El Nino Fidencio
Burbank, James, The World and I
Celebrating Mexico's Folk Healer
Brakes screech as the 4 A.M. train, bound for Monterrey some three hours to the south, rumbles its way out of town. Yellow light from the freighter's headlamps sends shadows dancing against the adobe walls of this isolated village in northeastern Mexico. Then darkness and silence envelop the little shacks along the rail line. The dust-gray earth exudes a dense vapor of woodsmoke and burning garbage. The faint, ever-present odor of urine lends its essence to the oppressive morning heat. The sweet, acrid smoke of copal, Aztec incense, hovers like a benediction over everything.
Far away, a rooster calls. Then, like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, a plaintive voice begins to sing over a loudspeaker somewhere in the village streets:
Adios ninito Fidencio, adios estrella brillante. Echanos tu benedicion para seguir adelante. (Good-bye little child Fidencio, good-bye brilliant star. Give us your blessing to continue forward.)
Over and over the voice, filled with that loving kindness Mexicanos call carino, sings out. The modern world vanishes: Sacred time reasserts its ancient presence. It is just before dawn on October 17. This is la tierra santa (the holy land) of El Nino Fidencio, folk saint of southern Texas and northern Mexico. On this day, here in Espinazo, Nuevo Leon, southeast of the Sierra Azul, Fidencistas (followers of El Nino) celebrate the saint's birth and death.
Tens of thousands of peregrinos (pilgrims) have descended on the village. The song wakes them from where they have been sleeping, huddled in corners or on the ground under blue plastic tarps, or in the backs of dilapidated cars and trucks out on the dusty streets. These multitudes have come to celebrate their beloved ninito (little child), a healer whose life and memory the fiesta now celebrates.
The legend of El Nino
Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino was born in Guanajuato in 1898. It is believed that, as a child, he was employed as a servant by a doctor. He may well have familiarized himself with the medical practices of the day through this early experience. As a boy or a young man, he moved to the tiny hamlet of Espinazo to work as housekeeper or tutor in the hacienda of one Enrique Lopez de la Fuente.
Fidencio began to acquire a reputation for having a remarkable don (gift) for the supernatural and for healing with herbs and potions. He may also have learned herbal lore from Theodore Von Bernich, a spiritual healer and scholar who was a friend of don Enrique and visited Espinoza from his home in San Antonio, Texas. It is possible that he became familiar with Yoga and meditation, spiritual disciplines then gaining international attention through the work of Mme. Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and other writers of the early 1900s.
Fidencistas say that the saint was born again when he received his healing and spiritual powers from God one October 17, although the year is not known. This blessing occurred at el pirulito (the little peppertree), located near the railroad tracks on the village outskirts. Believers testify that the presence of El Nino is still strongly felt at this site. From this time, his fame began to spread. Soon, thousands of people were coming to Espinazo to be near their ninito.
Although Fidencio died when he was forty, Fidencistas claim he died when he was thirty-three, just as Christ did. They also claim other similarities with Jesus, noting that Fidencio had twelve disciples and that the saint often retreated into the wilderness--five miles out of Espinazo to el cerrito de campana (the little hill with a bell)--to pray and meditate. He would often be followed by hundreds of believers seeking his healing presence. One time, when a follower asked him who he was, El Nino supposedly responded: "Am I a madman? Am I just a man? Or am I your Christ?"
The name El Nino refers to Fidencio's childlike character. This is also considered to link him with Jesus. Fidencio even spoke in a high-pitched, youthful voice. By all accounts, he was a simple man who loved to have fun and who danced with his patients to heal them. Although he characterized Espinazo as the holy land and the country of pain, Fidencio loved to party with his followers. To care for the sick in his attendance, he ensured that dancing and singing went on day and night.
To his followers, Nino Fidencio is more than a curandero (folk healer). For them he is a saint, forever linked in their hearts to Mexico and to the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose dress he is said to have worn. According to his followers, Fidencio never married and remained a virgin all his days. They call him El Guadalupano (the son of Guadalupe) and say he had both male and female attributes that enable him to be an intercessor between God and human beings. Thus, he is Christ, Virgin, and grand doctor all at once. His followers do not perceive any conflict between these apparently differing roles.
When people offered gifts and payment for his services, he would throw all money, fruits, jewelry, and food from the roof of his healing salon into the crowds below. They say he was afraid of losing his healing powers if he accepted any compensation for his services, much less experienced comforts or sexual pleasure.
Believers contend Fidencio was able to diagnose people by simply looking at them, and that he treated an astounding variety of illnesses, from cancer to leprosy. For his followers there were no days and nights, because El Nino worked with his patients twenty to forty hours at a stretch. He would rest only a few hours, curling up in a corner of the salon. Simply to be near their saint was enough to make time disappear for the Fidencistas.
El Nino also conducted surgery. In preparation for operations, Fidencio would break glass bottles on the salon floor and then look for one special piece with which to perform the task. Pictures show him using shards of glass to work on patients with cancerous tumors. He is known to have operated using fragments of obsidian.
