EL NIÑO FIDENCIO
EL NIÑO FIDENCIO TIMELINE
1898 (October 17) José de Jesús Fidencio Constantino Síntora was born in Guanajuato, Mexico.
1910-1920 The Mexican Revolution took place.
1917 The Constitution of Mexico was used to restrict the power of the Catholic Church.
1924-1928 Plutarco Elias Calles served as President of Mexico.
1925 Fidencio arrived in Espinazo and began acquiring the reputation of a healer with miraculous powers.
1926 "Calles Law" based in the 1917 Constitution was used to initiate severe punishments against the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic clergy.
1926-1929 Armed priests and laypersons responded to the religious oppression with the Crístero Rebellion.
1927 Fidencio was called to relieve others’ sufferings in a divine vision.
1928 (February 8) President Calles visited Fidencio for six hours for a healing session.
1929 (February 18) Fidencio faced legal proceedings by the state of Nuevo León for practicing illegal medicine.
1936 The Archbishop of Monterrey sent a delegation to Fidencio requesting that he stop administering the sacraments.
1938 (October 19) Niño Fidencio passed away.
1940s The offices of la directora and el revisador were established within the Fidencia movement.
1978 The Center for Fidencist Cultural and Spiritual Studies was founded.
1993 The Fidencist Christian Church was recognized by the Mexican government.
Niño Fidencio was born José de Jesús Fidencio Constantino Síntora on October 17, 1898 in the village of Yuriria, Guanajuato, Mexico. Although details of Fidencio’s life are largely unknown, in the hagiographic account he was born into a large, poor family. Fidencio is described as highly religious as a young boy and "At the age of 8 he began to display special mental powers; guessing, thinking, and recognizing their peers despite blindfolded" (Herrera 2012). He also performed his first healing by restoring his mother's broken arm (Zavaleta 2012:442). He may have worked on a Yucatan plantation as a young boy and served as an altar boy in the local church after returning to Guanajuato. Fidencio is said to have acquired his nickname El Niño, or the boy, due to the fact that he always retained a soft, high-pitched voice and a childish face and demeanor. Further, it is believed that Niño Fidencio never passed puberty and remained sexually undeveloped through his entire life.
While a schoolboy, Fidencio befriended Enrique López de la Fuentes . The two boys’ friendship grew and Fidencio began to refer to López de la Fuentes as papa , or "Dad." Even though Fuentes was only two years older than Fidencio, Fidencio had developed a paternal respect for him; one that would last their entire lives.
The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and its aftershock set the scene for Niño Fidencio. The destruction and violence occurring during the war and the torment and despair that remained afterwards left many in the country seemingly broken: physically, mentally, and spiritually. The Mexican government and the Catholic Church were locked in a battle for ten years following the war. The power and privilege of the Church and clergy had been restricted in the Constitution of 1917. Church property was nationalized and the Church was prohibited from criticizing the government in any way. Catholic priests were imprisoned, executed, or expelled from Mexico. President Plutarco Elias Calles, president from 1924-1928, became known for his advancement of an anti-Catholic agenda. In 1926, "Calles Law" set forth severe punishments for any violation of the Constitution. In protest, the Catholic Church essentially went on strike in Mexico; throughout the country clergymen cancelled religious services. The struggle against church and state was cause for unrest and initiated a rebellion from 1926 to 1929 known as the Crístero Rebellion, an uprising consisting of armed priests and laypersons. Thus the country was in turmoil, many awaiting a saving figure. The religious felt oppressed; there was now a severe lack of access to the Church as well as social services. It was at this time of rising tumult that El Niño appeared in Espinazo.
After having been separated for several years, Fidencio and his lifelong friend were reunited in Espinazo, Nuevo León, Mexico in 1925. López de la Fuentes had become administrator of a large hacienda owned by a German man by the name of Theodoro Von Wernich . Wernich, a recent immigrant from Germany, may have introduced Fidencio to Spiritism. Spiritists believe that the living and dead can communicate by means of a spirit’s use of a living person’s body as a vehicle and tool to communicate. As the Fidencista movement is founded in the belief that El Niño’s spirit heals through the use of a living person’s body, it has been speculated that Von Wernich may have strongly influenced Fidencio. He is believed to have recognized El Niño’s abilities as a healer and encouraged his progression early on. Although Fidencio considered himself a Catholic and not a Spiritist, Von Wernich is said to have strengthened Fidencio’s prior belief that interaction with the spirit realm can be an integral part of everyday life. This belief is popular not only with Fidencistas but other folk Catholics as well.
