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El Niño Fidencio and the Fidencistas

This essay was originally written in the English language for inclusion in Zellner, ed., SECTS, CULTS, AND SPIRITUAL COMMUNITIES  (Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, Ct, 1998). For further information please visit

Antonio N. Zavaleta:

Antonio Zavaleta grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley between Texas and northeastern Mexico. As a young man, during summer vacations from school, he stayed with his grandparents on their ranch. They employed many migratory Mexican farm workers, with whom he spent many hours. “My lifelong love for Mexican folkore and of Mexico in general was kindled around the campfires and the endless evening stories. It was there that I first heard the stories of El Niño Fidencio.” After receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, Tony began teaching and served as a Brownsville City Council member. He had been studying a well-known native healer in Brownsville, and the idea of comparing these techniques with those of Fidencio was exciting. He made several trips to Espinazo, the home of El Niño Fidencio. On one such trip he met Maria, a follower of Fidencio,  and together they worked to learn the details of the healer’s life. “It is rare that an anthropologist has the opportunity to have firsthand, day-to-day knowledge of the inner workings of a religious cult and to be accepted by it. They are as sincere and profound as any religious group I have ever encountered.”

Known as a land of mystery and paradox, Mexico today is the product of a conflict between two distinct cultures, Native American and Spanish. In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers, seeking adventure and wealth, brought to Mexico a mixture of medieval chivalry and religious devotion (Boone 1989).

Many of the Spanish militaries were members of lay religious orders and hoped to re-create the crusades. Religious leaders, on the other hand, hoped to establish a utopia and prepare for the second coming of Christ (Darley 1968).


Spanish Catholicism included a plethora of medieval practices. These ideas meshed with and enhanced the superstitious world of the Native Americans. The friars, zealous in their desire to spread Catholicism, quickly recognized that their success depended on tolerance and acceptance of native beliefs and practices. Over time, many Indian religious ideas were brought into the Catholic Church, both symbolically and physically. This ultimately opened the door for the acculturation of some of these beliefs into the official Catholic Church in Mexico.

Acculturation occurs when one culture blends with another losing its distinctive traits in the process. The result was the creation of an unofficial as well as an official Catholic religion. Today, after nearly five centuries, there exists rich diversity between the practice of Catholicism and of its alter ego, Mexican or folk Catholicism (Madsen 1967).

Beliefs common to both Catholicism and folk Catholicism include the concept of the incarnation of God in the form of man, his life and teachings on earth, his death or departure, and his promise of return followed by the establishment of a utopian society (Morinis and Crumrine 1991). In addition, the concept of a virgin goddess is essential to both belief systems, as is the belief in the existence of a pantheon of lesser gods or “saints,” who are believed to be physically capable of affecting the lives of the living. Finally, the existence of sacred or holy sites dedicated to the saints and the requirement of the faithful to make pilgrimages to these sites are central features of both belief systems. Although the two religions coexisted and shared similar beliefs, they served different populations.

Traditional Catholicism met the needs of the Spanish, their descendants, and the affluent. Folk Catholicism was more responsive to the needs of the poor, the Indians, and the racially mixed descendants of the Spanish and Indians. Now, as then, the majority of the Mexican people are spread across the country, living in small towns, villages, and settlements. Their extended kinship groups live, for the most part, a subsistence existence in isolation from the major religious, cultural, and economic centers. It is among these largely rural people that the practice of folk Catholicism flourishes.


The distribution of wealth and power in a society describes its system of social stratification. Societies vary tremendously in the extent to which people share or refuse to share, societal resources. An important feature of any stratification system is the opportunity for individuals to better themselves materially.

Such movement is called social mobility. Rates of social mobility differ considerably among societies. For example, caste systems, such as those that exist in India, have very little social mobility. Birth determines the shape of human existence, what jobs members can hold, whom they can marry, whom they can interact with and how. Rules are reinforced by the Hindu religion. Individuals born into a caste, die in that caste. Moreover, their children will live and die in the same caste. Class systems, characteristic of industrialized societies, such as the United States, are those in which people have the opportunity to experience upward or downward mobility. Another system of stratification that has more opportunity for social mobility than a caste system but less than a class system is called an estate system. Mexico had such a system.

Estate systems are typically rural with those at the top owning or controlling most of the land. Because such societies are not heavily industrialized, and because educational opportunities are limited to the wealthy, most people are poor and will remain so.

Race can also influence the degree of social mobility in a society. In Mexico, Spaniards and their direct descendants occupied the upper strata and Indians were at the bottom. Mexicans, or mestizos, a racial mix descended from the Spaniards and Indians, constituted the lower and middle classes.

The upper classes, living in Mexico City, controlled huge provincial landholdings as absentee landlords. They led lives of privilege, insulated from the middle class and especially from the lower classes of Indians and poor mestizos. In spite of the early emergence of a mixed class, there was little or no social mobility allowed in the system (Ricard 1982). Limited economic and political opportunities for the Indians and mestizos created a climate of frustration and hopelessness.

Mexico’s history is filled with the oppression and exploitation of the many by the few. The Spaniards, with their twin missions of gold and God, subjugated the native population. And often those who suffered the most turned to religious and “otherworldly” beliefs for comfort.


By the mid-1920s, Mexico’s underclass had endured over four centuries of suffering. The country was rocked to the core by revolution, civil war, death, and destruction. At the same time, President Plutarco Calles (1924-1928) brutally attempted to rid Mexico of the Catholic Church (Krauze 1987).