El Nino was something of a trickster. He is said to have cured a man who had been mute for several years by instructing him to stand in front of a swing. El Nino then sat in the swing and rocked back and forth, hitting the man at every turn. At last the mute found his voice and screamed in anger and pain.
In 1928, Fidencio gained national prominence. Mexico's president, Plutarco Elias Calles, was on a national tour. His trip occurred at the time of the Cristero revolt. The government, in favor of universal secular education for Mexican children, actively suppressed the priesthood. The church naturally opposed such a challenge to its authority. Calles had heard rumors of this El Nino Fidencio and came to Espinazo to arrest him. But the Fidencistas say their ninito knew that Calles was coming and what his intentions were. El Nino asked all the followers to dress in white and wear red bandanas (now the Fidencista costume). El Nino wore the same style of clothing as his followers, so Calles could not pick him out from the crowd.
Calles had been sick. The folk healer approached the president and offered to cure him. Fidencio also said that he knew a secret: The president's daughter was gravely ill. El Nino healed both the president and his daughter. From then on, Calles sent food and presents to Espinazo, and Fidencio's fame spread even farther.
El Nino was threatened by the jealousy of more orthodox doctors. Some even hired assassins, but Fidencio always discovered the would-be killers and would make them surrender their guns and poisons. By 1938, when he died, El Nino was the most famous curandero in Mexico.
Fidencio may have suffered from pernicious anemia. His appearance changed radically as he aged. Fidencistas say he looked bloated because he swelled with holiness and that saints look different from ordinary people. Enemies say he died because he was an alcoholic, but Fidencio may simply have died from exhaustion due to his anemia. His followers, however, offer an additional story.
"Where I am going, no one can go," El Nino Fidencio said in predicting his own death. But before he died, the "doctor of doctors" made a promise that he would return, and that hundreds of people would become cajitas (little boxes), cajones (drawers), or materia (material or vessels) for him to inhabit. Some of the mediums claiming to embody him would be real and some would be fake. Materias, said El Nino, would be like stars in the skies. Some would shine brighter than others. Nevertheless, at his death, El Nino Fidencio bestowed his healing gifts, and today many mediums channel El Nino.
Fidencistas offer this account of the saint's death. El Nino asked to be left alone for three days and said he would then rise again. Thereupon, he entered a trance. But a worried friend sent for a doctor before the three days had gone by. Two doctors, one from Monclova and one from Monterrey, showed up. Even though El Nino was not dead, they did an autopsy. The jealous doctors slit his throat.
The fiesta of El Nino
FIDENCISTAS IN ESPINAZO" scream the headlines of a Monterrey tabloid. "SAVED? CRAZY? OR JUST PLAIN STUPID?" Sitting in the driver's seat of his 1973 Chevy station wagon, which is parked in the square at the edge of town, an impassive snake-oil salesman idly reads the paper. A loudspeaker blasts the passing crowds of Fidencistas and peregrinos with the imputed virtues of his patent medicine. As the tape recording repeats his sales pitch, the huckster waits for business, smiling vaguely to the passersby.
A materia in blue robes, surrounded by about thirty of her followers, moves past the wagon. They are misiones, members of her mision (mission), and have endured the rigors of traveling to Espinazo from San Antonio, Texas. Dressed in white with red kerchiefs and sashes, the followers carry a banner representing the Virgin of Guadalupe. With great fervor they sing an alabanza (song of praise) to El Nino.
As the group passes along the narrow, dusty street called Calle Jerusalen, matachin dancers--devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe and El Nino--dressed in colored headdresses sweep by. They shake gourds and stamp to the rhythm of a bass drum. Clowns in face paint suddenly appear. A cajito or cajon (male medium or channel for El Nino) surrounds an old man with his red cape and offers healing prayers. In a doorway, another materia, dressed in a brown pilgrim's hat and blue robe, has become a channel for Santo Nino de Atocha (a Mexican saint aspect of the baby Jesus). Her eyes are closed, her voice altered and high-pitched. "Your life is hard, but you have a good heart," she says to a peregrino whose hands she holds. "You've traveled a long way, and you're tired to the bone."
The campesino's face remains impassive, but a small tear runs down his cheek. "Maybe you need a little fiesta to cheer you up," she offers with an impish smile, then suddenly pelts him with sweet tarts, cookies, confetti, and Tootsie Rolls. The group roars with laughter. Cymbals crash and trumpets blare as street musicians begin to blast away; nearby, guitars strum a corrido (folk song). Under an old tarp that serves as a canopy, a hawker pitches the virtues of healing oils and aguas preparadas (water preparations) he is selling, as well as benefits from his sacred relics and souvenirs of Espinazo.
