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“El Niño Fidencio” A Popular Saint for the New Millennium

“Dr. Antonio Zavaleta has formal permission to translate into Spanish and publish in the international SOCIOTAM magazine in Mexico his chapter in Sects, cults, and spiritual communities (Zellner and Petrowsky, eds.), Praeger Publishers, Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. , Westport, CT, 1998), pp. 95-115. Copyright (c) 1998 by William W. Zellner and Marc Petrowsky “. Norma J. Johnson, Coordinator of Rights and Permits.

This chapter was originally published in English in Zellner, ed., SECTS, CULTS, AND SPIRITUAL COMMUNITIES (Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, Ct, 1998).

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by Antonio N. Zavaleta University of Texas at Brownsville


Mexico is known as a country full of mysteries and paradoxes. The Mexico of today is the product of a struggle between two cultures with particular distinctions: that of the American natural and that of the Spanish. In the sixteenth century the Spanish conquistadors, in search of adventure and riches, brought to Mexico a rare mixture of chivalry and religious devotion (Boone, 1989). Many of the Spanish militaries was laymen of religious orders and lived with the hope of resurrecting the crusades. Religious leaders, however, hoped to establish a utopia and prepare the way for the second coming of Christ (Darley, 1968).


Spanish Catholicism included a plethora of medieval practices. These ideas emphasized well and made the world of superstition in which the Indians lived. The friars, enthusiastic in their desire to preach Catholicism, immediately realized that their success would depend on tolerating and accepting their beliefs and practices. Over time, many indigenous beliefs passed through the doors of the Catholic Church in physical and symbolic form. This finally opened the doors to acculturation and some of these practices were adopted officially by the Catholic Church of Mexico.

Acculturation occurs when one culture mixes with another and characteristic features are lost during the process. The result has been the creation of an unofficial Catholic religion, on par with an official Catholic religion.

Today, after almost five hundred years, there is a great diversity between the practice of Catholicism and its “other self”: the so-called Mexican Catholicism or the Catholicism of the people (Madsen, 1967).

The shared beliefs between official Catholicism and the Catholicism of the people include the incarnation of God made a man, his life and earthly teachings, his death or his departure and the promise to return to establish a utopian society (Morinis and Crumrine, 1991). In addition, the concept of a virgin goddess is fundamental in both beliefs, as well as the belief in the existence of a number of minor gods or saints, who are believed to have the power to affect the life of every living being. Finally, the existence of holy, sacred places represents something essential in both creeds. While the two religions coexist and share similar beliefs, they serve different groups of the population. Traditional Catholicism fills the needs of the Spanish, their descendants, and the wealthy class. The Catholicism of the people responds to the needs of the poor, of the indigenous people and mestizos who descend from the racial mixture between Spaniards and indigenous people.

Today, like yesterday, a large part of the Mexican people lives throughout the country in towns, villages, ranches and diverse populations. The extensive family groups usually lead a subsistence life, isolated from the great religious, cultural and economic centers. It is usually among these people, in rural areas, where the practice of the Catholicism of the people flourishes.


The distribution of the economy and power in a society define the stratification of the social system. Societies diversify enormously, to the point where people share or refuse to share social resources. An important aspect of any social system is the opportunity that the individual has to improve materially. This movement is known as social mobility.

The types of social mobility vary considerably between societies. For example, in the caste system in India, there is little opportunity for social mobility. The caste in which one is born determines the development of the human being, the type of work that will play in society, with whom one can marry, with whom and how a relationship will be established. The rules are reinforced through the Hindu religion. The individual who is born in a caste dies in that caste; moreover, their children will live and die within the same caste.

The class systems characteristic of industrialized societies, such as the United States of America, are those in which one can go up or down the social scale.

Another social system in which one has the opportunity to have social mobility, more than in the caste system, but less than in a class system, is known as a patriarchal system. Mexico has such a system. Patriarchal systems are typically rural, where those who are above are the owners or those who control most of the land. Because these societies are not very industrialized, and because the educational opportunities are granted only to the economically well-off, most people are poor and will continue to do so.

The racial-ethnic group to which it belongs may be, to some degree, an influence on the mobility of the social class to which it belongs. In Mexico, the Spaniards and their direct descendants occupied, the high social scale, while the indigenous people were below. Mexicans or mestizos, a racial mixture, descendants of Spaniards and Indians, constituted the middle and lower classes. The upper class living in Mexico City controlled large rural latifundia at a distance. They led a privileged life, separated from the middle class, and especially from the lower classes, the Indians, and the poor mestizos. Despite the early birth of a social mix, there was little or no opportunity for social mobility in that system (Ricard, 1982). The political and economic opportunities for Indians and mestizos were limited, creating a climate of frustration and despair.

The history of Mexico is full of exploitation and oppression of many by a few. The Spaniards, with their double mission of gold and of God, subjugated the native population; and those who suffered the most, usually turned to other religious and “worldly” beliefs to console themselves.


By the mid-1920s, the country had already experienced more than four hundred years of suffering. The country was shattered by the revolution, a civil war, death, and destruction. At the same time, President Piutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928) tried in a cruel way to free Mexico from the Catholic Church (Krauze, 1987).

It is to be noted that the messiahs almost always appear during periods of oppression and economic catastrophe, to meet the needs of the people to end their suffering. Such a situation is characterized by a structural tension. Tension occurs when the individual’s needs are not met through existing social structures. This tension can produce countless different types of social movements, cataloged by sociologists as collective behavior, some of them guided by a messiah.

