From .......... National Catholic Reporter

February 7, 1997

pages 3-4


Catholics, too, venerate El Nino

Folk saint a reminder that religion always wears garb of culture


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's 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 tribute 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 materias (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.

The pope's visit and his letter are fiction. Fidencistas show a marked preference for syncretism and incorporate widely disparate elements in their beliefs. Fidencista 'materias' invent spontaneous rituals that incorporate alabanzas (stings of praise), the use of herbs, scented waters called aguas preparadas and various oils and potions.

A mercado (market) thrives in Espinazo during fiestas, where images of El Nino, Jesus and various saints are side by side with little statues of Hotei, the happy fat Buddhist bodhisattva who is an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Like a Buddhist master, El Nino loved the mystical, the playful and the unexpected, and so Buddha, too, has been absorbed into El Nino's festival.

Fidencistas also call their folk saint El Guadalupano, son of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He often wore a dress as he carried a cross through Espinazo streets. Detractors say Fidencio was gay and that he was an alcoholic who drank himself to death, but his adherents relate that the childlike El Nino loved to have parties and play music to entertain and lift the spirits of the sick. His followers say Fidencio is an embodiment of Baby Jesus, especially in the form of El Nino de Atocha, whose spirit materias channel during fiesta time.

Fidencistas gather at El Charquito, the dirty gray pond near his tomb where El Nino healed lepers and cancer-stricken patients. They wade into the fetid water where a materia awaits to immerse them in healing baptism.

Adelita Chavez, a 34-year-old bilingual education teacher from San Antonio, has taken the Espinazo waters and says, though she is skeptical about the curandero, that her bad back has been aided by bathing in the sacred pool. She says her university training in critical thinking is at odds with Fidencista spiritualism, which nevertheless proves an attraction for her.

Wearing the brown pilgrim hat and blue robes of El Nino de Atocha, a materia from San Antonio has led her group under some shade trees near the pool. She speaks in a strangely altered voice with her eyes closed.

"Do you know who that is?" asks Tom Garcia, a 40 year-old San Antonio plumber. "That is Baby Jesus." His expression of awe and devotion typify the kind of gnosis, power and immediacy that has proved persuasive for Fidencistas.

They also want their spontaneous ritual practices, their charismatic beliefs and their Santo Nino to be recognized by the mother church, a recognition that in all likelihood will never come.

Recently the grandsons of Enrique de la Fuente have sought to have the Fidencista church receive official recognition by the Mexican government under the same legislation that has only recently granted Catholic priests the right to wear vestments in public.

This political move has been viewed by some Fidencistas as a challenge to traditional materia leadership and a widening of the gap that separates the official church from this new folk religion.

Such concerns don't bother most pilgrims to Espinazo. They see no separation between what happens during El Nino's festivals and their more conventional devotions. Meanwhile, each year El Nino's fiestas draw more adherents, as this U.S. Mexican border religion continues to grow and provide solace and healing for many Hispanic Catholics both in the United States and in Mexico.

[front page picture -[of feather and bead bedecked dancers]

caption] - Mexico's El Nino Fidencio shows religion, including Catholicism, seldom comes totally pure but dressed in prevailing culture. Dancers in Espinazo, A Mexican village where fiestas honor El Nino Fidencio, healer and folk saint.

[picture caption] - An itinerant healer lays on hands near El Nino Fidencio's tomb.

[picture caption] - Fidencistas gather for healing and worship at a shrine near Espinazo, Mexico, near the foot of the Sierra Azul.