Niño Fidencio rapidly acquired a reputation as a faith healer ( curandero ) . The same year he arrived in Espinazo, Fidencio began to take on tasks usually associated with women including caring for sick and newborn animals, working in a kitchen, and watching over children while showing a high interest in both healing and religion in all his activities. When a mine collapsed at Le Reforma that first year, Fidencio cured fifteen of those who had survived (Graziano 2006:193). It was then that people first began to seek El Niño and travel to the little town of Espinazo in hopes of miracles.
In 1927, Fidencio reported that he had experienced a vision in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit appeared to him and called him to his sacred vocation of relieving others’ suffering. This vision is reported to have come at a time of personal desperation. It has been suggested that Fidencio might have lost his job or perhaps been punished by Lopez de la Fuente, who oftentimes has been portrayed negatively in the folklore of the movement (Graziano 2006:193). According to Fidencio, the vision came as he sat distressed under a sacred pepper tree in the city. The tree became one of the primary holy sites for adherents.
On February 8, 1928, despite his anti-Catholic political agenda, Mexican President Calles visited with Fidencio for six hours. Many believe that he went to El Niño with a skin condition, seeking a miracle from the folk saint. He is said to have pulled Fidencio into his private train and even to have worn a garment belonging to the curandero (Mayo n.d.). With this event, the Mexico City press began to take great interest in El Niño, and his popularity greatly increased. Many interpreted the President’s visit as an endorsement of El Niño and the folk Catholicism practiced in Espinazo as opposed to the institutional Catholic Church of the country, to which he had clearly shown his opposition. It was soon reported by Mexican newspapers that the folk healer’s homehad been completely surrounded by over one hundred improvised shacks and lean-tos made with thorned desert plants, creating a community of the mentally and physically ill. For some, these lodgings weren’t as temporary as they would have hoped. The numbers of afflicted persons seeking aid grew so large that some had to remain there for weeks or months before receiving treatment. Espinazo became filled with people suffering from paralysis, cancer, syphilis, leprosy, mental illness, and numerous other maladies. Hundreds soon turned to thousands as the ill and dying amassed in the small town. The area they inhabited came to be referred to as el campo del dolor, or the field of pain (Zavaleta 2009).
El Niño is as famous for the number of healings he performed as he is for the unusual ways in which healings were performed. While he engaged in healings, patients were fully conscious, neither tranquilizers nor pain medications were given, yet they reportedly felt no pain. His tools were often as unconventional as his methods. He regularly removed tumors with pieces of glass, he would heal paralysis with a swing; and he often performed ritual cleansings in mud and his own bathwater. The medications and baths he administered were made from desert and native plants he collected.
Fidencio passed away just before his fortieth birthday on October 19, 1938. Although the exact cause of Niño Fidencio’s death is unknown, it was conjectured by many both inside and outside of the Fidencista movement that over-exhaustion and under-nutrition likely played a large role. He had begun to suffer from an illness in 1935, and although there was no conclusive diagnosis, pictures of the folk saint in his last years make him appear bloated. To many of his adherents this was another sign of his holiness; they attributed the bloating to the Holy Spirit, which would not cease filling his body. It is also believed that an image of Christ was found on Fidencio’s chest and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his heart after his death (Graziano 2006:198).
Prior to El Niño, the region around Espinazo had been home to many previous curanderos, including Pedro Rojas, Teresa Urrea, and Nino Juanito (Graziano 2006:192). Although others obtained followings, only he went on to gain the prominence of a folk saint. While viewed as a savior to the poor and the marginalized, El Niño captivated everyone with his miraculous abilities. Everyone seeking relief from suffering, irrespective of social class and walk of life, sought Fidencio. Further, many of those he healed volunteered their services to the community of Espinazo to show their appreciation for his miracles and the town for hosting them.