Another vendor throws barbacoa (barbecue) meats onto a grill, sending a cloud of blue smoke into the narrow byway. A magician attracts a crowd eager to gamble on his shell game. Another medium has just begun to enter a trance to channel Pancho Villa, considered a folk saint for his border raids against los Americanos and for acting as an intercessor and defender of the poor and disenfranchised.
Many of the participants in this amazing pageant feel themselves abandoned by a health-care system that caters only to the moneyed and a church that refuses to recognize their ninito. Most are ardent Catholics who would like nothing better than for their saint to receive official church recognition. They say Pope Plus XII visited Espinazo and left a letter verifying El Nino's sainthood. What does it matter if both letter and visit are fictions?
There are detractors. Materializing from the side of an adobe building, a disheveled borracho (drunk) sways into the narrow lane. The sweet odor of pulque, Mexican liquor made from agave cactus, encircles him. "Charlatans," he screams. "With your eyes closed, pretending to heal the sick. Be damned. Fakers and robbers." His face distorts with unfocused rage. He points a trembling finger of accusation toward one materia, but no one pays attention. Grumbling, he totters and stumbles up the street.
They are all here: believers full of simple and ardent faith and skeptics full of scorn; mediums, pretenders, and pitchmen. This floating sacred carnival charges the atmosphere of Espinazo with a spirituality that transcends conventional concepts. The borders between real and surreal, plausible and outrageous, fact and fiction, good and evil, seem to blur and evaporate. Fidencistas are embraced in all-inclusive loving acceptance. As evening falls, the echoes of El Nino's life and death dance in the light and shadows.
In the compounds and adobe shanties, the misiones prepare for the evening celebration that marks their vigil for El Nino. They have made wreaths and banners. Afar dark falls, they proceed in long lines to the sacred spots. First they circle three times around el pirulito, then they make their way to El Nino's tumba (tomb) in Fidencio's former healing salon. Some may collect water from el charquito, the little pond in whose sulfurous gray mud El Nino healed the sick.
But where once the crowds moved with great ease through their pilgrimage spots, now they wait, sometimes for hours, to gain access to the saint's resting place. The grandsons of don Enrique have limited access to the tomb (where all materias now have to register). The grandsons have officially registered their Iglesia Cristiana Fidencista (Fidencista Christian Church) with the Mexican government, and the Fidencista mass is now held in the grand salon. But many view these efforts to establish an official church as challenges to the traditional, charismatic leadership of the materias. Some fear a confrontation, while others say fiesta attendance may diminish as a result.
In the end, it is la gente (the people), with their love, warmth, simplicity, and faith, who have made Espinazo's fiesta what it is. It is to them that the doctor verdadero (true doctor) gave his life, his healing, and his power. He is their saint, their hauntingly familiar ninito, and not the property of any institution or charismatic leader. In their minds and hearts, his image hovers over the streets of Espinazo. The gift of El Nino is larger than any problems in this life.
When the fiesta ends, they will return home with memories of the sacred landscape they visited and touched. The relics and trinkets they take with them will make the trip a part of their daily lives. The following March they will return, this time to celebrate the day of El Nino's patron, Saint Joseph. Once again they will sing their alabanzas, walk three times around el pirulito, and recall their ninito. And the spring air will be filled with the scent of flowers.
El Nino in Cyberspace
Until recently, few books about Hispanic folk medicine (curanderismo) or El Nino addressed the general reader. Most information has been confined to academic references. Fortunately, this situation has begun to change with the publication of the following books, and now El Nino Fidencio even has his own Web site on the Internet.
Two booklets, written in an engaging, straightforward manner, provide basic information on traditional Hispanic herbal remedies and folk healers of the Rio Grande border region. They are, respectively, Green Medicine and The Folk Healer: The Mexican-American Tradition of Curanderismo, both by Eliseo Torres. A Fidencista himself, Torres gives the reader solid information on three famous curanderos (including El Nino), as well as medicinal herbs, diagnosis, and healing practices. Replete with amusing anecdotes and clear descriptions, the books may be ordered from Nieves Press, Box 2205, Kingsville, TX 78363.
For ten years Massachusetts photographer Dore Gardner captured powerful black-and-white images of Fidencistas in their home misiones and in Espinazo during fiesta. Interviewing materias, Constantino family members, and Fidencistas, she has gathered a rich harvest in El Nino Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open. The profound beauty of the Fidencista movement is demonstrated through this stunning series of photographs. Text from the interviews provides a poetic counterpoint to her visual imagery. Folklorist Kay Turner also delivers thought-provoking commentary on the photography and El Nino. The book may be ordered from the Museum of New Mexico Press, POB 2087, Santa Fe, NM 98504-2087.
Images and text from Gardner's work are now on the Internet, thanks to the efforts of Los Angeles photographer Pedro Meyer. For those who want to see El Nino floating in cyberspace, his Web site may be accessed at ZONEZERO.COM
James Burbank is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: El Nino Fidencio. Contributors: Burbank, James - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 12. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 1997. Page number: 202. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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