It is noteworthy that messiahs usually appear during periods of oppression or economic catastrophe in order to fulfill people’s longing to end their suffering. Such a situation is characterized as structural strain. A strain occurs when individuals’ needs are not being met through existing social structures. Such strain can produce a number of different kinds of social movements that are categorized by sociologists as collective behavior, some of which are messiah-led.

Messianic leaders are universally charismatic.People follow them because they have personal characteristics, distinctive appearance, or mannerisms that galvanize an audience.

Most messiahs are heralded by unusual or unexplainable natural phenomena, such as “the star of Bethlehem” signaling the birth of Christ. In Mexico, volcanic eruptions and the appearance of a comet in the skies over Mexico City set the stage for the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. These occurrences were thought to foretell a messiah.

In 1926, the unearthing of a monolith in the central plaza in Mexico City was believed to prophesy that Indians would regain their ancient rights (Brenner 1929). This prophecy had been made some 475 years earlier by native priests who had witnessed the monolith’s burial by the Spanish. The priests concluded that after some indeterminable period of penance, the foreign invaders would be expelled, and native culture and religion would be restored. What they could not have foretold was that the actual rediscovery of the monolith would coincide perfectly with the appearance of a Mexican messiah in the desolate deserts of northern Mexico.


Fulfilling the Mexican image of a redeemer, José Fidencio Sintora Constantino came to the attention of the Mexican press in 1928. This coincided with president Calles’s persecution of the Catholic Church.

His followers called him El Niño, “the child.” He was a peasant, as poor as the people who sought deliverance at his hand. He claimed that his power was derived from God through the soil and native plants of the desert. His spiritual gift, or don, had been granted to him, through a direct revelation by Christ and the Holy Spirit, beneath a sacred pepper tree in the center of Espinazo, a small village in northern Mexico.

Fidencio adhered to a simple credo: “Those who suffer have the Grace of God. By suffering, health is reached, and it is necessary that this should be so, because those who desire to be well, should be strengthened by sorrows and pain” (Brenner 1929: 21).

Fidencio came to be regarded as a living folk saint during his lifetime (Macklin 1973; Spielberg and Zavaleta 1997). Media interest in his healing power waned in a few years, but Fidencio showed no more concern about the loss of newspaper attention than he had shown interest in his previous celebrity status. He often said that his mission on Earth was not to be famous, but to ease the pain of suffering humanity. In the end, numerous attempts to exploit him failed. He died as he had lived, a simple, barefoot peasant.


Since the arrival of the Europeans, Mexico has been home to a parade of prophets and miracle workers. All have appeared during times of crisis. All have claimed supernatural powers, all have had cultlike followings, all have had short-lived popularity, and have all paled to insignificance when compared with El Niño Fidencio (Brenner 1929).

There are only sketchy facts known about the early life of Fidencio. He was born in 1898, near the village of Yuriria, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He and a younger brother were orphaned as children. For a time they were removed from the village, but by the age of 11, Fidencio was back in Yuriria, assisting the local priest as an altar boy.

From an early age, he showed a great fascination with religion (Quiros 1991 ). At the age of 13 or 14, he was contracted to work for a wealthy family as a kitchen boy. It is curious that he was selected for household work because work in the fields was traditional for Mexican boys at that time. He attended elementary school for a short time; it was neither common nor expected for a peasant boy to continue schooling beyond the age of puberty. As an adult, Fidencio was semiliterate.

Around 1921, at the age of 23, Fidencio, in the company of his brother, settled in Espinazo, a small community in northern Mexico. He never left this area.


Fidencio’s first attempt at healing was the spontaneous act of setting his mother’s arm, broken in a fall. Although the splinting of an arm hardly seems remarkable, Fidencio was said to be eight years old at the time (Quiros 1991).

At Espinazo, Fidencio developed a considerable reputation for treating animals, especially assisting at births. But it was not until he was called upon to assist with a human birth that his ability and fame as a healer and midwife began to unfold.

During the course of his lifetime, El Niño Fidencio had several supernatural experiences in the form of revelations or visions–some, he claimed, were visitations by Jesus Christ.

In an early vision, Fidencio was visited by a strange, bearded man who imbued him with the spiritual gift of healing, which included profound knowledge of medicinal plants. Although Fidencio never had any formal training in the healing properties of plants and home remedies, he was expert in their use.

A second supernatural visitation occurred in 1927. This mystical event played a significant role in Fidencio’s life. He felt it authorized him to share his gift of healing with the masses of needy and, thus, begin his mission on Earth. From this time on, Fidencio adopted the persona of a holy man and lived the life of an ascetic. He achieved fame as a healer in 1928, at the age of 30. He died ten years later, a few days short of his fortieth birthday.


In the early days of 1928, Mexico was in the throes of the post-Revolutionary government’s persecution of the Catholic Church. Catholic clergy was expelled, imprisoned, and executed, and church property was confiscated.

During these troubling days, Mexico turned her eyes to the northern desert as the first reports of miracles began to emerge.

The earliest news coverage of the strange young miracle worker described a man who neither claimed to be a doctor nor prescribed any patent medicines. He nevertheless performed healing miracles, including making the blind see and the dumb speak. Talk of the young healer previously had been confined to northern Mexico, but in 1928 virtually all the major dailies in Mexico City carried articles on the miraculous cures in Espinazo.

Throughout 1928 and 1929, articles, supported by dozens of eyewitness testimonies, touted Fidencio’s healing abilities. News spread rapidly, and soon his fame extended throughout Mexico and to the United States and Europe (Ha traspasado 1928; “The Worker of Miracles” 1928).