Messianic leaders are universally charismatic. People follow them because they have personal characteristics, mannerisms and unique appearances that captivate an audience. Most messiahs are announced by phenomena out of the ordinary, unexplained natural phenomena, such as the Star of Bethlehem that marked the birth of Christ. In Mexico, volcanic eruptions and the appearance of a comet over the sky of Mexico City formed the framework for the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). These facts, it was thought, augured the arrival of a messiah.

In 1926, it was thought that the discovery of a monolith in the Zócalo of Mexico City was a prophecy that the Indians would recover their old rights (Brenner, 1929). This prophecy had been done some 475 years before by indigenous priests, witnesses of the burial of the monolith by the Spaniards. The priests believed that after an indefinite period of penance, the foreign invader would be expelled and the indigenous culture and religion would be restored. What they could not prophesy was that the rediscovery of the monolith would coincide with the appearance of a Mexican messiah in the desolate deserts of northern Mexico.


Performing the image of a redeemer, José Fidencio Síntora Constantino, El Niño Fidencio, caught the attention of the Mexican press in 1928. This coincided with the response of Mexican Catholics to the persecution of the Catholic Church by President Calles, known as the Cristero War.

His followers called him El Niño Fidencio, as a direct reference to his characterization as the Baby Jesus. Some of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in Mexico are dedicated to the Virgin and Child; A notable example is the altar of El Santo Niño de Atocha, in the state of Zacatecas. Fidencio was a peasant as poor as the people who sought liberation through his hand. He claimed that his power came from God through the earth and the natural plants of the desert. His spiritual gift or gift had been granted to him by God, thanks to a direct revelation of Christ and the Holy Spirit, under a sacred pirul tree in the center of Espinazo, a small village in northern Mexico. Fidencio lived under a simple creed:

Those who suffer have the grace of God. Through suffering, health is achieved; and it is necessary so be it, for those who wish to feel good must be strengthened through pain and suffering (Brenner, 1929, p.21).

Fidencio was seen as a living saint (Spielberg and Zavaleta, 1997). The interest of the media in their healing powers would wane in a few years, but Fidencio did not mind losing the attention of the newspapers, as he never showed interest in his position as a celebrity. He often mentioned that his mission on Earth was not to become famous, but to relieve the pain and suffering of humanity. Afterward, numerous attempts to exploit him failed. He died as he lived, like a simple barefoot peasant.


Since the arrival of Europeans in 1519, Mexico has been home to a veritable parade of prophets and miracle workers. All appeared during times of crisis; all claimed to have supernatural powers; all had followers like, in a cult; all had their moment of popularity and all seemed insignificant compared to El Niño Fidencio (Brenner, 1929).

There are only some known facts about the first years of Fidencio’s life. He was born in 1898, near the town of Yuriria, in the state of Guanajuato. He and a brother were orphaned as children and for a time, left the village. But around the age of eleven, Fidencio returned to Yuriria, where he helped the priest of the church as an altar boy.

From an early age, Fidencio showed great fascination towards religion (Quiros, 1991). Around the age of thirteen or fourteen, he worked in the kitchen of a rich family. It is curious that he has been chosen for domestic work; the work in the field was traditional for the young people of his time. He went to the primary school, but not for long. It was not common and it was not to be expected that a peasant boy went to school beyond puberty. As an adult, Fidencio barely knew how to read and write.

Around 1921, at the age of 23, Fidencio, still in the company of his brother, settled in Espinazo, a small community in the north of Mexíco. I would never leave this place.


Fidencio’s first attempt to cure was a spontaneous act, trying to accommodate the arm that his mother had broken in a fall. While the act of splinting an arm may have nothing remarkable, it is said that Fidencio was only eight years old when it happened (Quirós, 1991).

In Espinazo, Fidencio gained fame of curing animals and helping in his birth, but it was not until he helped in the birth of a human being when his skill and fame as a healer and midwife began to be revealed.

During the course of his life, El Niño Fidencio had several supernatural experiences in the form of revelations or visions; some, according to his own statement, included visits from Jesus Christ.

In an early vision, Fidencio was visited by a strange bearded man, who gave him the spiritual gift of healing, as well as the deep knowledge of medicinal plants. Fidencio never had formal training in the medicinal properties of plants and home remedies; however, he was an expert in its use.

A second supernatural visit occurred in 1927. This mystical event played a very significant part in his life. He felt that this empowered him to share the gift of healing the needy and, therefore, to begin his earthly mission. From now on, Fidencio adopted the personality of a holy man and lived the life of an ascetic. He gained fame as a healer in 1928, at the age of thirty. He died ten years later a few days before he turned forty.


In the first days of 1928, Mexico was in an agonizing post-revolutionary period, in which the Government persecuted the Catholic Church. The Catholic clergy was expelled, imprisoned and executed, and the properties of the Church were confiscated. In those problematic days, Mexico turned its eyes towards the desert of the north of the country when the first reports of miracles began to occur.

The first news of the young miracle worker described a man who claimed not to be a doctor or prescribe patent medicines. However, he worked miracles, such as making the blind see and speaking to the dumb. The fame of the young curandero had been confined to northern Mexico, but that year almost every major newspaper in Mexico City published articles of the miraculous healings in Espinazo.

During 1928 and 1929, weekly articles, supported by witness testimonies, sold Fidencio’s healer skills. The news spread rapidly, and soon his fame spread throughout Mexico and to the United States of America and Europe (“I have pierced”, 1928 and “The worker of miracles”, 1928).