Although the Catholic Church has not recognized El Niño Fidencio as a saint, and thus veneration of Fidencio is not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, adherents of the Fidencista movement consider themselves Catholic, as did El Niño himself. The movement therefore as become a form of folk Catholicism focused around a folk saint, while accepting much of traditional Catholic theology.
Fidencio himself often claimed that his ability to heal was not of his own power but derived from God and made possible through the earth and native desert plants with which he worked. His spiritual gift, to serve as a tool of God’s healing power, was given to him during a revelation of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit while under a sacred pepper tree in the middle of Espinazo. It was around this sacred tree that Fidencio later performed many of this public healing sessions while surrounded by miracle seekers. These public healings ran both day and night, often for several days at a time. The circle formed around the living folk saint by these miracle seekers became known as el círculo de curación, or the healing circle (Zellner 1998:100).
Curanderos of the Fidencista Christian Church believe they channel the spirit of El Niño when they perform healings. They serve as mediums, or intermediaries between the physical realm of the living and the immaterial realm of spirits. Just as Fidencio claimed to heal by means of the Holy Spirit channeling divine power through him, devotees believe that El Niño channels himself through these mediums. This belief is founded on the notion that Fidencio assured adherents that his spirit would remain available to them after his passing to be channeled through others. Therefore, believers see Niño Fidencio’s mission of healing and relieving suffering as continuing today through the use of mediums.
El Niño was believed by adherents to have possessed miraculous powers since childhood. Of these, he was particularly noted for his powers of clairvoyance. Many reported that he knew when a terminally ill person approached him. He would tell them to go and make their peace with God, as he could do nothing but pray for them and they were wasting their time by seeking healing (Zellner 1998:102). To many whom sought his powers, El Niño’s body itself was a holy cure. Fidencio was thus able to perform mass healings without having to cure each person individually. Such mass healings included the throwing of fruit to a crowd of the afflicted or Fidencio himself being passed through a crowd of people, lying above them as they held him uplifted in their arms to pass over the gathering.
Fidencistas believe Niño Fidencio was able to perform successful major surgeries without modern medicinal tools or drugs and without causing any pain or harm to the afflicted individual because the power of the Holy Spirit was channeled through him. He is believed to have had a very intimate bond with God, and many whom he healed believed that he would secretly meet with Christ and the Virgin early in the morning at Cerro de la Campana (Graciano 2006:195) .
While healing, the folk saint was said to have appeared to go into a spiritual trance. He said that he was in communication with the Heavenly Father, from whom the power was channeled through him to heal. This power had been given to him at Espinazo's sacred pepper tree by Christ and the Holy Spirit. When El Niño went into spiritual trances, his body sometimes appeared lifeless as he traveled spiritually to other places or bodies.
El Niño has been described by many as a Christ-like figure or even an incarnation of the Holy Son Himself. Images of him tend to appear right beside images of Jesus at altars. Such status and popularity have caused many to regard the folk saint as the Mexican Messiah. Details of Fidencio’s life are often exaggerated or mystified to make him seem more like Christ. For example, folk legend tends to hold that he died at the age of 33, like Christ, rather than around 40. Like Jesus, Fidencio was known for his healing abilities and his work among the poor and marginalized. The lepers, mentally unstable, lame, blind, dumb, dying, and many others flooded into Espinazo to see El Niño so that he might relieve them of their suffering. As Messianic figures do, Fidencio came to the aid of the people during a time of political and religious unrest. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) had just ended and the President of Mexico, Calles, was trying to rid the country of Roman Catholic Church influence. Fidencio was also known for living an ascetic lifestyle. He reportedly ate or drank very little. When he consumed anything it was usually liquid. Despite this ascetic diet, Fidencio appeared neither weary nor fatigued, even when working without interruption for several days and nights. His seemingly endless supply of stamina fueled mythical stories of the folk saint and added to his ever-increasing popularity among the afflicted.
During the height of his fame in the late 1920’s, a delegation of Southwestern Native Americans visited Fidencio and recognized him as a great shaman (Zavaleta 2005). According to popular belief, the Pope sent his approval of El Niño from the Vatican for his holy works as well (Graziano 2006:191).
