By Antonio Zavaleta and Joseph Spielberg-Benitez
As the nineteenth century dawned in celebration, Mexico could not imagine that the events of the first decades of the new century would change her forever. In fact, the first three decades of the nineteenth century wrought with tremendous political crisis and massive social upheaval produced such irrevocable changes within the fabric of Mexican society that they thrust the country into two centuries of continuous instability.i
In this environment of crisis and alienation, revolutionaries like Padre Hidalgo, Benito Juarez, and later Pancho Villa and Emiliano ZapataiiEmerged as folk-heroes. Within this same environment, Pedro Rojas, Tatita, and Jose Fidencio Constantino, El Niño Fidencio, rose from obscurity to be regarded as miracle workers in life and, folk saints in death.iii
The Spanish conquest in 1519 was followed by centuries of revolutions and wars, which exacted a tremendous psychic toll on the Mexican people. By the 1820’s, Mexico’s underclass had endured more than three hundred years of suffering and was ready for the arrival of a Mexican messiah. Mexico has had a long history of charismatic folk-religious leaders who burst upon the scene during times of crisis. In the early nineteenth century, a period of anti-clericalism descended upon Mexico, which eventually brought about a virtual cessation of organized religion. This paralysis of organized Catholicism further prepared Mexico for the appearance of a series of charismatic thaumaturges. Mexico is a Catholic country, and during the nineteenth century, a confused and desperate Mexican people unable to avail themselves of sanctuary in the Church longed for a sign from God. Catholicism had been seriously attacked in Mexico, and it was in this socio-political environment that the miracle workers, Tatita and El Niño Fidencio, appeared in the deserts of the north near the Texas border and far away from the center of religious and political power in Mexico City.iv
Mexico has always been a land of mystery and paradox. Invading sixteenth-century Spanish explorers seeking adventure and wealth brought with them a strange mixture of medieval chivalry and religious devotion, which meshed with and enhanced the superstitious world they encountered in Mexico.v Together the two belief systems produced powerful and intoxicating magic. Many of the Spanish officers who came to the new world were members of lay religious orders and hoped to recreate the crusades in this new and mysterious land, while the religious orders who accompanied them hoped to establish a utopia and to prepare for the second coming of Christ.vi
The mendicant Orders of St. Francis, St. Dominic, and St. Augustine accompanying the adventurers were zealous in their desire to spread a superstition-laden Catholicism. In the sixteenth century, Spanish Catholicism was a stronghold of medieval practices. The faithful believed in the active intervention of Saints in the lives of the living. Petitioners were willing to perform penances in return for miracles granted and to make difficult pilgrimages to the Saint’s holy sites.vii In Mexico, medieval beliefs refused to give way to the Protestant, reform spreading throughout Europe at the time of the conquest. European society had become intoxicated with saints, and their cults and the Protestant Reformation required its adherents to abruptly abandon saint worship while it continued its fascination with witchcraft and demonology.viii
In Mexico, medieval Catholicism came face to face with a religious belief system equal in spiritual energy. Mexican native cultures practiced religions, which seemed bizarre and at the same time disconcertingly familiar to the Europeans. This unlikely encounter resulted in the creation of a completely new form of worship, which thrives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean today. Often called Folk-Catholicism, this new faith was produced as a syncretic blend of native beliefs with traditional sixteenth-century Spanish Roman Catholicism.ix In many instances, native beliefs and rituals were literally incorporated into the Roman Catholic belief system.
There were many fundamental similarities between sixteenth century Catholicism and native Mexican religions, which facilitated their syncretism. In fact, in critical aspects the two religious systems were indistinguishable. For example, fundamental to native Mexican belief is the concept of the incarnation of God, including God’s appearance on earth as Jesus Christ, his life and teachings while incarnate, followed by his departure and promise of return, and the dream of a messianic millenarian utopian society.x
Latin America in general and Mexico in particular, are fertile ground for the periodic resurgence of millenarianism, the eschatological belief in the return of God to earth followed by the establishment of a perfect society in which all human suffering disappears.xi Mexico’s native peoples have prayed for the return of their gods to power since the time of the conquest, and throughout Mexico’s stormy political history religion has always generated culture heroes who have mixed religious salvation with the politics of poverty and of a promised land.xii
The virgin goddess is another concept, which is essential to both belief systems, as is the belief in a pantheon of lesser gods or saints who are physically capable of affecting the lives of the living.