El Universal de Mexico, one of the main Mexican newspapers, and one of the first to give national knowledge to the phenomenon of Espinazo, sent his best reporter, Jacobo Dalejuelta, and photographer Cassasola to observe the phenomena with his own eyes. In February 1928, the newspaper reported that the insane, paralyzed and leprous, around a thousand, had built a small town of huts and tents around the house of Fidencio. More than a thousand wooden huts had been erected quickly to rent to the growing number of seekers of miracles. El Niño Fidencio worked near a sacred tree, and the sick gathered around him in public healing sessions, which were day and night and lasted several days. This scene became a seal known as The Healing Circle (“Demented, paralyzed and leprous”, 1928).

The Universal of Mexico described Fidencio as a young man of few words, muscular, of a yellowish color and dressed in a simple way (“Insane, paralyzed and leprous”, 1928). In his room there was only a rustic wooden bed, a table, and a chair, although he reportedly did not use them often; I preferred to sit or sleep on the floor. He did not eat or sleep regularly, and he usually got fluids. Despite these habits of absenteeism, El Niño Fidencio worked uninterrupted days and nights, without it becoming tiresome (“El curandero de Espinazo”, 1928).

From the first signs of his fame as a healer, El Niño Fidencio was a public man. He performed his healing in front of thousands of witnesses, always allowed photographs to be taken and gave numerous interviews. During one of the healing sessions, El Niño turned to Dalejuelta and said: Open your eyes, go where you want, tell the people you have seen and make sure you tell the truth. To the photographer Cassasola, El Niño said: Take photos of whatever you want, but be sure to give me copies, because if not, none of the photos will come out (“Insane, paralyzed and leprous”, 1928).

Thanks to this, there are thousands of photographs documenting his life and work. The fact that the national press gave him his attention predicted that he would have a massive response. The needy, the sick and the evicted, people of any kind of life or social level, began to congregate in the small village of Espinazo, known to be in a remote place and to have a harsh climate.

Most of the year the heat stifles and cooks the village. When it is not hot, a cold desert falls on the landscape and its inhabitants. While thousands and thousands of sick and dying people arrived in 1928, this forgotten point of the world became the Field of Pain (“The Field of Pain”, 1928). The hopefuls created their own facilities, improvising small huts and sheds piling up the thorny brush of desert plants. The sick crowds of dementia, paralysis, cancer, leprosy, and syphilis were so large that people had to wait for weeks and even months to attend to them. Some almost became residents of Espinazo.


The newspapers published many cases of miraculous healings of El Niño. A famous case, repeated many times, had to do with a blind child, the son of a Spanish immigrant. The boy, two years old, had been the victim of an accident with a rocket that had left him blind little by little until his blindness was total. The doctors gave him no hope of healing.

By the news about the miracles of El Niño, the parents of the infant decided to take him to Espinazo. The arduous journey took two weeks. The family lived in a hut of branches, built by themselves; They used their own clothes to cover the holes. Weeks of patient waiting passed. When the day came when Fidencio would see the child, he did not allow his mother to tell him the reason for his blindness. You do not need to explain it to me, he said (“Demented, paralyzed and leprous”, 1928). Asked for their patience, El Niño Fidencio massaged the child’s eyes for a few minutes; then, he raised his head towards the heavens, in a state of ecstasy, as if he were seeing a vision. After a while, El Niño lowered his head and continued to massage the eyes of the child until he said: You are already cured … bring me a handkerchief to cover your eyes and do not leave until the first light of the morning (“Dementes , paralytics and lepers “). The family returned to their hut. Early the next morning, at break of dawn, the mother removed the bandage. The boy exclaimed: I see (“Insane, paralyzed and leprous”). This documented case of sight restoration was later determined to be an extreme case of autosuggestion, which may well have been. Cases like this drove the followers of El Niño crazy, increasing their fame and popularity.

Another interesting case typified the cures that made El Niño Fidencio famous. One woman reported that her husband suffered from chronic dyspepsia; I had consulted numerous doctors; It was operated, but the operation had been a failure. His condition was so critical that he was expected to die. Without another hope, the couple decided to go to Espinazo. El Niño entered his shop and without asking about the man’s illness, he began to massage his stomach. Before leaving, Fidencio, who frequently used fruit as medicine, left a large bunch of bananas to be eaten by the patient. His wife warned him that he could not eat them because the fruit was too bad for him. However, feeling better, the patient asked for a piece of banana and, to the surprise of his wife, soon after asked for more. After two hours he had eaten four bananas that caused him violent vomiting. Fidencio returned the next day and continued to massage the patient’s stomach with a medicinal paste made of fruit, soap and medicinal plants that he called an ointment. By the second day, the man had improved markedly and by the fourth day, he was able to walk for the first time in months (“Healing done by El Niño Fidencio”, 1928).

Among the curiosity seekers was a doctor from the northern city of Torreón, who arrived at Espinazo suffering from paralysis. Fidencio cured him after only a week of treatments. During his stay in Espinazo, the doctor witnessed many cures that he made known, including the remarkable healing of a young man from Monterrey who had gone mad. The doctors had declared his dementia as incurable; It was then that his father brought him to El Niño, who immediately began to extract his teeth. After this procedure, the young man regained his lucidity quickly. The dementia of the young man, according to the doctor of Torreón, was because of an infection in his denture that had affected his nervous system. In gratitude for his healing, the young man stayed to work in the El Niño compound. It was a very common pattern in Espinazo that the healed patients gave voluntary service to the community (“Aspectos del Campo del Dolor”, 1928).