El Universal de Mexico, one of the leading newspapers and among the first to give national exposure to the phenomena in Espinazo, sent its top reporter, Jacobo Dalejuelta, and photographer, Casasola, for a firsthand look.

In February 1928, the paper reported that the demented, the paralyzed, and the leprous, a thousand strong, had formed a little town of makeshift huts and tents around the home of Fidencio. More than a hundred small wooden huts had been erected to rent to the growing crowd of miracle seekers. El Niño Fidencio worked near a sacred tree, and the ill gathered around him for public healing sessions that ran day and night for several days at a time. This scene eventually became known as the healing circle or el círculo de curación (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928).

El Universal de Mexico described Fidencio as a “young man of few words, muscular with a sort of yellowish color and very simply dressed” (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). His room contained a crude wooden bed, a table, and a chair. However, according to reports, he used these infrequently, preferring to sit and sleep on the floor. He did not eat or drink with regularity, and mostly consumed liquids. In spite of these abstemious habits, El Niño Fidencio worked for days and nights without interruption, seemingly unaffected by fatigue (El curandero de Espinazo 1928).

Significantly, from the earliest days of his fame as a healer, El Niño Fidencio was a public man. He performed his cures in the midst of thousands of onlookers, always allowed photographs, and gave numerous interviews.

During one of the public healing sessions, El Niño reportedly turned to Dalejuelta and said, “Open your eyes, go wherever you want, tell the people what you have seen, and be sure, to tell the truth.” To the photographer, Casasola, he quipped: “Take pictures of whatever you like, but be sure to give me copies, because if you don’t, none of them will come out” (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). As a result of this openness, hundreds of photographs document his life and work. With the national press focused on El Niño Fidencio, a massive response was predictable. The needy, the sickly, and the terminally ill, people from every walk of life and social class, began converging on the little desert village of Espinazo.

For the majority of the year, the town bakes in unrelenting heat. When it is not hot, a desert chill descends on the landscape and its inhabitants. As hundreds and then thousands of sickly and dying people arrived in 1928, this desolate and unforgiving spot was turned into the field of pain, el campo del dolor (El campo del dolor 1928). The hopeful created their own accommodations by improvising shacks, stacking thorny desert plants into the shapes of huts and lean-tos. The crowds, suffering from insanity, paralysis, cancer, leprosy, and syphilis, were so large their members had to wait for weeks, even months, to be seen. Thus, many virtually became residents of Espinazo.


The newspapers’ accounts contained many case histories of El Niño’s miraculous cures. One famous case, retold many times, involved a young blind boy, the son of a Spanish immigrant. The boy, age two, was the victim of a firecracker accident that caused him gradually to lose his sight until he was completely blind. The doctors had given him no hope of recovery.

As tales of the miraculous El Niño filtered throughout Mexico, the child’s parents decided to take him to Espinazo, an arduous journey that required two weeks. The family lived in a brush shack that they constructed, using their clothing to cover the many openings. Weeks passed as they waited patiently. When the day finally came for Fidencio to see their son, he would not allow the mother to explain the cause of the boy’s blindness.

“It’s not necessary that you explain it to me,” he said (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). Asking them to be patient, El Niño Fidencio massaged the boy’s eyes for a few minutes. Then he lifted his head to the heavens in an ecstatic state for several minutes, as if he were having a vision. When some time had passed, El Niño lowered his head and continued to massage the boy’s eyes. Finally, he said, “Ya estás curado;… [you’re healed; bring me a handkerchief to cover his eyes and be sure not to remove it until the early morning light]” (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928).

The family returned to their shack. Early the next morning, as the day was breaking, the boy’s mother began to remove his bandage. The boy exclaimed, “Ya veo [I can see]” (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). This documented case of restored sight was later judged to be an extreme case of autosuggestion, which it very well may have been. Such cases, however, caused a frenzy among El Niño’s followers, adding to his fame and popularity.

Another interesting case typified the cures for which El Niño Fidencio was famous. A woman reported that her husband, who suffered from chronic dyspepsia, had consulted numerous doctors.He had undergone unsuccessful surgery, and his condition was so serious that he was expected to die.

With no other hope available, the couple decided to go to Espinazo. El Niño came into their tent and, without asking any questions about the man’s illness, began to massage his stomach. When he departed, Fidencio, who often used fruit as a medicine, left a large bunch of bananas for the patient to eat. The wife remarked that her husband could not eat them because fruit made him very sick. However, having begun to feel a little better, the patient asked for a small piece of banana and, to his wife’s great surprise, asked for more a short time later. Within two hours, he had eaten four bananas, causing him to vomit violently. Fidencio returned the next day and massaged the patient’s stomach with a paste made from fruit, soap, and medicinal plants. By the second day, the man had improved remarkably, and by the fourth, he was able to walk for the first time in months (Curaciones hechas por El Niño Fidencio 1928).

Among the early curiosity seekers was a medical doctor from the city of Torreón who was afflicted by paralysis. Fidencio cured him after only one week of treatments. While in Espinazo, the doctor witnessed many cures, which he later reported, including the notable cure of a young man from Monterrey who had gone insane.

The doctors had declared his insanity incurable, so his father had brought him to El Niño, who immediately began to extract the young man’s teeth. Following this procedure, the youth rapidly regained his lucidity. The young man’s insanity, the doctor from Torreón reasoned, had been due to an infection in his teeth that had affected his nervous system. The young man, grateful for his cure, stayed on to work in El Niño’s household. It was a familiar pattern in Espinazo for the healed to volunteer service to the community (Aspectos de el campo del dolor 1928).