Central to both traditions is sacred sites that are dedicated to the honor of saints. The faithful are required to propitiate their saints and to make penitential pilgrimages to the sacred sites at regular intervals. xiii
In order to fully appreciate Mexico, one must understand the role that Mexico City plays in the country. Society, economy, and politics have always been focused in the central plateau, also home of the Mexican Catholic Church. Wealth and power have always been concentrated in central Mexico, while the inhabitants of outlying areas have been thought of as uncultured provincials. Mexico City was, and is, the heart and soul of Mexico, and thus the upper classes reside in the Capital controlling huge provincial land holdings as absentee landlords. This is also true for the Catholic Church.xiv
In colonial Mexico, there was little or no interaction between the landed aristocracy and the Natives who existed at the opposite extreme of a rigid caste system. This fact further served to polarize the two Mexican religious systems, Catholicism and Folk-Catholicism.
An emerging group of persons of mixed Spanish and Native blood, called Mestizos, made up the middle of Mexican society, quickly becoming the majority. Mestizos also formed the middle ground where Native beliefs mingled with Catholicism creating a Mexican mysticism. In spite of the rapid emergence of Mestizos, there was little or no social mobility allowed in the system.xv The absence of social mobility in Mexico guaranteed the perpetuation of folk religious practices within the lower classes and Natives. Upper socio-economic class Mexicans were never particularly concerned with the quaint practices and beliefs of their workers and from time to time even called upon them for magical assistance in financial and family matters. The Mestizos and the Native Mexicans, on the other hand, thrived with the magical systems of the old ways and paid lip service to the highly bureaucratic Catholic Church. Polite but cautious, the Mestizos and Native Mexicans attended Catholic church services while maintaining an active involvement with witches and healers, saints and spirits.
The provincial Catholic Church was charged with the salvation and the pacification of the native population, which was essential for the economic productivity of the land. Land, in turn, supported the elite style of life maintained by the landlords in Mexico City and a handful of major colonial and regional capitals like San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, and Guanajuato. However, unlike colonial Anglo-America, which sought to push aside or eliminate the Native American cultures it encountered, Latin American Catholicism sought the incorporation and salvation of its native peoples. From the time of their arrival in Mexico, the Spanish lived among the native populations mixing with them and learning their beliefs.
The Catholic priests quickly recognized that the salvation and pacification of the native population necessitated tolerance and acceptance and, at times, even required the support of the native beliefs and practices that were thinly veiled by a mantle of orthodoxy and by a tolerant atavistic Catholicism. This was especially true the further one was away from the oversight of Mexico City. Thus, native Mexican cultures were brought into the church both symbolically and physically and were permitted to continue many of their beliefs and allowed to perform their rituals in the church and on the church grounds. This pattern of unofficial Catholic tolerance of native belief led to their syncretism and produced the dual systems, which exist today, official and unofficial religions, which are remarkably consistent in structure and function throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.xvi Rather than being eliminated, the native belief systems were meshed with Catholicism to further forge the emerging Mexican Catholicism. The Catholic priests formed an indelible bond with the common people whom they believed to be a chosen people of God. Already major adherents of mysticism, the priests simply incorporated native mysticism into Mexican Catholicism.
The mixture of Catholicism with the native belief systems of Meso-America produced a hybrid that reflected the characteristics of its two progenitor religions while maintaining the unique characteristics of the progeny. Many of the Franciscans who came to Mexico were followers of the teachings of the Calabrian monk Gioachino di Fiore. The Franciscans, for example, believed explicitly that they were preparing Mexico and Mexicans for the appearance of the Messiah and the new millennium.