If the press played an important role in spreading the news of Espinazo’s healing, perhaps it played a greater role in propagating the myth of El Niño Fidencio. It was said that since childhood he possessed powers, particularly clairvoyance. According to some reports, when a person who had no remedy approached to see him, Fidencio told the crowd: There is a person who is wasting his time; tell him to retire and prepare for his death; I can not help him, I can only pray for him (“Aspects of the Field of Pain”, 1928). Dalejuelta reported in El Universal de México that a well-known general named Peraldi came to Espinazo with an incurable disease. El Niño told him to stay if he wanted to, but could not help him; that he would be at peace with God because his sufferings would lead him to an eternal adventure (“Healing by El Niño Fidencio”, 1928). According to the report, General Peraldi died before the end of the day.

His followers and observers said that El Niño Fidencio often seemed to go into a trance while he cured. He denied being part of the spiritualist movement, common in the first part of the 20th century and very popular in Mexico (Kardec, 1989). Being a very religious person, Fidencio only assured that he was in communication with the Holy Father, who healed through him. While I rarely mentioned the supernatural, simple comments such as the one made to photographer Cassasola – that the photographs would not come out if I did not give him a copy – were told by word of mouth. The press repeated the story, exaggerating the belief that El Niño had supernatural ability to affect the course of events.

Not all the notoriety effects, of course, were positive. The growing magnitude of reports on miracle cures angered the medical community and statements of fraud and deception became common. In Mexico City, Dr. Neumayer, a professor at the National School of Medicine, gave a public demonstration of the psychic order cures made by El Niño Fidencio. Neumayer stated that Mexico was a fertile place for this type of healing and predicted that the ability of El Niño would soon diminish (“Opinion of a doctor”, 1928).


The journalistic reports of the miraculous cures in Espinazo reached a maximum in the first months of 1928. On February 8, 1928, the presidential train Olivo made a special stop in Espinazo so that President Plutarco Elías Calles had a private consultation with Fidencio. The presidential visit took place at the most critical point of the government’s persecution of the Catholic Church. This, naturally, led to the speculation that Calles intended to extend his efforts to control the Church. However, reports from witnesses indicate that Calles suffered from a serious skin disease and came seeking the help of El Niño Fidencio. The visit of Calles protected El Niño from the interference of local and state government, as well as the Church and medical communities (Condal, 1977).

The medical associations, however, called for immediate intervention, not because of Fidencio’s practices, but because of what was not being done to protect most of the community. The number of sick people gathered in Espinazo was so great, that the fear of contagion was a valid problem. Many thought that the situation represented a serious health problem and a threat to all of northern Mexico (“Twice a week there will be cars by Espinazo”, 1928).


Due to the thousands of serious and incurable patients who invaded the village, it was inevitable that the death rate would increase in Espinazo. So many people had died that two new cemeteries had to be created. A new cemetery for the miracles of Fidencio reported the press of Monterrey (“A new pantheon”, 1928). How is it possible that the President of the Republic has gone there and has not seen the truth of what is happening? The press questioned. Has an agreement been made to protect Fidencio? Asked the Monterrey press (“A real plague”, 1928). In the small village where there was only one death per year at most, forty-four people had died in less than a month (“A New Pantheon,” 1928). The Mexican press then focused on the debate between the medical and spiritualistic communities (Kardec, 1986). With such negative publicity, the governments of the northern states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila were pressured to resolve the case of the young healer.

The news of the newspapers were the ones that first informed the cult and the followers that emerged from the great masses of the healed (“Insane, paralyzed and leprous”, 1928). A small army of the faithful, called the Red Brigade, protected El Niño from the constant attacks of the press, the medical community, the Government and the Church. During the first months of 1928, the provincial press had different opinions on the phenomenon of Espinazo. The newspapers of the big northern cities – Monterrey, Saltillo, and Torreón – agreed with the discontent of the medical community, which said that the local government should exercise more control. Monterrey threatens to become, from a Mecca of health, one of suffering and death (“Espinazo I have converted”, 1928), said a headline. The article stated that Monterrey and the entire northern area of Mexico were in danger of a major epidemic. The health authorities of the State of Nuevo Leon claimed that all kinds of people with all kinds of diseases had congregated and that it was time to end the farce. The truth was that these articles denoted shame for international attention in the case. It also did not help that the area had been invaded by a lot of scandalous healers and miracle workers in the first part of the century. The headlines said:

A real plague of miracle workers has invaded Coahuila and Nuevo León. The competition between the saviors of man intensifies daily, without the caravan of believers knowing who to visit first since they all say that their powers come from God (“A real plague”, 1928).

The press in Mexico City, on the other hand, supported El Niño, but in a cynical way. The news generated in the north was a form of entertainment to distract the population from the serious problems of the country, which was on the threshold of a civil war. The French doctor Charles Morpeau spoke in favor of Fidencio in the press of Mexico City. He affirmed that it would be a mistake to deny in the name of science the cures for the spiritual forces of the world. Morpeau stated that: life is based on illusion or suggestion, and we doctors have not tried to extend the nature of our successes. There are many things in medicine that are totally inexplicable. If the truth is to be known, many have died because of our auto-suggestion and the inability to
cure a disease (“The doctor”, 1928).

Stories of El Niño philanthropy were told over and over again, and the cures and miracles performed were counted as part of the local tradition. Stories about miraculous cures and healings became poetry, folk songs, and religious hymns. These popular songs, the praises that are still being sung today, expressed El Niño’s successes and thanked El Niño Fidencio and God for being healed. The press of Mexico City reported that the festive songs were sung and spoke of the healer of Espinazo and were sung throughout the country, in towns and public places (“Los potas campesinos”, 1928). By day and by night, facing adversity, Fidencio continued to personally console those who suffered. Without rest, he helped his patients. It was his mission! From all over the country thousands of people came to Espinazo, accepted their medicine and listened to their sweet words of spiritual healing. Most returned to their homes without El Niño even knowing their names. The journalists commented that the people, although they never returned to Espinazo, had been helped just by looking at the face of El Niño.

