Catholics, Too, Venerate El Nino Fidencio

By Burbank, James | National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Catholics, Too, Venerate El Nino Fidencio


Burbank, James, National Catholic Reporter


ESPINAZO, Mexico -- Twice a year this sleepy northeast Mexican hamlet, two hours' drive from Monterrey, comes alive. Tens of thousands of Hispanic Catholics from south Texas and Mexico conduct annual pilgrimages here to venerate their curandero folk saint, El Nino Fidencio. Despite repeated warnings by Monterrey Archbishop Adolfo Rivera to avoid the heretical festivals, crowds of the faithful continue to come.

These crowds know no heresy in their veneration. For many Catholic Mexicans on both sides of the border, religion is anything but pure, and naturally so. It is the product of a synthesis of Indian and European cultures that has evolved since the Spanish conquest of the Americas. This explains why a curandero, or shaman-healer, is also called a saint.

During the week of Oct. 17 and again in March to honor El Nino patron, St. Joseph, throngs of devotees carry flowers and copal incense like ancient Aztec celebrants. They wend their way through narrow Espinazo streets to El Pirulito (the little pepper tree) where El Nino, meaning Child of God, received his miraculous healing powers from the Heavenly Father. After circling the tree three times, long lines of pilgrims pass to El Nino's tomb located in the curandero's healing salon.

A fiesta atmosphere abides in Espinazo during the celebrations. Devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe and El Nino, dancers wearing plumed headdresses and elaborate costumes perform in the plaza by the folk saint's tomb. Musicians, clowns, balloon sellers and patent medicine hawkers wander through the crowds. Part velorio, or wake, part tribune to El Nino's curative powers, the fall festivities and the spring rituals are as strange and compelling as the folk saint they celebrate.

Born in 1898, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino came from the state of Guanajuato as a young boy to Espinazo, where he served as housekeeper for Enrique Lopez de la Fuente. The boy showed a gift for healing, a knowledge of medicinal plants and concoctions and an affinity with the supernatural. As a young man, his reputation as a curandero spread. Hundreds seeking cures camped out in Espinazo.

In 1928 Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles' suppression of the Catholic priesthood had resulted in the Cristero Revolt. Calles, who organized Mexico's dominant political party -- the PRI -- the following year, came to Espinazo to arrest the curandero faith healer for practicing medicine without a license. After El Nino cured the politician and his ailing daughter, thousands descended on Espinazo. By the time of his death, El Nino was the most famous Mexican curandero.

In 1938, Fidencistas say, El Nino was murdered by jealous physicians. Before he died he made a prediction. He said he would come back three days after his death. El Nino would return by inhabiting various spirit mediums called cajitas (little boxes) or materials (literally matter, applied to persons who believe they embody a sacred personage) through whom he would speak, act and heal the sick.

Now in many U.S. Mexican-American communities, Fidencista materias have established missions. During fiesta time pilgrims come not only from Mexico but from Wisconsin, California, New Mexico and of course the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, to visit this sacred land. Most of them are poor, marginalized, with little or no access to health care. They seek healing here in Espinazo and they view themselves as ardent Catholics.

"In 1938 the pope came to Espinazo," says Juanita Barela from El Paso, Texas. She credits El Nino with saving her from a life of cocaine and alcohol abuse. "The pope left a letter in support of El Nino," she says.

The pope's visit and his letter are fiction. …

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