Throughout the Mexican countryside, far removed from the watchful eyes of their more mainstream superiors, the mission priests planted a seed of apocalyptic mysticism. The Native peoples of Mexico, they believed, were perfect candidates to receive the message of the return of God. They would establish in Mexico the first perfect society, a society devoid of the evils of the old world.xvii
Nearly five hundred years of syncretic melding produced today a rich diversity in the practice of Catholicism and its alter ego, Folk-Catholicism. Today, Mexican Catholicism exists in many and highly varied forms, as evidenced in the difference between the official and unofficial church beliefs and rituals as they are practiced from the highland villages of the southern Mexican State of Chiapas to the central State of Guanajuato or the native Tarahumara and Yaqui villages of the northern states of Chihuahua and Sonora.xviii
Mexican folk-Catholicism produced a parade of prophets and miracle workers who had emerged over the centuries all claiming to be the Messiah. All appeared during critical periods. In the 1700’s, Tzantzen, a miraculous Native healer emerged from the north-central state of Zacatecas. During the Mexican War of Independence, in 1810, a Mexican nun, Sor Encarnacion, was famed as a healer and miracle worker. The middle nineteenth century produced “Tata Naz,” the Yucatecan figure behind the cult of the Talking Cross.xix
In the mountains of the northwestern Mexican state of Chihuahua, Teresa Urrea of Carbola appeared as the miraculous folk-saint of the Tarahumara rebellion of the 1890’s.xx Rutila, a folk-healer or, curandera, from Guadalajara, was a notable cult figure who claimed to raise the dead. Maria Auxiliadora was a peasant from the State of San Luis Potosi in north-central Mexico, and Erasmo Mata was a prophet healer.
During the French occupation of the 1860’s, “Tatita Santo,” a longhaired, bearded holy man appeared in the northern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon and was influential with the rural Tejano rancheros on the Texas side of the U.S-Mexico border.
THE CASE OF TATITA SANTO 1860’s
“It occurred in 1860.” So begins Father Pierre Fourtier Parisot’s reminiscences of his encounter with a mysterious folk healer and saint in Cd. Mier, Tamaulipas. Father Parisot was a French Oblate Missionary in Brownsville for a number of years between the tumultuous years of 1857 and 1870. His account appears in the recollection of his adventures during those years in South Texas.xxi
“The rumor had been current for some time,” he states, “that a saint had appeared in the mountains of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and that he was working astounding miracles, healing all kinds of diseases which man is heir to, and foretelling future events. Men, women, and children were seen on the roads leaving their homes and occupations, in order to pay their respects to the saint, or to be cured of some disease.”
The “saint” whom he eventually meets and confronts as an “impostor,” hypocrite” and “heretic” was a man named Padre Rojas and commonly referred to as “Tatita” by his followers and detractors alike.
The purpose of this section of our article is intended to amplify on the details of Father Parisot’s encounter with this mysterious personage via information found in other historical documents. I believe such amplification would help understand: something of the mind-set of Fr. Parisot and, by extension the perspective of the Oblate missionaries on Mexican Catholicism along the Border, in contrast to the perspective of Mexican priests and laity.
THE ENCOUNTER: TWO VERSIONS
Father Parisot’s account of his encounter with Tatita at Cd. Mier, Tamaulipas is the first published description of the incident, and it contains many details as to how the event unfolded, the physical features of the saint, his “creed” and the nature of his followers.
Several decades later, (1938) Santiago Roel published the first of twelve editions of his Apuntes Historicos of Nuevo Leon.xxii In the chapter containing isolated details concerning Santiago Vidurri, the “caudillo” governor of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila during the War of the Reform and shortly after that, Roel included a short sketch of “Tatita” and the manner of his death.
As a footnote, Roel appended a transcription of a letter he found in the Vidaurri Archives from the Capellan of Sabinas Hidalgo to the Priest of Cd. Mier, wherein: the former describes what would appear to be the same encounter or incident described by Father Parisot. We say “would seem to be” because one can infer from the Capellan’s letter that the incident occurred in Sabinas Hidalgo and not Cd. Mier, located some thirteen kilometers directly east. Nevertheless, the details of the Capellan’s account are so similar to those provided by Fr. Parisot including the mention of a priest from Brownsville being present that it is hard to conclude that these were two separate events.
Given that Fr. Parisot’s account was written at least three decades after the event, and assuming that Roel’s account of the letter originating with the Capellan from Sabinas Hidalgo (dated the first of February 1861) is correct then we can conclude the event took place in Sabinas Hidalgo. On the other hand, a review of the documents contained in the “Tatita File” at the State Archives of Nuevo Leon revealed no account of Tatita having been, at this time, in Sabinas Hidalgo. xxiii
On the contrary, his activity in Mier (and nearby Guerrero) is well documented by these and still other sources. Therefore, we are inclined to think that the specific incident I will describe, and contrast took place in Mier around the latter part of January or the first week of February 1861.