During the rest of 1928 and several years later, more train tickets were purchased for Espinazo than for any other destination in Mexico. This small village in the desert, which previously had not needed the postal service, had to establish a post office that processed the 25,000 to 35,000 letters that came from the crowds in search of a cure (“Telegraph and mail in Espinazo”, 1928). Likewise, Telégrafos Nacionales opened an office in Espinazo. Fidencio was the first person to use telegraph services, sending a message of thanks to the national office (“Telegrafo y correo en Espinazo”, 1928). Never before has one of the thousands of healers in Mexico reached this level of popularity and notoriety. The press followed the story daily, with headlines such as:

“Great caravans of patients depart towards Espinazo”, “Thousands of patients return to their homes disillusioned by Fidencio”, “Travelers to the City of Pain die or are in worse conditions”, “Pilgrimages to Espinazo make the followers of Fidencio rich” , “News with contradictory on the true ability of El Niño Fidencio”, “El curandero de Espinazo continues with his miraculous cures”, “The cures of El Niño Fidencio are surprising and produce great admiration for the healer”, “Everything that has been said about the celebrated miracle worker pales before the reaility”, “The fanaticism of
His followers increase “and” It is God who heals through my hands, says the miraculous Child Fidencio “(Excelsior, February 1928).

In a span of two years, Espinazo began to recover from the madness of 1928 and 1929. By 1930, the thousands of demented, deformed, blind, paralyzed and sick people in search of a personal miracle had disappeared. However, a group of the faithful, as well as new and curious people, continued to make the difficult pilgrimage year after year. In the early thirties, Espinazo began to have a routine life. The popularity of El Niño in the media continued to decline. He was attacked by people of health and medicine and, years later, by the Catholic Church. On two occasions he was arrested and brought before the courts in Monterrey (Quirós, 1991). This period of constant attacks was, without a doubt, the most important period of his life, because while his recognition in the media declined, his fame and popularity among ordinary people increased.


Dr. Francisco Vela, vice president of the Health Committee of the State of Nuevo Leon, made a secret visit to Espinazo in 1930. The crowds had disappeared, the show was over. Some 1,500 patients and their relatives were still there; still, a high rate of people, compared to the approximately one hundred permanent inhabitants of the place. Espinazo became again a quiet place.

While Vela tried to prove that it was a place that did not serve to heal, he accidentally looked at Espinazo as a nascent utopian society, a New Jerusalem (sometimes called New Constantinople, from the nickname of Fidencio), built around of a central figure who is worshiped (Da Cunha, 1970).

Long lines of men and women waited patiently for their hot medicinal herb tea or their coffee, which was served in the morning. The dirt streets were perfectly laid out, each with its name, and there were residential areas, with the same names as those of Mexico City.

Fifty children received instruction from a young adolescent at the El Niño Fidencio school. When Vela arrived, Fidencio was sitting in a large room called El Foro, a theater built to perform plays and musical events, popular with El Niño and its followers. His admirers surrounded him, caressed him, touched his hair, kissed his feet and hands when greeting him and asking him for help and advice. El Niño always wore a white robe and went barefoot; he looked intelligent and serene. He had a strange skin color, a mixture of coffee and white, almost yellowish, thick lips, big teeth and light-colored eyes that evaded the look of the visitors’ intrusive eyes (“Doctor Vela González, without El Niño Fidencio suspected it, he was with him “, El Porvenir de Monterrey, cited by Quirós, 1991, pp. 123-124). Upon his arrival, Vela was led directly in the presence of El Niño Fidencio, who kindly extended his hand. El Niño asked two of his assistants, whom he called slaves, to accompany him and show his guest everything he wanted to see.

What Dr. Vela found most interesting was a room full of bottles filled with tissues and tumors removed by El Niño; these can still be seen today in Espinazo. El Niño Fidencio reassessed operations without anesthesia and using only a piece of glass from a broken bottle as a surgical instrument. Vela claimed to have seen many of those who “obviously” were benign tumors. However, he commented that the most experienced surgeons of the time would not have dared to perform these operations in their offices, hinting that something extraordinary had that healer who performed such surgeries.

Vela was taken to all areas of the El Niño compound: La Dicha corral, where the insane were kept, the place where the lepers were cared for, the maternity ward, the postoperative room, El Columpio, to attend to the dumb, the large concrete containers where they used to cook medicinal herbs, the garden of the fibers and the famous mud pond known as El Charquito. The visitor was surprised by the order and the almost infantile simplicity of that place. He concluded that it was as if a child were playing at having a life-size hospital (“Dr. Vela González, without El Niño Fidencio suspecting it, was with him”, El Porvenir de Monterrey, quoted by Quirós, 1991, pp. 123-124). None of this could work, none of this could be effective, he thought, while one, two and three funeral processions passed in front of him. The places of the treatments were generally separated from each other by hundreds of meters and Fidencio made his daily visits to his patients, always followed on foot by his retinue of the faithful. While walking barefoot in the dusty streets of Espinazo, they sang religious hymns. After, Vela would say:

Fidencio is an innocent who does not even realize that he suffers from dementia that makes him believe that he has been called by God to heal the sick. Those who are not innocent children are those who surround him and promote his incredible abilities before the masses of the suffering who do not know anything better (Quirós, 1991, p.123).