If the press played a large role in spreading the news of El Niño’s cures, it may have played an even larger role in promulgating the myth of El Niño. He was said to have had special powers, particularly clairvoyance, since childhood. According to some reports, when an incurably ill person approached, Fidencio would remark to the crowd, “A person is coming who is wasting his time; tell him to go off and prepare for his death; I can’t help him except to pray for him” (Aspectos de el campo del dolor 1928). Dalejuelta reported in El Universal de Mexico that the well-known General Peraldi came to Espinazo with an incurable illness. El Niño told him to stay if he wanted, but that he could not help him. He must make peace with God because “Your sufferings are going to take you on an eternal adventure” (Curaciones hechas por El Niño Fidencio 1928). According to the report, General Peraldi died before the end of that day.

Followers and observers alike reported that El Niño Fidencio often seemed to enter a trance while healing. He denied being part of the spiritist movement that was common in the early part of the century and was popular in Mexico (Kardec 1989). A very religious person, Fidencio asserted that he was in communication with the Heavenly Father, who healed through him. He seldom referred directly to the supernatural, but simple comments like the one he made to the photographer Casasola–about the photographs not coming out if he were not given a copy–were passed on by word of mouth. The press repeated the stories, greatly enhancing the belief that El Niño had the supernatural ability to affect the outcome of events.

Not all the effects of notoriety, of course, were positive. The growing reports of miraculous cures enraged the medical community, and claims of fraud and deception grew more common. In Mexico City, Dr. Neumayer, a professor at the national medical school, gave a public demonstration of the types of psychic cures performed by El Niño Fidencio. Neumayer claimed that Mexico was fertile ground for these types of healings and predicted that El Niño’s ability would soon wane (Opinión de un médico 1928).


The media reports of miraculous cures in Espinazo reached a fevered pitch in the early months of 1928. On February 8, 1928, the presidential train Olivo made a special stop at Espinazo so that President Plutarco Calles could have a private consultation with Fidencio. The president’s visit came at the height of the government’s persecution of the Catholic Church and naturally led to speculation that Calles intended to expand his efforts to control the church. However, eyewitness reports indicate that Calles suffered a serious skin ailment and came seeking relief from El Niño Fidencio. Calles’s visit protected El Niño from serious interference by local and state governments, as well as by the church and medical communities (Condal 1977.)

Medical associations called for immediate intervention, not on the basis of Fidencio’s practice but on the basis of what was not being done to protect the community at large. So many seriously sick people had congregated in Espinazo that the fear of contagion became an increasingly valid issue. Many believed that the situation posed a serious health threat to all of northern Mexico (Dos veces por semana habrá caros por Espinazo 1928).


Because of the thousands of seriously and incurably ill people flocking to the village, it was inevitable that the death rate in Espinazo would rise. In fact, so many people had died that two new cemeteries had to be created. “A New Cemetery for the Miracles of Fidencio,” reported the Monterrey newspaper (Un nuevo panteón 1928). How could the president of the Republic go there and not see the truth of what was happening? “Was some deal made to protect Fidencio?” asked El Universal de México newspaper (Pretende ser mejor 1928). In a small village where one death might be recorded every year, 44 persons had died in less than one month (Un nuevo panteón 1928). The focus of the Mexican press turned from reporting the issue to hosting a debate between the medical and spiritist communities (Kardec 1986). With such negative publicity, the governments of the northern states of Nuevo León and Coahuila experienced extreme pressure to resolve the case of the young healer.

The early newspaper accounts also were among the first to mention El Niño’s cult following that emerged from among the loyal masses of the healed (Dementes, paralíticos y leprosos 1928). A small army of faithful, called the brigada roja (red brigade), encircled, sheltered and protected El Niño from the constant attacks of the press, the medical community, the government. and the church. During the early months of 1928, the Mexican press outside Mexico City varied sharply in its opinions on the Espinazo phenomenon. The provincial dailies in the major northern cities of Monterrey, Saltillo, and Torreón agreed with the need for local government control and concurred with the outrage of the medical community. “Monterrey is threatened with being converted from a mecca of health into one of suffering and death,” read one headline (Espinazo he convertido 1928).

The article claimed that Monterrey and all of northern Mexico were in danger of a major epidemic. Health authorities in the state of Nuevo León clamored that all manner of persons with every possible disease had congregated and that it was now time to end this farce. In all probability, such articles were expressing embarrassment about the international attention. It did not help matters that the area had been plagued by a rash of scandalous healers and miracle workers throughout the early part of the century.

A real plague of miracle workers has invaded Coahuila and Nuevo León. The competition between the saviors of mankind intensifies every day, without the caravan of believers knowing who to visit first. since every one of them claims to have derived power from God. (Pretende ser mejor 1928).

The Mexico City press, on the other hand, was largely supportive of El Niño Fidencio, if only in a cynical way. The news generated in the north was an appreciated diversion from the serious problems plaguing the country in the midst of civil war. Dr. Charles Morpeau, a French physician in Mexico, spoke in favor of Fidencio in the Mexico City press. He stated that it would be medical folly to “negate in the name of science the cures of the spiritual forces of the world.” He added, “Because all of life is based on illusion or suggestion, we doctors have not tried to completely understand the nature of our successes. There are many things that happen in medicine that are completely unexplainable. If the truth is known, many have died because of our autosuggestion and inability to treat an illness” (El doctor 1928).

