
that processed the approximately 25,000 to 35,000 letters that had arrived
for the throngs in search of a cure (Telégrafo y correo en Espinazo
1928). Similarly, Telégrafos Nacionales established an office in Espinazo.
Fidencio was the first person to utilize the telegraph service, sending a
message of thanks to the national office (Telégrafo y correo en Espinazo
1928). Never before had one of Mexico's hundreds of folk healers reached
this level of popularity and notoriety. The press followed the story daily.
In February 1928, El Excelcior printed the following headlines: "Large Caravans
of Sick Leave for Espinazo," "Hundreds Of Sick Return to Their Homes Let
Down by Fidencio," "Travelers to the City of Pain Die or Are in Worse Condition,"
"Peregrinations to Espinazo Make Followers of Fidencio Rich," "Contradictory
News of El Niño Fidencio's Real Ability," "The Healer of Espinazo
Continues Miraculous Cures," "The Cures of El Niño Fidencio Are Amazing
and Produce Great Admiration for the Healer," "Everything That Has Been Said
About the Celebrated Miracle Worker Pale in the Face of Reality," "The Fanaticism
of His Followers Increases," and "'It's God Who Cures with My Hands,' Says
the Miraculous Niño Fidencio."
Within two years, Espinazo began
to recover from the frenzy of 1928 and 1929. By 1930, the tens of thousands
of insane, deformed, blind, paralytic, and diseased persons searching for
a personal miracle were gone. However, a steady stream of the faithful, as
well as many newcomers and curiosity seekers, continued to make the difficult
trip year after year. During the early 1930s Espinazo began to take on a
much more routine way of life. El Niño's popularity in the media continued
to decline sharply. He was almost constantly under fire from public health
and medical officials, and in later years he was attacked by the church.
He was arrested and brought before tribunals in Monterrey on two occasions
(Quiros 1991). This period of relentless attack was unquestionably the most
important period of his life, because while his celebrity in the media declined,
his fame and popularity with the common people continued to soar.
ESPINAZO: UTOPIA ON THE DESERT
Dr. Francisco Vela, vice president
of the state of Nuevo León's committee on public health, secretly
visited Espinazo in 1930. The throngs of thousands were gone, the spectacle
largely over. Approximately 1,500 sick persons and their families remained,
still an enormous number of people compared with the 100 or so permanent
residents. Espinazo was once again a place of serenity.
Although Vela attempted to portray
the setting as an ineffectual place of healing, he inadvertently provided
the first glimpses of Espinazo as an emerging utopian society, a New Jerusalem,
built around a central cult figure (Da Cunha 1970). Long, orderly lines of
men and women waited patiently for their morning drink of hot herbal medicine
or coffee. The dirt streets were perfectly laid out, each with a name; residential
sections were named after those in Mexico City.
Fifty children received instruction
from a teenage girl in a small building, El Niño Fidencio School.
When Vela arrived, Fidencio was seated in a large room called el foro (forum),
a little theater built for the plays and musical events that were popular
with El Niño and his followers. Admirers surrounded him, caressed
him, stroked his hair, and kissed his hands and feet as they greeted him
and asked his advice. El Niño, always attired in a white tunic and
barefoot, was described as looking serene and intelligent. He had a "rare"
skin color, a mix between brown and white that was almost yellowish; thick
lips; large teeth; and light eyes that looked away from the intruding eyes
of visitors ("El Doctor Vela González, sin que El Niño Fidencio
lo sospechará, estuvo con él," in El Porvenir de Monterrey,
as cited in Quiros 1991: 123-134). Upon arrival, Vela was immediately ushered
into the presence of El Niño Fidencio, who extended his hand and asked
two of his young helpers to show their guest whatever he wanted to see.
Most interesting to Dr. Vela was
a room with a large number of bottles filled with tissue and tumors extracted
by El Niño. These may still be seen in Espinazo. El Niño Fidencio
performed operations without anesthesia, using only a broken piece of bottle
glass as a surgical instrument. Vela claimed to identify many samples as
"obviously" benign tumors. However, he commented that the most highly trained
surgeons of the day would not have dared attempt their removal in their offices,
thereby implying the remarkableness of an untrained healer's performing such
Vela was escorted to all areas
of El Niño's compound--the corral, called la dicha, where the demented
were kept; the place where the lepers were treated; the maternity ward; the
postoperative room; the swing used to treat the mute; the large concrete
containers where the fresh herbal medicine was prepared every day; the flower
garden; and the famous healing mud pond, el charquito. The visitor was stunned
by the orderliness of the place and by its simplicity. "It was like a child
was playing hospital in a life-size place" (El Doctor Vela ....