The last glimpse of national newspapers towards Espinazo and El Niño Fidencio occurred in 1937, a year before his death. The photo magazine Hoy, the equivalent of the North American magazine Life, presented an analysis of the events that occurred in Espinazo nine years after the press devastated the town of Espinazo in 1928. This invaluable exhibition gives the opportunity to see up close the last year of life of El Niño Fidencio photographs in the article show scenes that even today are familiar since Espinazo has changed little since 1937.

At the end of the years, only a few dozen people descended daily from trains. The post and telegraph offices eight years earlier had disappeared. Evicted patients, lacking hope, with or without a doctor, continued to arrive at Espinazo in search of a personal miracle. Many returned home disillusioned. I can not even write, sir, Fidencio told the reporter: I only use the gift God has given me to help these suffering people (“Con Fidencio en Espinazo”, 1937). One of his young assistants said: Fidencio knows all the medicinal plants that are used to cure, what a pity that he has never studied medicine (“Con Fidencio en Espinazo”, 1937).

A caption in Hoy said: Behind him, the life-size image of Christ, of whom he says emanates his power; before him the mourners, people who leave the place, cured in ways that challenge any medical explanation, just as there are some who will never leave (“Con Fidencio en Espinazo”, 1937). Some are healed, others only feel better, others worse, but they all believe that Fidencio does for them what no doctor can. Almost everyone considers him a priest and begs him for his blessing, while he raises his crucifix before his followers. The article poses the questions:

What kind of man is this, who could have been one of the richest and most powerful in Mexico? What kind of man is this that gives more than a million pesos? What kind of man is this one who prefers to live a peasant’s life, who even rejects a bed to lie down on and walks barefoot on the dusty streets of Espinazo to heal the mourners? (“With Fidencio en Espinazo”, 1937).

The enigmatic paradox that represented the life of Fidencio before the people of Mexico served to support his legitimacy as a beneficiary of supernatural skills, sent by God to Earth to heal the sick, alleviate suffering and preach the word of the New Jerusalem.

Today’s article did not speculate about Fidencio’s sanity or whether the government would have to intervene to prevent an epidemic in the region. El Niño Fidencio, aged, tired and disheveled, simply and simply attributed his success to God, and reiterated that he had not asked to be chosen for this life. God had chosen him to fulfill his destiny in the service of the poor and the suffering. I am just a simple peasant fulfilling the will of God (“With Fidencio en Espinazo”, 1937).

Almost from the beginning of his slight passage through fame, Fidencio predicted his early departure from this world. On a daily basis, he emulated and lived the life of Christ as he understood it. His protectors molded a religious symbolism around him, perpetuating the idea that El Niño Fidencio was the Messiah, that he was the Christ. The life of El Niño en Espinazo reflected the life of Christ in such a way that his followers expected him to die in 1931, at the age of thirty-three. Many of his followers were surprised that he had lived until he was nearing forty. When he died; his faithful indeed hoped that he would resurrect the third day (“Fidencio does not want to leave Espinazo”, 1928). The news of his death, on October 17, 1938, ran as fast as the telegraph and the train rails allowed it. From beginning to end, El Niño Fidencio only had ten years of his life to heal the sick and serve the poor.


As stated earlier, cults are usually developed around a charismatic leader. By 1935, an organized cult had been created around El Niño en Espinazo. A central problem faced by most cults is the continuity of their movement after the death of their leader. It is rare for another charismatic person to replace their original leader.

Charisma, by nature, is unstable. It can only exist in its purest form while the charismatic leader is alive. The challenge for his followers is to create a situation in which the charisma, in some adulterated way, continued even after the death of the leader. In other words, charisma must become routine, institutionalized in a bureaucratic way. By definition, bureaucracies are organized structures that have specialized positions, lines of authority, positions based on merit and written rules that dictate the behavior of people in the organization.

Interest was established in order to maintain the cult of El Niño Fidencio. Espinazo had become one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Mexico and remains so to this day (Schneider, 1995). Legions of the faithful, along with those who seek a miracle in their lives, make the trip to Espinazo year after year. Many people from the community and its surroundings make their living by serving these visitors.

The fidencista movement has developed a liturgical calendar based on the paradigm of the Catholic Church, integrating it with the old indigenous agricultural calendar, which is divided into biannual cycles. The religious fiduciary cycle combines traditional Catholic rites and indigenous practices in the celebration and worship of saintly persons. Their graves are venerated as sacred places.

The indigenous influence in fidencist celebrations can be seen in the dancers called matachines, who with the sound of drums, and with bows and arrows in their hands follow the penitent route to the grave of El Niño (Gilles and Treviño, 1994).

As El Niño became a popular saint, the commercialization of religious objects with its image began to appear in the markets and places of pilgrimage in Mexico. The massive immigration of Mexican workers to the United States of America since 1938 has spread the fame of El Niño Fidenio. Nowadays religious articles can be found with their image in a countless number of domestic altars in Texas, and throughout communities of the American Midwest (Samora, 1971).

The spread of El Niño as a saint increased the popular belief that he had been sent to Earth by God on a special mission, to heal the sick and advise the needy. This has given him fame as the divine doctor and the lawyer of the poor

The physical appearance of El Niño, his simple mannerisms, his religious tunic, his grave and kind voice and his face without a beard served to realize his level of mythical figure and cult (Gardner, 1992). It is no wonder that his followers sometimes call him “The Christ on the Spine.” Before his death he had begun staging passages of the Scriptures, emulating the life of Christ, further supporting his level of cult figure, El Niño had a great ability to anticipate questions and give correct answers, at the same time giving spontaneous and profound explanations about complicated religious themes Like Jesus Christ, El Niño gave spiritual messages with a combination of parables and allegories and often staged simple pastoral works for making clear what he said.