Tales of El Niño’s philanthropy were becoming inscribed in lore as his cures and “miracles” were told and retold. The stories of miraculous cures and healings were transformed into lyrics and then into folk songs and religious hymns. These popular songs voiced El Niño’s successes and expressed thanks to El Niño Fidencio and to God for their cures. The Mexico City press reported that “the festive songs were sung of the curandero in Espinazo and across the country in all of the little towns and public places” (Los poetas campesinos 1928).

Day and night, in the face of adversity, Fidencio continued to console the suffering. He tirelessly attended to his sick; it was his mission. From around the nation, thousands came to Espinazo, accepted his medicine, and listened to his gentle words of spiritual healing. Most returned to their homes without El Niño ever knowing their names. The journalists remarked that the people had been helped by simply looking on the face of El Niño.

Throughout the remainder of 1928 and for several years thereafter, more people bought train tickets to Espinazo than to any other destination in Mexico. This tiny desert village, which formerly had no need for a mail service, was forced to establish a post office that processed the approximately 25,000 to 35,000 letters that had arrived for the throngs in search of a cure (Telégrafo y correo en Espinazo 1928).

Similarly, Telégrafos Nacionales established an office in Espinazo. Fidencio was the first person to utilize the telegraph service, sending a message of thanks to the national office (Telégrafo y correo en Espinazo 1928). Never before had one of Mexico’s hundreds of folk healers reached this level of popularity and notoriety. The press followed the story daily. In February 1928,  El Excelcior printed the following headlines: “Large Caravans of Sick Leave for Espinazo,” “Hundreds Of Sick Return to Their Homes Let Down by Fidencio,” “Travelers to the City of Pain Die or Are in Worse Condition,” “Peregrinations to Espinazo Make Followers of Fidencio Rich,” “Contradictory News of El Niño Fidencio’s Real Ability,” “The Healer of Espinazo Continues Miraculous Cures,” “The Cures of El Niño Fidencio Are Amazing and Produce Great Admiration for the Healer,” “Everything That Has Been Said About the Celebrated Miracle Worker Pale in the Face of Reality,” “The Fanaticism of His Followers Increases,” and “‘It’s God Who Cures with My Hands,’ Says the Miraculous Niño Fidencio.”

Within two years, Espinazo began to recover from the frenzy of 1928 and 1929. By 1930, the tens of thousands of insane, deformed, blind, paralytic, and diseased persons searching for a personal miracle were gone.

However, a steady stream of the faithful, as well as many newcomers and curiosity seekers, continued to make the difficult trip year after year. During the early 1930s, Espinazo began to take on a much more routine way of life. El Niño’s popularity in the media continued to decline sharply. He was almost constantly under fire from public health and medical officials, and in later years he was attacked by the church. He was arrested and brought before tribunals in Monterrey on two occasions (Quiros 1991). This period of relentless attack was unquestionably the most important period of his life because while his celebrity in the media declined, his fame and popularity with the common people continued to soar.


Dr. Francisco Vela, vice president of the state of Nuevo León’s committee on public health, secretly visited Espinazo in 1930. The throngs of thousands were gone, the spectacle largely over.

Approximately 1,500 sick persons and their families remained, still an enormous number of people compared with the 100 or so permanent residents. Espinazo was once again a place of serenity.

Although Vela attempted to portray the setting as an ineffectual place of healing, he inadvertently provided the first glimpses of Espinazo as an emerging utopian society, a New Jerusalem, built around a central cult figure (Da Cunha 1970). Long, orderly lines of men and women waited patiently for their morning drink of hot herbal medicine or coffee. The dirt streets were perfectly laid out, each with a name; residential sections were named after those in Mexico City.

Fifty children received instruction from a teenage girl in a small building, El Niño Fidencio School. When Vela arrived, Fidencio was seated in a large room called el foro (forum), a little theater built for the plays and musical events that were popular with El Niño and his followers. Admirers surrounded him, caressed him, stroked his hair, and kissed his hands and feet as they greeted him and asked his advice. El Niño, always attired in a white tunic and barefoot, was described as looking serene and intelligent. He had a “rare” skin color, a mix between brown and white that was almost yellowish; thick lips; large teeth; and light eyes that looked away from the intruding eyes of visitors (“El Doctor Vela González, sin que El Niño Fidencio lo sospechará, estuvo con él,” in El Porvenir de Monterrey, as cited in Quiros 1991: 123-134). Upon arrival, Vela was immediately ushered into the presence of El Niño Fidencio, who extended his hand and asked two of his young helpers to show their guest whatever he wanted to see.

Most interesting to Dr. Vela was a room with a large number of bottles filled with tissue and tumors extracted by El Niño. These may still be seen in Espinazo. El Niño Fidencio performed operations without anesthesia, using only a broken piece of bottle glass as a surgical instrument. Vela claimed to identify many samples as “obviously” benign tumors. However, he commented that the most highly trained surgeons of the day would not have dared attempt their removal in their offices, thereby implying the remarkableness of an untrained healer’s performing such surgeries.

Vela was escorted to all areas of El Niño’s compound–the corral, called la dicha, where the demented were kept; the place where the lepers were treated; the maternity ward; the postoperative room; the swing used to treat the mute; the large concrete containers where the fresh herbal medicine was prepared every day; the flower garden; and the famous healing mud pond, el charquito. The visitor was stunned by the orderliness of the place and by its simplicity. “It was like a child was playing hospital in a life-size place” (El Doctor Vela  ….  as cited in Quiros 1991: 123-134).