During El Niño’s lifetime, mass healing rituals were often held at Cerro de la Campana, known as a sacred site, and Rancho Puerto
Blanco, where adherents could use the waters of the Charco Azul for its healing properties. Countless ritual cleansings took place there. Fidencio insisted on providing a happy atmosphere for the afflicted, thus there was always music, dancing, laughing, and theater. El Niño himself often sang cheerfully as he healed. He never charged money for his healing services.
The channeling of El Niño’s spirit is said to have begun two years before his death with those who were closest to him, including Damiana Martínez and Victor Zapata, later leaders of the movement. When mediums (materias) channel the spirit of Fidencio for a healing ritual, they report being in a different "state of being" or not mentally present or aware of their body’s actions while it is in El Niño’s control. Since Fidencistas consider themselves to be Roman Catholics, ritual channeling often occurs in conjunction with a mass. In one case, for example, following the conclusion of the Mass, the congregation prayed for the arrival of El Niño’s spirit (Haelle 2011). Materia Criselda Valencia then donned "a white robe and red hat, her voice becomes high-pitched and her demeanor changes significantly." When Fidencio’s spirit leaves the body and their consciousness returns, they have to be told what El Niño said and did while he was present, as if they had been asleep during the ritual. Following her return to a normal state, Criselda spent "the rest of the day serving the dozens who come to the home for help with headaches, getting a promotion at work, conceiving a child, insomnia, and more serious conditions" (Haelle 2011).
Niño Fidencio’s followers refused to allow their folk saint’s remains to be taken away to the cemetery after his death. Thus El Niño’s body was kept separate, creating a tomb-shrine. Espinazo became a pilgrimage site for those seeking miracles from the folk saint’s body even after his death. Mediums of El Niño are required to make the pilgrimage to the shrine at least once a year; however, many do so more often. Espinazo has even come to be referred to as Tierra Santa, or the Holy Land, by many.
Pilgrimages to Espinazo often begin at one of the several hundred shrines dedicated to El Niño in Mexico or the United States. From these tronos , literally "thrones," a group of devotees is led by a medium to the folk saint’s tomb-shrine, together they are known as a mission. The Fidencio festivals occur in March and October in Espinazo; missions often make their pilgrimages during these times. Upon arriving to Espinazo, the missions visit the sacred pepper tree, which they circle three times counterclockwise as they give thanks for their safe journey. Many healings are performed at this sacred spot of El Niño’s vision. The uphill journey from the pepper tree to Fidencio’s tomb-shrine is known by many as the Road of Penance. While on the Road of Penance many adherents fulfill promises made to the folk saint or promise future acts of payment to repay past miracles and promises or in the hopes of receiving a requested miracle. While the pilgrimage to the city is payment in itself, adherents often offer other acts of sacrifice on this road. Many carry crosses; crawl on their knees, backs, or stomachs; or roll uphill in the dirt. The tomb itself is home to ritual healings, mission gatherings, performances for El Niño, and many other activities during festivals. Atop the tomb sits a bowl of water, which is believed to be infused by the spirit of El Niño. By touching or ingesting this holy water, adherents can be cleansed and healed, and they receive the blessing of the folk saint. Beside the tomb is Fidencio’s footprint. Adherents place their foot over his, symbolizing walking in his footsteps, to get closer to El Niño (Graziano 2006:211). Each mission has its own style and form, and so there is much diversity during the festivals. Everyone pays homage to El Niño; processions are held, traditional dances are performed with drums and costume, and tales of Fidencio’s most famous cures are sung as hymns.
Masses are held at the shrine with an image of the crucified Jesus presiding. In lieu of the Eucharist, adherents participate in the sharing of the bread. The clergy perform the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and extreme unction. Confession is not performed; one is encouraged to speak with God directly.
Healing rituals are often performed at a pool of muddy water known as the charquito in Espinazo. Mediums channeling the spirit ofEl Niño bathe devotees in the muddy water as Fidencio had done during his life. Cerro de la Campana and Dicha de La Santa Cruz, other famous healing sites of El Niño, are also popular during these festivals.