El Niño Fidencio told his followers that after his death he would communicate with them through spirit mediums. He warned them that there would be many who would pose as him. Observe carefully, he told them, because only a select group will carry my message (Zapata de Robles, 1994). Approximately two years before his death, Damiana Martinez and Víctor Zapata -the disciples of El Niño-, who lived at a distance from Espinázo, went into trances and received El Niño monthly payments. The telepathic messages of the healer became a characteristic of the fidencist cult and having moved away from the figure of Jesus Christ to focus on mediating the spirit of Fidencio, is the most important reason why the Catholic Church does not accept fidencism. While the basic dogmas of Fidencism are Catholic, its operative mechanism is spiritualist, which is unacceptable for the Catholic Church (López de la Fuente de González, 1993). In addition, Catholicism strictly prohibits venerating any person without it having been beatified or canonized. After the death of El Niño, the trance events created a complex system of spiritual communication between the deceased healer and his followers. This practice continues to this day, as part of the routine of the charism.

After his death, during the last months of 1938, an organization was formed to perpetuate the cult of Fidencio. The living assistants closest to Fidencio revered themselves as his apostles. Damiana was recognized as the Principal Spokesperson for El Niño on Earth and leader of the movement; she was the first to occupy the position of the Director. Víctor Zapata was in charge of denouncing the false voices. In later years, his obligations made him The Reviewer or Inspector General.

The fidencista leadership made a great effort to remember and record the messages received from El Niño. Since the high rate of illiteracy in Mexico was common during the 1930s and 1940s, spiritual messages or scriptures had to be memorized and repeated continuously until the opportunity to be transcribed was presented.

Approximately one hundred scriptures have survived, and form a coherent basis for the organization, including the emerging system of beliefs, events and celebrations and the type of interaction among its followers, called brothers and sisters.


Missions or temples were established on the outskirts of the nearby desert towns and villages of northern Mexico. Great fidencistas squares were developed in several northern cities such as Monterrey, Saltillo and Torreón, and very especially in the border cities of Tamaulipas: Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros; besides in the city of Guanajuato. More missions were born in the areas where migrant workers and farmers were established: Texas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Colorado, as well as in the states of Washington and Oregon in the northwest of the United States of America. Each mission was formed around a medium called matter (Zavaleta, 1992). The continued success of local missions also depends on the ability of the group to identify one of its members with the spiritual gift or gift and to develop new mediums. The fiduciary experience has always encouraged and welcomed the participation of children as an invaluable source of potential mediums. Almost without exception, in the 1940s the founding mediums were women, mothers of large families. They combined the difficult task of raising a family, with the increasing demand of their time, due to the increased activity of the missions, which were growing rapidly.

Upon his death, Fidencio was buried in his hospital; his followers did not allow his remains to be taken to the cemetery. Establishing a tomb-sanctuary gave Espinazo a category of place of peregnance of greater position. Miracles are usually associated with sacred places. At present, the needy and the faithful come to Espinazo seeking and receiving miraculous cures at the burial place known as La Tumba. Mediums generally live far from Espinazo but make the trip at least once a year. Many make the pilgrimage more often.

The mediums and their followers sometimes buy cheap land in Espinazo and build adobe houses to use them, along with their followers, when they visit the town for a party (Ovalle de Tamayo, 1989). During the holidays (March and October, corresponding to the equinoxes of spring and autumn), Espinazo is filled with cars, trucks, and buses with license plates from a dozen American states and a large number of states in the Mexican Republic. The pilgrimages to Espinazo, now known as the Holy Land, make up the center around which the town’s annual events take place. Local missions are continually preparing to go to Espinazo, or just come back from there.

Local mediums function as counselors and cure so that throughout the year the faithful receive the benefits of cures, concessions, wishes fulfilled and problems solved. When a miracle is granted, a spiritual debt is created, which is owed to the Catholic saint or spirit, which requires that the person who receives the miracle perform a penance of gratitude and travel to the Holy Land to give thanks. When carrying out the command to make the trip, who receives the miracle fulfills his penance. This process is repeated during the life of the one who pleads, and guarantees that the members of the local mission will always return to Espinazo.

In addition, those who have reacted a miracle in their lives function as a marketing article in the Mexican-American community. Their testimonies attract a constant stream of people in need towards the mission. The Fidencistas, in general, are devotees of Catholic saints and make pilgrimages to various Catholic sanctuaries in Mexico.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Director and the Reviewer became living representatives of El Niño Fidenc Tierra and the support forces behind the cult. The fidencista movement continued growing in force and number between 1938 and principles of the Seventies, extending the sphere of its geographic influence. The liturgical cycle was fully established, including biannual celebrations and the development of a network of local missions outside of Mexico.


Since the death of El Niño, 59 years ago, unbelievers have insisted that their memory would be erased and disappear with time. It is a fact that the opposite has happened. Currently, Fidencio has an unrivaled popularity as a healer and counselor in the pantheon of Mexican and Mexican American saints and Catholic saints. In the United States, the continued popularity of El Niño Fidencio is due to the fact that most of the Mexican-American community has its origins in southern Texas and northern Mexico.

Today, thousands of believers are organized freely in socio-religious communities composed of healing temples or missions. The fidencista movement rests, at its basic level, on local mediums. Hundreds of local missions cover hundreds of thousands of loyal followers, as well as sporadic members, or those who visit only once.

The growth of fidencismo is enhanced by an informal oral communication system that operates effectively in the Latino community (Escamilla, 1995). The structure and function of the fiduciary missions in the Mexican and Mexican-American communities are based on faith and lack of local medical assistance.