None of this could possibly work, none of this could possibly be effective, he thought, as the first and then the second, and finally the third funeral procession of the day filed by. The different treatment venues were often hundreds of yards apart, and as Fidencio made his daily treks to see his little sick ones (infermitos), he was followed on foot by a parade of the faithful. They sang religious hymns as they walked barefoot through the dusty streets of Espinazo. Later Vela would say:

Fidencio is an innocent, who is not even aware that he suffers from a mental illness which causes him to believe that he has been appointed by God to heal the sick. Those who are not innocent children are those who encircle him and promote his incredible abilities to the masses of suffering people who do not know any better. (Quiros 1991: 123).

The final national media glimpse of Espinazo and El Niño Fidencio came in 1937, one year before his death. The photographic magazine Hoy, Mexico’s equivalent of Life magazine, offered an analysis of the events at Espinazo nine years after the media blitz of 1928. This valuable exposé provides an intimate view of El Niño Fidencio’s last year of life. Photographs in the article depict scenes that are familiar even today because Espinazo has changed little since 1937.

In the late 1930s, only a few dozen persons disembarked daily from the trains. Gone were the post office and the telegraph office of eight years earlier. The desperately ill, stripped of hope by the doctors or with no doctor at all, continued to come to Espinazo in search of a personal miracle. Many returned home, disappointed, each day. “I do not even know how to write, sir,” Fidencio said to the reporter. “I only use the gifts of healing that God has given me to help these suffering people” (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937). One of his young helpers remarked, “Fidencio knows all of the medicinal plants that are used for healing; too bad he never studied medicine” (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937).

A photograph’s caption in Hoy reads, “Behind him, the life-size statue of Christ from whom he claims his power; before him, the suffering, people who have left with cures that defy medical explanation as well as those who will never leave” (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937). Some left healed, others left feeling better, some left feeling worse. But all left believing that Fidencio had done for them what no doctor could do.

Almost all considered him to be a priest, and they begged for his blessing as he raised his crucifix to the heads of his followers. The article asked, “What sort of man is this, who could have been one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Mexico? What sort of man gives away more than 1 million pesos? What sort of man is this who prefers to live a peasant’s life, who shuns even a bed to lie on, and who walks barefoot through the dusty streets of Espinazo to care for the suffering?” (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937). The paradox that Fidencio’s life presented to the Mexican people further served to support his legitimacy as a beneficiary of supernatural abilities sent to Earth by God to heal the sick, to ease the suffering, and to spread the word of the New Jerusalem.

The Hoy article did not speculate about Fidencio’s sanity or whether the government should step in to save the region from an epidemic. Now aging, tired. and disheveled, he simply and humbly attributed his success to God and reiterated that he had not asked to be chosen for this life. God, having selected him, required him to fulfill his destiny in the service of the poor and suffering. I am, in fact, nothing more than a simple peasant following the will of God” (Con Fidencio en Espinazo 1937).

Almost from the beginning of his brief media fame, Fidencio had predicted his early departure from Earth. Daily he emulated and acted out the life of Christ as he understood it. His protectors actively modeled religious symbolism around him, perpetuating the suggestion that El Niño Fidencio was the Messiah, that he was the Christ.

El Niño’s life in Espinazo so mirrored that of Christ that his followers expected him to die in 1931, at age 33. That he lived until near his fortieth birthday surprised many of his followers. When he did die, the faithful fully expected him to rise from the dead on the third day (Fidencio no quiere salir de Espinazo 1928). Word of his death on October 17, 1938, traveled as quickly as the telegraph and railroad lines could carry the news. From beginning to end, El Niño Fidencio had only ten years of life to treat the ill and serve the poor.


As noted previously, cults typically revolve around a charismatic leader. By 1935, an organized cult had developed around El Niño in Espinazo. A central problem confronting most cults is the continuation of the movement after the death of the leader. Rarely does another charismatic step in to replace the original leader.

Charisma, by nature, is unstable. It can exist in its pure form only so long as the charismatic leader is alive. The challenge for followers is to create a situation in which charisma, in some adulterated form, persists after the leader’s death. In other words, charisma must be routinized, institutionalized in a bureaucratic form. Bureaucracies are, by definition, organizational structures that have specialized positions, lines of authority, positions based on merit, and written rules that regulate the behavior of people in the organization.

Vested interests played a part in maintaining the cult of El Niño Fidencio. Espinazo had become one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Mexico, and it remains so today (Schneider 1995). Legions of faithful, along with those seeking a miracle, journey to Espinazo year after year. Many in and around the small community earn their living by serving these visitors.

The Fidencista movement has developed a liturgical calendar based on that of the Catholic Church, integrating with it the centuries-old Native American agrarian calendar that is divided into six-month periods. The Fidencista religious cycle also combines traditional Catholic and Native American practices in celebrating the cult of holy persons. Their burial places are revered as sacred sites.

Native American influence in Fidencista celebrations is dramatically witnessed as matachine dancers, with drums beating and native bows and arrows in hand, travel along the main penitents’ route to the tomb of El Niño (Gilles and Trevino 1994).

As El Niño became a prominent folk saint, religious objects beating his likeness began to be sold in the markets and the pilgrimage sites throughout Mexico. Massive emigration of Mexican workers into the United States between 1938 and the present has spread El Niño’s fame. Today, religious artifacts bearing his likeness can be found on an untold number of home altars in Texas and throughout the Mexican communities of the American Midwest (Samora 1971).

The widespread representation of El Niño as a saint greatly enhanced the popular belief that he was sent to Earth by God to heal the sick and counsel those in need. This has led to his dual characterization as “divine doctor” and “lawyer” of the poor.