Fidencio did not have to wait for death to be recognized as a folk saint. During his lifetime people had already began to revere him as a living folk saint. The press played a large role in spreading news of the cures of the currandero, and a significantly larger one in promulgating the myth of El Niño . The press not only propagated his fame in Mexico but also spread the prominence of the miracle healer to the United States and Europe. In fact, mediums of the folk saint can be found in every major Latino community in the United States (Zavaleta 2012).
Efforts were made to organize the movement after Fidencio’s death in 1938. Those who had been regarded as his closest assistants came to be revered as disciples. The position of la directora, the director, was created and first held by Damiana Martínez . Martínez also became recognized as the principal voice, vocina principal, of El Niño on earth and was named leader of the movement. Victor Zapata was appointed the job of denouncing "false voices," those merely pretending to receive the spirit of El Niño. Of chief concern was the suppression of those claiming to be the reincarnation of Fidencio himself. The services he provided later evolved into an organizational position, el revisador, or inspector general, though not for several years. After the death of Zapata, his daughter, Panita (or Ciprianita ) assumed supervision of the mediums. Such regulation eventually caused a division into rival factions due to the revisador’s approval or disapproval of certain mediums. The effort to keep the movement pure created a partition between an "elite" who had been authenticated and others who were not granted such validation. Panita became leader of those claiming an inherited spiritual claim of authenticity, for her father had been considered a disciple of El Niño. The daughter of Fidencio’s lifelong friend Lopez de la Fuente, Fabiola, became leader of the second sect. This sect claimed familial authenticity as Fidencio considered Fabiola’s father his adopted father.
Fabiola and her husband, Heliodoro , sought to formalize the movement. In March 1978, they founded the Center for Fidencist Cultural and Spiritual Studies. They then sought to institutionalize their faction of the movement into a formalized church. In June, 1993, the Iglesia Fidencista Cristiana, the Fidencist Christian Church, was recognized by the Mexican government.
A conscious effort was made by leadership to recollect and record messages received from Niño Fidencio. These messages had to be committed to memory, existing as oral tradition for a long time, due to the high level of illiteracy of 1930’s and 1940’s rural Mexico. Of these spiritual messages received from El Niño, approximately one hundred "scriptures” survive today. Using these scriptures (escrituras), early adherents were able to construct a coherent foundation for organizing the movement (Zellner 1998:110).
Women have served as primary mediums, or cajitas (literally “little boxes” of El Niño’s spirit), throughout much of the movement’s history; their predominance in the role began immediately following Fidencio’s death and has continued since. Although the empowerment of women in the movement through this role is through the possession of a male identity, the androgynous nature of Fidencio during his lifetime allows for the blending of gender lines and facilitates a sense of female authority. This is one of few spiritual roles in Mexico in which women are permitted to partake. The number of male mediums has slowly grown in recent years, yet the divide remains vast. Although males are believed less likely to possess transformative power, such power is perceived to be more effective in males. Despite any notion of male superiority, predominance of females in these spiritual roles further separates the movement from the traditionally patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Missions were established first within the immediate desert towns and villages near Espinazo. Soon, every major northern Mexican city was home to Fidencistas and their missions. As migrant workers have immigrated into the United States, they have brought their beliefs with them. Immigrants who revered El Niño as a folk saint brought their stories of their miraculous curandero with them. Areas in which a majority of migrant workers have settled include Texas, Colorado, Oregon, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Washingon. All host Fidencista missions. Success of these missions is dependent upon the development of a spiritual gift, or don, by a member of the group and the development of new mediums. In the 1940s and the 1950s the offices of la directora and el revisador became the organizational foundation of the Fidencista movement, serving as El Niño’s voice and promulgator of his mission. By the 1970’s the movement had become fully established in its liturgical cycle, semiannual fiestas, and a large number of functioning missions.
Many of the followers of El Nino have considered themselves adherents of the folk saint since childhood. Their faith, and that of their families, in the Roman Catholic tradition is just as deep as their faith in Niño Fidencio. The Fidencio movement is far from stagnant and outdated. It has continued to grow rapidly. Thousands of adherents of Niño Fidencio are loosely organized into communities based in missions or healing temples. Mediums serve as advisors as well as healers. Thus adherents receive a multitude of benefits physically, mentally, and spiritually.