Individuals seeking healing assistance in fiduciary missions are divided into three categories. The first is a small circle of faithful believers and helpers. The second group consists of assiduous assistants. These individuals usually participate in weekly healing sessions and special temple activities. The size of the regular group depends on several complex factors, including the popularity of the medium in trance. The third group consists of people seeking treatment by stages. The size of this group depends on the success of the informal word-of-mouth network established by the regular group.

The majority of the regular members of the Fidencista temple make weekly presentations for blessings, sweeps, cleanings and positive emotional support. Almost without exception, regular members have received a miracle from El Niño Fidencio. In difficult cases that require a continuous benefit, beneficiaries are expected to remember who owes their good fortune. Economic reciprocity is not expected through the intercession of El Niño with the Heavenly Father. Alms are accepted. Loyalty is demonstrated by regularly attending temple activities and supporting their activities.

The first visits to the fidencist healer are almost always due to a serious physical, emotional, personal or economic problem in the visitor’s life. Contrary to popular belief, people who seek the physical care of a healer do not do so as a first choice. Almost without exception, usually, a doctor has been visited first. If medical therapy has not been successful, alternative therapies are sought, and in particular, a miraculous treatment. Each fidencista mission has a regular group of people who give incredible testimonies of miraculous and impossible cures that they received, thanks to the intervention of El Niño Fidencio. These facts are often documented.

In the Mexican-American community, chronic diseases are not usually treated. Therefore, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis and other diseases of this type are common diseases in the flow of El Niño Fidencio patients.

Physical illnesses are treated by Mexican-American healers in various ways. They work on both the material and mental levels as well as the spiritual level (Trotter and Chavira, 1981). In the Fidencist temples, the material level of treatment consists of techniques and remedies of traditional non-spiritual cures (Kiev, 1969). While the levels of material and mental treatment are common, spiritual treatment, directly from the spirit of El Niño Fidencio, has more value.

It is said that healers work spiritually when they are in a trance state. The sessions of individual curanderismo, usually, follow the same pattern. The spirit of El Niño Fidencio greets the patient and he returns the greeting. Then follows a personal discussion of the problem with the spirit of Fidencio. In physical illnesses, El Niño works through the healer and immediately faces the problem, using a combination of techniques. These include massages, sweeps, clean, and in severe cases, spiritual surgeries. Usually, El Niño prescribes the remedy, which may be a mixture of herbs and religious items and requires the patient to follow a procedure or ritual at home, followed by a new visit to the temple.

The number of visits to El Niño to alleviate physical illnesses is equal to, or exceeds, visits for personal reasons. While many consultations are serious and are related to serious family problems, many are simple routine visits of the faithful to receive emotional support.

Research constantly shows that the Mexican-American community is not being adequately treated in the care of their mental health (Psychiatric Counseling of the Mexican-American Population, 1995). In the United States of America, the treatment of mental health has become commonplace. However, ethnic stereotypes continue to promote myths that suggest that Mexican-Americans are poor, but happy, living simple, well-adjusted lives, free from the mental and emotional health problems experienced by the American middle class. The stereotype supports the idea that Mexican-Americans do not need help, so the highest-growing population in the country has little or no access to emotional or mental support. Because of the great growth and poverty of this population, in comparison with the population in general, we can expect alternative healing systems to continue to flourish. In any country in the world, including Mexico, health assistants, with limited medical support, attend to approximately 80% of the physical and emotional needs of the population (Velimirovic, 1978).


El Niño Fidencio dedicated his life to solving the physical and mental needs of the population; However, an important aspect of the movement that bears his name is its emergence as a popular religion. In Latin America, indigenous beliefs have been mixed with Catholicism; The hybrid syncretism that has taken place constitutes alternatives that flourish before a disinterested and silent Catholic Church. Fidencismo does not seek to replace Catholicism, but simply to be accepted by it. The rejection of the Catholic Church towards this movement only serves to separate large segments of the population in Latin America. Many Catholic priests of the Latino community openly sympathize with the beliefs of their parishioners towards El Niño Fidencio.

The true charm and charisma of the movement, which is what attracts a growing number of people to its ranks, is its deep piety. The strong belief and faith of the Fidencistas represent an attempt to imitate the life of Christ. The fidencismo never ceases to surprise the observer by the beauty of its mystical simplicity. While one feels obliged to explain their mysteries, the more they investigate, the more they realize that they should not be explained, but simply live them.


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Dr. Tony Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and is a member of one of the 13 founding families of northern Mexico. He is the nephew of Dr. Joe Zavaleta and Prax Orive, each of whom served on the TSC Board.

Dr. Zavaleta graduated from Saint Joseph Academy in 1964 and entered Texas Southmost College, graduating and transferring to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1976. Moving back to Brownsville in 1976, Dr. Zavaleta began teaching sociology and anthropology at Texas Southmost College and at Pan American University at Brownsville. Dr. Zavaleta became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for UTB/TSC, and also served as the Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and Technology. He next served as Vice President for Partnership Affairs, where he coordinated all of the work between the TSC Board and UTB, and then became the Vice President for External Affairs, which included governmental relations and all external programs such as Workforce Training and Continuing Education. Dr. Zavaleta served as Interim Provost, the chief operating officer of UTB/TSC, and then as the Associate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2011 he retired from the administration to return to full-time teaching. Dr. Zavaleta retired in May 2016 after 40 years of service.

Dr. Zavaleta is regarded as one of the top experts on the US-Mexico Border, and frequently speaks throughout Mexico and the U.S. Dr. Zavaleta was appointed to two Federal commissions by Presidents Reagan and Obama, and he served two terms on the Brownsville City Commission, followed by a term on the City of Brownsville Civil Service Commission.

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