El Niño’s physical appearance, simple mannerisms, tunic in the style of biblical times, gentle alto voice, and beardless face further enhanced his growing mythic and cult figure status (Gardner 1992). It is not surprising that followers sometimes refer to him as the “Christ of Espinazo.” Before his death, he had begun to act out scriptural events, emulating the life of Christ. Further supporting his cult figure status. El Niño had had an uncanny ability to anticipate questions and provide accurate answers while delivering spontaneous and pro-found orations on complicated religious topics. Like Jesus Christ, El Niño chose to deliver his spiritual messages by using a combination of parable and allegory and often staged simple plays to make his point.


El Niño Fidencio told his followers specifically that he would communicate with them through spirit mediums after his death. He warned them that many would claim to be him; “review them very carefully,” he said, “because only a special few will truly deliver my message” (Zapata de Robles 1994).

Approximately two years before his death, Damiana Martínez and Victor Zapata, both disciples of El Niño who lived some distance from Espinazo, began to enter trances and channel messages from El Niño. Telepathic messages from El Niño became a defining feature of the Fidencista cult. Catholicism provides the basic tenets of Fidencismo. Spirit channeling of Fidencio, however, and the resulting shift in focus away from Jesus Christ are the primary reason Fidencismo is not accepted by the Catholic Church (López de la Fuente de González 1993). In addition, Catholicism strictly forbids the celebration of any person before that person has been beatified or canonized.

Following El Niño’s death, “trance events” created a complex system of spiritual communication between the deceased healer and his followers. The practice continues today, as part of the routinization of charisma.

In the warring months of 1938, the organization for the perpetuation of the cult after the death of Fidencio was set in place. El Niño’s closest assistants in life became revered as disciples. Damiana was recognized as the principal voice (vocina principal) of El Niño Fidencio on Earth and the leader of the movement. She was the first to occupy the position that came to be called la directora (the director). Victor Zapata was charged with denouncing “false voices.” His duties evolved into the el revisador (inspector general) in later years.

Fidencista leadership made a conscious effort to remember and record the messages received from El Niño. Since illiteracy was common in rural Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s, El Niño’s spiritual messages or scriptures (escrituras) had to be learned by memory and repeated often until an opportunity arose for them to be transcribed.

Approximately 100 “scriptures” have survived, and form a coherent basis for the organization, including the emergent belief system, celebrations and rites, and the nature of the interaction between and among the followers.


Local neighborhood missions were established outside of the immediate desert towns and villages in northern Mexico. Major Fidencista strongholds developed in every major northern city, including Monterrey, Saltillo, Torreón, Guanajuato, and especially the border towns of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros. In addition. missions developed in areas where Mexican migratory agricultural workers settled, such as Texas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Each local mission was founded around a trance medium called a materia (Zavaleta 1992). The continued success of local missions is also dependent upon the group’s ability to identify a member with a spiritual gift, or don, and to develop new mediums. For this reason, the Fidencista experience has always welcomed and encouraged the participation of children, who are viewed as potential mediums. Almost without exception, the rounding mediums in the 1940s were female heads of large families. They managed the difficult tasks of raising a family, which were complicated by the growing demands on their time from increased activity in their rapidly growing missions.

At his death, Fidencio was entombed in his hospital building; his followers did not allow his remains to be removed to the cemetery. The establishment of this tomb-shrine propelled Espinazo’s status as a pilgrimage site to even greater heights. Miracles are often associated with sacred sites. Today the needy and the faithful come to Espinazo, seeking and receiving miracle cures in the burial room known as la tumba (the tomb). Mediums often live great distances from Espinazo but are required to make the trip at least once a year.

Many make the pilgrimage more often. Mediums and their followers sometimes acquire cheap property in Espinazo and build adobe compounds that are used to house them and their followers when they visit for a fiesta (Ovalle de Tamayo 1989). During the fiestas, Espinazo is packed with automobiles and pickup trucks beating license plates from a dozen U.S. states and an even greater number of Mexican states. Pilgrimages to Espinazo now referred to as “the Holy Land” or Tierra Santa, form the core around which the events of the year revolve. Local missions are always preparing to go to Espinazo or have just returned from there.

Local mediums serve both as advisers and as healers, so that throughout the year, the faithful receive the benefit of healings, concessions, wishes granted, and problems solved. The personal receipt of a miracle creates a spiritual debt (manda), that is owed to the granting Catholic saint or spirit. It requires that the recipient perform a penance of gratitude and travel to “the Holy Land” to give thanks. Once the recipient has made the promised trip to Espinazo, he or she has fulfilled the obligation and performed the penitencia. This process is repeated during the lifetime of a supplicant and guarantees that there will constantly be members of a local mission returning to Espinazo. In addition, those who have received a miracle in their lives serve as a constant marketing device in the Mexican-American community. Their testimonies draw a steady flow of new and needy persons to the medium’s healing mission. Fidencistas are often devoted to Catholic saints and make regular pilgrimages to Catholic shrines in Mexico.

In the 1940s and 1950s, la directora and el revisador became the living representatives of El Niño Fidencio on Earth as well as the driving forces behind the cult. Between 1938 and the early 1970s, the Fidencista movement continued to grow in strength and numbers with an expanding geographic sphere of influence. The liturgical cycle became fully established, including the semiannual fiestas, and a broad network of functioning local missions was developed.


During the 59 years since the death of El Niño, skeptics have insisted his memory would fade in time and eventually disappear. In fact, the opposite has happened. Today Fidencio enjoys an unrivaled popularity as a healer and counselor in the pantheon of Mexican and Mexican-American folk saints and Catholic saints. In the United States, the continued popularity of El Niño Fidencio is traced to the fact that the largest pan of the Mexican- American community traces its origins to southern Texas and northern Mexico.