as cited in Quiros 1991: 123-134). None of this could possibly work, none
of this could possibly be effective, he thought, as the first and then the
second, and finally the third funeral procession of the day filed by. The
different treatment venues were often hundreds of yards apart, and as Fidencio
made his daily treks to see his little sick ones (infermitos), he was followed
on foot by a parade of the faithful. They sang religious hymns as they walked
barefoot through the dusty streets of Espinazo. Later Vela would say:
Fidencio is an innocent, who is not even aware that he suffers from a mental
illness which causes him to believe that he has been appointed by God to
heal the sick. Those who are not innocent children are those who encircle
him and promote his incredible abilities to the masses of suffering people
who do not know any better. (Quiros 1991: 123).
The final national media glimpse
of Espinazo and El Niño Fidencio came in 1937, one year before his
death. The photographic magazine Hoy, Mexico's equivalent of Life magazine,
offered an analysis of the events at Espinazo nine years after the media
blitz of 1928. This valuable exposé provides an intimate view of El
Niño Fidencio's last year of life. Photographs in the article depict
scenes that are familiar even today, because Espinazo has changed little
In the late 1930s only a few dozen
persons disembarked daily from the trains. Gone were the post office and
the telegraph office of eight years earlier. The desperately ill, stripped
of hope by the doctors or with no doctor at all, continued to come to Espinazo
in search of a personal miracle. Many returned home, disappointed, each day.
"I do not even know how to write, sir," Fidencio said to the reporter. "I
only use the gifts of healing that God has given me to help these suffering
people" (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937). One of his young helpers remarked,
"Fidencio knows all of the medicinal plants that are used for healing; too
bad he never studied medicine" (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937).
A photograph's caption in Hoy
reads, "Behind him, the life-size statue of Christ from whom he claims his
power; before him, the suffering, people who have left with cures that defy
medical explanation as well as those who will never leave" (Con Fidencio
en Espinazo 1937). Some left healed, others left feeling better, some left
feeling worse. But all left believing that Fidencio had done for them what
no doctor could do. Almost all considered him to be a priest, and they begged
for his blessing as he raised his crucifix to the heads of his followers.
The article asked, "What sort of man is this, who could have been one of
the wealthiest and most powerful in Mexico? What sort of man gives away more
than 1 million pesos? What sort of man is this who prefers to live a peasant's
life, who shuns even a bed to lie on, and who walks barefoot through the
dusty streets of Espinazo to care for the suffering?" (Con Fidencio en Espinazo
1937). The paradox that Fidencio's life presented to the Mexican people further
served to support his legitimacy as a beneficiary of supernatural abilities
sent to Earth by God to heal the sick, to ease the suffering, and to spread
the word of the New Jerusalem.
The Hoy article did not speculate
about Fidencio's sanity or whether the government should step in to save
the region from epidemic. Now aging, tired. and disheveled, he simply and
humbly attributed his success to God and reiterated that he had not asked
to be chosen for this life. God, having selected him, required him to fulfill
his destiny in the service of the poor and suffering. “I am, in fact, nothing
more than a simple peasant following the will of God" (Con Fidencio en Espinazo
Almost from the beginning of his
brief media fame, Fidencio had predicted his early departure from Earth.
Daily he emulated and acted out the life of Christ as he understood it. His
protectors actively modeled religious symbolism around him, perpetuating
the suggestion that El Niño Fidencio was the Messiah, that he was
the Christ. El Niño's life in Espinazo so mirrored that of Christ
that his followers expected him to die in 1931, at age 33. That he lived
until near his fortieth birthday surprised many of his followers. When he
did die, the faithful fully expected him to rise from the dead on the third
day (Fidencio no quiere salir de Espinazo 1928). Word of his death on October
17, 1938, traveled as quickly as the telegraph and railroad lines could carry
the news. From beginning to end, El Niño Fidencio had only ten years
of life to treat the ill and serve the poor.
THE CULT OF EL NIÑO FIDENCIO
As noted previously, cults typically
revolve around a charismatic leader. By 1935, an organized cult had developed
around El Niño in Espinazo. A central problem confronting most cults
is the continuation of the movement after the death of the leader. Rarely
does another charismatic step in to replace the original leader.
Charisma, by nature, is unstable.
It can exist in its pure form only so long as the charismatic leader is alive.