El Niño Fidencio and the movement he inaugurated have encountered several sources of resistance: Institutionalized health providers have alleged that his healing practices damaged their own professional activities; Fidencistas have faced continuing resistance from the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy over Fidencio's charismatic claims and practices; and Ficencistas have formed a sectarian organization.
El Niño’s healings of the masses were reported to be damaging to the licensed doctors and drugstores of Northern Mexico in newspaper reports in February, 1928. The press reports stated that the shift of patients from legitimate health services to that of Fidencio was the cause of serious financial problems for those involved in the licensed medical care industry. On February 18 of the following year, Fidencio had legal proceedings initiated against him. The state of Nuevo León accused him of practicing medicine illegally. As a result, Fidencio remained under strict scrutiny for the remainder of his life, constantly criticized by public officials representing health and medicine. He was arrested twice on similar charges. This negative publicity caused the Roman Catholic Church to further distance itself from El Niño (Graziano 2006:197). The Church had already been engaged in a long and difficult struggle with the government and did not wish to provide additional reasons for governmental distrust of the Church.
The tension between licensed health providers medical industry and Fidencio led to the popular belief in the folk saint’s death being an assassination initiated by the doctors who opposed him. Many of his adherents believed that while El Niño was in a state of meditation, which lasted three days, the doctors took the opportunity to announce the death of the curandero , as his body appeared lifeless, and perform an autopsy. It is believed that the doctors began the autopsy by making an incision in his throat. Warm blood spurted out, showing that he had been alive. The doctors responsible are reported to have died shortly after. The popular conception of El Niño being murdered by doctors is likely the result of a photograph of the faith healer’s autopsy in which two doctors are examining the neck wound.
There is also tension between Fidencistas and the Roman Catholic Church. Although adherents of Niño Fidencio adhere to the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism and consider themselves Catholics, Fidencio is not recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Since Roman Catholicism strictly forbids veneration of anyone not officially beatified or canonized, veneration of Fidencio is discouraged. From a Roman Catholic perspective, Fidencismo shifts the focus away from Jesus Christ in favor of the Mexican Messianic, believed by many to be the reincarnation of Christ himself. This belief in Fidencio as the reincarnation of Christ emanated in part from his acting role as Christ in yearly re-enactments of the Passion during Holy Week. Beginning in the late 1920’s, he became known as “the Christ of Espinazo.” Fidencistas have also appropriated the iconic presentation of the Virgin of Guadalupe through the popular image known as El Niño Guadalupano, in which Fidencio is substituted for the Virgin. Fidencio's claim to spirit channeling, which serves as a fundamental component of the movement, has further exacerbated tensions with the Church. However, Fidencio's rejection by the Roman Catholic hierarchy has not deterred Fidencista enthusiasm: "He’s their saint, church or no church; indeed, some proclaim that he is the founder of a new religion, a truly Mexican Catholicism" (George 2011).
A second issue from the Roman Catholic hierarchy's perspective was Fidencio's administration of the sacraments without benefit of ordination. Although according to Catholic theology Fidencio was not entitled or able to truly perform the sacraments, the small town of Espinazo had no priest of its own. El Niño had therefore taken it upon himself to make sure everyone received the holy sacraments. He performed baptisms and confirmations, listened to confessions, gave communion, performed marriages, and carried out last rites, six of the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church. The archbishop of Monterrey reportedly sent a delegation to meet with Fidencio in 1936 to request he cease administrating the sacraments because he was not an ordained priest. Fidencio initially agreed to the archbishop’s request but soon resumed administering the sacraments to the physically and emotionally afflicted who flocked to him.
The tensions between Fidencistas and the Roman Catholic Church ultimately led to the Fidencistas formally breaking away from
the established church. In Incidentally, with its recognition as its own institution by The Mexican government granted formal recognition to the Fidencist Christian Church in 1993. Catholic Church leaders have responded by banning Fidencista imagery from their churches. Catechists in areas in which large numbers of Fidencitas are known to live are often given specific instructions on how to fully cleanse their congregations of El Niño beliefs and rituals. Despite this strict prohibition, some rural parish priests have been more lenient in their regards to folk devotion (Hopgood 2005:109).
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David G. Bromley
28 February 2013