Thousands of believers today are loosely organized into a socioreligious community-based in healing temples or missions. The Fidencista movement is supported at its most basic level by local spirit mediums. Hundreds of missions support hundreds of thousands of regular followers as well as untold numbers of one-time or episodic visitors to the missions.

The growth of Fidencismo is enhanced by an informal system of oral communication that operates effectively in the Latino community (Escamilla 1995). The structure and function of Fidencista missions in Mexican and Mexican-American communities is based on faith and the unavailability of local medical care. Individuals who seek health care at Fidencista missions fall into three broad categories. The first consists of a small inner circle of faithful followers and assistants. A second large group consists of regular attendees. These individuals regularly participate in weekly healing sessions and in special temple activities. The size of the regular group is dependent upon
numerous complex factors, including the current popularity of the trance medium.

The third group consists of persons seeking treatment on an episodic basis. The size of the third group depends upon the success of the informal, word-of-mouth network established by the regular group. Most of the regular members of a Fidencista temple make weekly appearances for simple blessings (bendiciones) and positive emotional enforcement. Ritual sweepings, in which the healer uses a sweeping motion with herbs or special sacred objects, are used to rid the patient of “bad vibes.” Almost without exception, regular members have received a miracle from El Niño Fidencio. In difficult cases that require continued benefaction, the recipients are expected to remember to whom they owe their good fortune. Offerings are gladly accepted. Loyalty is demonstrated by regular appearances at temple functions and by the general support of temple activities.

First-time visits to a Fidencista healer almost always are prompted by a serious physical, emotional, personal, or economic problem in the life of the visitor. Contrary to popular belief, people who seek physical care from a spiritual folk healer (curandero) do not do so as a first choice. Almost without exception, physicians have been consulted first. If medical therapy has not been successful, alternative therapies, especially miraculous treatment, are sought. Every Fidencista mission has a regular group of persons who give impassioned and convincing testimony concerning impossible and miraculous cures that they have received through the intercession of El Niño Fidencio. These claims are often documented.

Chronic ailments commonly go untreated in the Mexican-American community. Therefore, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and similar ailments are common in El Niño Fidencio’s patient load.

Physical ailments are treated by Mexican-American folk healers in a variety of ways. They work on the material, the mental, or the spiritual level (Trotter and Chavira 1981). Material-level treatment in Fidencista temples is consistent with techniques and remedies found in nonspiritual healing traditions (Kiev 1969). The material and mental levels of treatment are common, but spiritual treatment, directly from the spirit of El Niño Fidencio, is more highly valued.

Healers are said to work spiritually when in a trance state. Individual spiritist healing sessions usually follow a similar pattern. The patient is greeted by the spirit and returns the salutation. The initial greeting is followed by a personal discussion with the spirit of Fidencio about the problem. In physical ailments, El Niño, working through the healer, immediately approaches the problem, using a combination of techniques.

These include massage, cleansing and sweeping, and, in serious cases, spiritual surgery. Often El Niño prescribes a remedy that may be a mixture of herbal and religious items and requests that the patient follow some prescribed process or ritual at home, then pay a return visit to the temple.

The average number of visits to El Niño Fidencio for physical ailments is equaled or surpassed by visits for other personal reasons. Although many of these consultations are of a serious nature, involving major family problems, many are simply routine visits by the faithful for emotional reinforcement.

Research has consistently shown that the Mexican-American community is severely underserved in mental health care (Psychiatric Assessment of Mexican-Origin Populations 1995). In the United States, mental health treatment has become commonplace. However, ethnic stereotypes continue to promote myths suggesting Mexican-Americans are poor but happy. They lead well-adjusted, simple lives, free from the common emotional and mental health problems experienced by middle-class Americans. This stereotype supports the contention that Mexican-Americans are not in need of care.

Consequently, the fastest-growing population in the country has little or no access to even minimal emotional and mental health care. Because of these high growth rates and the fact that the Mexican-American population is disproportionately poor relative to the general population, we can expect alternative healing systems like the Fidencista movement to continue to thrive. In almost every other country in the world, including Mexico, lay practitioners, with limited medical support, care for approximately 80 percent of the population’s physical and emotional needs (Velimirovic 1978).


El Niño began by serving the physical and mental health needs of the population. However, an important dimension of the movement that bears his name is its emergence as a folk religion.

Throughout Latin America, native belief systems have commingled with Roman Catholicism. The syncretic hybrids that have been produced are thriving alternatives to an often disinterested and unresponsive Catholic Church. Fidencismo does not seek to replace Catholicism but simply to be accepted by it. The rejection by the Catholic Church of this movement further alienates huge segments of the Latin American population. Many Latino Catholic parish priests are openly sympathetic to their parishioners’ belief in El Niño Fidencio.

The Fidencista movement’s true charm and charisma, which attracts an ever-growing number of persons to its ranks, is its profound piety. Its strong belief and faith represent an attempt to emulate Christ in their life. Fidencismo never ceases to amaze the observer with the beauty of its mystical simplicity. While one feels compelled to explain its mysteries, the more they are explored, the more it is realized that they are not meant to be explained, only lived.


Special thanks for facilitating access to critical original documents in Mexico City to Mtra. Aurora Cano Andaluz,
Coordinadora de la Hemeroteca Nacional de México, and Lic. Guillermo Ceron, Jefe de la Sección de Consulta y
Servicios Automatizados de Información,Hemeroteca Nacional de México.


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A&I University, Kingsville, Texas.

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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