The challenge for followers is to create a situation in which charisma, in
some adulterated form, persists after the leader's death. In other words,
charisma must be routinized, institutionalized in a bureaucratic form. Bureaucracies
are, by definition, organizational structures that have specialized positions,
lines of authority, positions based on merit, and written rules that regulate
the behavior of people in the organization.
Vested interests played a part
in maintaining the cult of El Niño Fidencio. Espinazo had become one
of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Mexico, and it remains so
today (Schneider 1995). Legions of faithful, along with those seeking a miracle,
journey to Espinazo year after year. Many in and around the small community
earn their living by serving these visitors.
The Fidencista movement has developed
a liturgical calendar based on that of the Catholic Church, integrating with
it the centuries-old Native American agrarian calendar that is divided into
six-month periods. The Fidencista religious cycle also combines traditional
Catholic and Native American practices in celebrating the cult of holy persons.
Their burial places are revered as sacred sites.
Native American influence in Fidencista
celebrations is dramatically witnessed as matachine dancers, with drums beating
and native bows and arrows in hand, travel along the main penitents' route
to the tomb of El Niño (Gilles and Trevino 1994).
As El Niño became a prominent
folk saint, religious objects beating his likeness began to be sold in the
markets and the pilgrimage sites throughout Mexico. Massive emigration of
Mexican workers into the United States between 1938 and the present has spread
El Niño's fame. Today, religious artifacts bearing his likeness can
be found on an untold number of home altars in Texas and throughout the Mexican
communities of the American Midwest (Samora 1971).
The widespread representation
of El Niño as a saint greatly enhanced the popular belief that he
was sent to Earth by God to heal the sick and counsel those in need. This
has led to his dual characterization as "divine doctor" and "lawyer" of the
El Niño's physical appearance,
simple mannerisms, tunic in the style of biblical times, gentle alto voice,
and beardless face further enhanced his growing mythic and cult figure status
(Gardner 1992). It is not surprising that followers sometimes refer to him
as the "Christ of Espinazo." Before his death, he had begun to act out scriptural
events, emulating the life of Christ. Further supporting his cult figure
status. El Niño had had an uncanny ability to anticipate questions
and provide accurate answers while delivering spontaneous and pro-found orations
on complicated religious topics. Like Jesus Christ, El Niño chose
to deliver his spiritual messages by using a combination of parable and allegory,
and often staged simple plays to make his point.
El Niño Fidencio told his
followers specifically that he would communicate with them through spirit
mediums after his death. He warned them that many would claim to be him;
"review them very carefully," he said, "because only a special few will truly
deliver my message" (Zapata de Robles 1994). Approximately two years before
his death, Damiana Martínez and Victor Zapata, both disciples of El
Niño who lived some distance from Espinazo, began to enter trances
and channel messages from El Niño. Telepathic messages from El Niño
became a defining feature of the Fidencista cult. Catholicism provides the
basic tenets of Fidencismo. Spirit channeling of Fidencio, however, and the
resulting shift in focus away from Jesus Christ are the primary reason Fidencismo
is not accepted by the Catholic Church (López de la Fuente de González
1993). In addition, Catholicism strictly forbids the celebration of any person
before that person has been beatified or canonized. Following El Niño's
death, "trance events" created a complex system of spiritual communication
between the deceased healer and his followers. The practice continues today,
as part of the routinization of charisma.
In the warring months of 1938,
the organization for the perpetuation of the cult after the death of Fidencio
was set in place. El Niño's closest assistants in life became revered
as disciples. Damiana was recognized as the principal voice (vocina principal)
of El Niño Fidencio on Earth and the leader of the movement. She was
the first to occupy the position that came to be called la directora (the
director). Victor Zapata was charged with denouncing "false voices." His
duties evolved into the el revisador (inspector general) in later years.
Fidencista leadership made a conscious
effort to remember and record the messages received from El Niño.
Since illiteracy was common in rural Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s, El Niño's
spiritual messages or scriptures (escrituras) had to be learned by memory
and repeated often until an opportunity arose for them to be transcribed.
Approximately 100 "scriptures"
have survived, and form a coherent basis for the organization, including
the emergent belief system, celebrations and rites, and the nature of the
interaction between and among the followers.
Local neighborhood missions were
established outside of the immediate desert towns and villages in northern
Mexico. Major Fidencista strongholds developed in every major northern city,
including Monterrey, Saltillo, Torreón, Guanajuato, and especially
the border towns of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros. In addition. missions
developed in areas where Mexican migratory agricultural workers settled,
such as Texas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.
Each local mission was founded around a trance medium called a materia (Zavaleta
1992). The continued success of local missions is also dependent upon the
group's ability to identify a member with spiritual gift, or don, and to
develop new mediums. For this reason, the Fidencista experience has always
welcomed and encouraged the participation of children, who are viewed as
potential mediums. Almost without exception, the rounding mediums in the
1940s were female heads of large families. They managed the difficult tasks
of raising a family, which were complicated by the growing demands on their
time from increased activity in their rapidly growing missions.
At his death, Fidencio was entombed
in his hospital building; his followers did not allow his remains to be removed
to the cemetery. The establishment of this tomb-shrine propelled Espinazo's
status as a pilgrimage site to even greater heights. Miracles are often associated
with sacred sites. Today the needy and the faithful come to Espinazo, seeking
and receiving miracle cures in the burial room known as la tumba (the tomb).
Mediums often live great distances from Espinazo but are required to make
the trip at least once a year. Many make the pilgrimage more often.
Mediums and their followers sometimes
acquire cheap property in Espinazo and build adobe compounds that are used
to house them and their followers when they visit for a fiesta (Ovalle de
Tamayo 1989). During the fiestas, Espinazo is packed with automobiles and
pickup trucks beating license plates from a dozen U.S. states and an even
greater number of Mexican states. Pilgrimages to Espinazo now referred to
as "the Holy Land" or Tierra Santa, form the core around which the events
of the year revolve. Local missions are always preparing to go to Espinazo
or have just returned from there.
Local mediums serve both as advisers
and as healers, so that throughout the year, the faithful receive the benefit
of healings, concessions, wishes granted, and problems solved. The personal
receipt of a miracle creates a spiritual debt (manda), that is owed to the
granting Catholic saint or spirit. It requires that the recipient perform
a penance of gratitude and travel to "the Holy Land" to give thanks. Once
the recipient has made the promised trip to Espinazo, he or she has fulfilled
the obligation and performed the penitencia. This process is repeated during
the lifetime of a supplicant and guarantees that there will constantly be
members of a local mission returning to Espinazo. In addition, those who
have received a miracle in their lives serve as a constant marketing device
in the Mexican-American community. Their testimonies draw a steady flow of
new and needy persons to the medium's healing mission. Fidencistas are often
devoted to Catholic saints and make regular pilgrimages to Catholic shrines
In the 1940s and 1950s, la directora
and el revisador became the living representatives of El Niño Fidencio
on Earth as well as the driving forces behind the cult. Between 1938 and
the early 1970s, the Fidencista movement continued to grow in strength and
numbers with an expanding geographic sphere of influence. The liturgical
cycle became fully established, including the semiannual fiestas, and a broad
network of functioning local missions were developed.
THE FIDENCISTA MOVEMENT TODAY
During the 59 years since the
death of El Niño, skeptics have insisted his memory would fade in
time and eventually disappear. In fact, the opposite has happened. Today
Fidencio enjoys an unrivaled popularity as a healer and counselor in the
pantheon of Mexican and Mexican-American folk saints and Catholic saints.
In the United States, the continued popularity of El Niño Fidencio
is traced to the fact that the largest pan of the Mexican-American community
traces its origins to southern Texas and northern Mexico.
Thousands of believers today are
loosely organized into a socioreligious community based in healing temples
or missions. The Fidencista movement is supported at its most basic level
by local spirit mediums. Hundreds of missions support hundreds of thousands
of regular followers as well as untold numbers of one-time or episodic visitors
to the missions.
The growth of Fidencismo is enhanced
by an informal system of oral communication that operates effectively in
the Latino community (Escamilla 1995). The structure and function of Fidencista
missions in Mexican and Mexican-American communities is based on faith and
the unavailability of local medical care. Individuals who seek health care
at Fidencista missions fall into three broad categories. The first consists
of a small inner circle of faithful followers and assistants. A second large
group consists of regular attendees. These individuals regularly participate
in weekly healing sessions and in special temple activities. The size of
the regular group is dependent upon numerous complex factors, including the
current popularity of the trance medium. The third group consists of persons
seeking treatment on an episodic basis. The size of the third group depends
upon the success of the informal, word-of-mouth network established by the
regular group. Most of the regular members of a Fidencista temple make weekly
appearances for simple blessings (bendiciones) and positive emotional enforcement.
Ritual sweepings, in which the healer uses a sweeping motion with herbs or
special sacred objects, are used to rid the patient of "bad vibes." Almost
without exception, regular members have received a miracle from El Niño
Fidencio. In difficult cases that require continued benefaction, the recipients
are expected to remember to whom they owe their good fortune. Offerings are
gladly accepted. Loyalty is demonstrated by regular appearances at temple
functions and by the general support of temple activities.
First-time visits to a Fidencista
healer almost always are prompted by a serious physical, emotional, personal,
or economic problem in the life of the visitor. Contrary to popular belief,
people who seek physical care from a spiritual folk healer (curandero) do
not do so as a first choice. Almost without exception, physicians have been
consulted first. If medical therapy has not been successful, alternative
therapies, especially miraculous treatment, are sought. Every Fidencista
mission has a regular group of persons who give impassioned and convincing
testimony concerning impossible and miraculous cures that they have received
through the intercession of El Niño Fidencio. These claims are often
Chronic ailments commonly go untreated
in the Mexican-American community. Therefore, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis,
and similar ailments are common in El Niño Fidencio's patient load.
Physical ailments are treated
by Mexican-American folk healers in a variety of ways. They work on the material,
the mental, or the spiritual level (Trotter and Chavira 1981). Material-level
treatment in Fidencista temples is consistent with techniques and remedies
found in nonspiritual healing traditions (Kiev 1969). The material and mental
levels of treatment are common, but spiritual treatment, directly from the
spirit of El Niño Fidencio, is more highly valued.
Healers are said to work spiritually
when in a trance state. Individual spiritist healing sessions usually follow
a similar pattern. The patient is greeted by the spirit and returns the salutation.
The initial greeting is followed by a personal discussion with the spirit
of Fidencio about the problem. In physical ailments, El Niño, working
through the healer, immediately approaches the problem, using a combination
of techniques. These include massage, cleansing and sweeping, and, in serious
cases, spiritual surgery. Often El Niño prescribes a remedy that may
be a mixture of herbal and religious items, and requests that the patient
follow some prescribed process or ritual at home, then pay a return visit
to the temple.
The average number of visits to
El Niño Fidencio for physical ailments is equaled or surpassed by
visits for other personal reasons. Although many of these consultations are
of a serious nature, involving major family problems, many are simply routine
visits by the faithful for emotional reinforcement. Research has consistently
shown that the Mexican-American community is severely underserved in mental
health care (Psychiatric Assessment of Mexican-Origin Populations 1995).
In the United States, mental health treatment has become commonplace. However,
ethnic stereotypes continue to promote myths suggesting Mexican-Americans
are poor but happy. They lead well-adjusted, simple lives, free from the
common emotional and mental health problems experienced by middle-class Americans.
This stereotype supports the contention that Mexican-Americans are not in
need of care. Consequently, the fastest-growing population in the country
has little or no access to even minimal emotional and mental health care.
Because of these high growth rates and the fact that the Mexican-American
population is disproportionately poor relative to the general population,
we can expect alternative healing systems like the Fidencista movement to
continue to thrive. In almost every other country in the world, including
Mexico, lay practitioners, with limited medical support, care for approximately
80 percent of the population's physical and emotional needs (Velimirovic
El Niño began by serving
the physical and mental health needs of the population. However, an important
dimension of the movement that bears his name is its emergence as a folk
religion. Throughout Latin America, native belief systems have commingled
with Roman Catholicism. The syncretic hybrids that have been produced are
thriving alternatives to an often disinterested and unresponsive Catholic
Church. Fidencismo does not seek to replace Catholicism but simply to be
accepted by it. The rejection by the Catholic Church of this movement further
alienates huge segments of the Latin American population. Many Latino Catholic
parish priests are openly sympathetic to their parishioners' belief in El
The Fidencista movement's true
charm and charisma, which attracts an ever-growing number of persons to its
ranks, is its profound piety. Its strong belief and faith represent an attempt
to emulate Christ in their life. Fidencismo never ceases to amaze the observer
with the beauty of its mystical simplicity. While one feels compelled to
explain its mysteries, the more they are explored, the more it is realized
that they are not meant to be explained, only lived.
Special thanks for facilitating access to critical original documents in
Mexico City to Mtra. Aurora Cano Andaluz, Coordinadora de la Hemeroteca Nacional
de México, and Lic. Guillermo Ceron, Jefe de la Sección de
Consulta y Servicios Automatizados de Información,Hemeroteca Nacional
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Paper presented at VI International
Conference on Traditional and Folk Medicine, Texas
A&I University, Kingsville,