Fr. Parisot’s encounter with Tatita, from his account, appears to have been somewhat fortuitous. While at Brownsville he had heard of Tatita and possibly has read a report of his activities in the Corpus Christi Ranchero, his interest in Tatita seems not to have been aroused.xxiv To those of his parishioners who came to consult him before starting their journey to see the “saint,” he seems to have given them his blessing.
“My answer was, the hand of God is not shortened. What has been seen so often may be repeated for the edification of the faithful and the conversion of sinners.”
When at the request of the Bishop of Monterrey he was sent to Reynosa (which at the time had no Pastor), his interest in “Tatita” sharpened. First of all, attendance at Mass in Reynosa was minimal since many of the faithful had already departed for Mier where the saint was reported to be working his miracles. When the Mayor and the Aldermen of Reynosa asked him for confession and communion before they too departed for Mier, he advised them to postpone their journey until,
“I had seen the man myself…After Mass, I also set out to see him, with the sole intention of investigating his claim and pretensions. Was the man a saint or an impostor?”
If Fr. Parisot had doubts as to the nature of this man, they seem to have been removed by the accounts he heard from the Priest at Camargo where he spent the night before arriving in Mier. Of what he heard, he says.
“If true, would clearly prove that he was simply a hypocrite and an impostor.”
Arriving in Mier the following night he observed the spectacle of the masses reciting the Rosary with the saint in the main plaza and heard the saint preach his doctrine. According to Fr. Parisot, these were his words:
“My brethren, the new religion, which I am sent to deliver to you, was revealed to me by Almighty God Himself for the Mexican nation. It consists exclusively of three things: To adore the Eternal Father and the Holy Cross and to say the Rosary, Confession, Mass, and all other religious practices are abolished. Follow me, adore the Cross, and you shall be saved.”
Father Parisot’s reaction, in his own words, is both curious and revealing. He states,
“This nonsense did not surprise me very much, but I was pained to see such a multitude paying the most respectful attention to his false declarations. Oh. I said to myself for the honor of religion, this man’s scheme must be frustrated.”
Why Father Parisot was not surprised by this “nonsense” The answer, I believe, rests on the experiences of the Oblate missionaries with the rural folk in South Texas ranchos. The missionary apostolate undertaken by the Oblates along the Rio Grande, beginning in 1849, was beset with numerous problems chief among these was the “ignorance” of the rural poor concerning the basic tenets of Catholicism although all were nominal Catholics and their indifference to the reception of the sacraments. Many of the letters of these Oblates to their superiors registered their complaints and concerns over these characteristics.xxv
As Doyon puts it, “The missionaries had to wage long and secret battles to evangelize, the poor as their Oblate rule prescribed, and to make practical Catholics out of this forsaken people.”
Citing a report from Father Gaudet to his superior some would state that to be baptized and to be married well was enough Mass. “Easter and the rest are good for pious people who like them.” xxvi
For some of the priests, Father Doyon, said, “It was an ungenial task to repeat over and over the ABCs of religion” That Father Parisot has heard (and seen) such “nonsense” before there can be no doubt. He relates how he struggled with such indifference or resistance to the sacraments. When he was assigned to prepare three condemned men for eternity, he tells us:
“For fifteen days I worked in vain endeavoring to bring them to repentance.”
The point here is that while he understood the circumstances, which had created the unorthodox folk Catholicism of the people of the ranchos, to hear it being preached, and respectfully listened to as a “creed” was a blemish on the “honor” of his faith and more than the good missionary could abide.
This was now “heresy.” He resolves to confront and publicly “unmask” this false messenger from God the next day, despite dire warnings from the frightened and secluded pastor of the city of Mier with whom he consulted that night:
“Don’t go, for if they suspect your intention, you will not return to my house alive… The impostor has 300 Hermanos (Brothers) armed to the teeth, who draw their share of the profits.”
The next morning after mass, Fr. Parisot marches to where the saint is lodged (“…a large room, situated on a platform, from which a perfect view could be had of the plaza”). As he enters, he sees in the crowd …” two of my acquaintances, who offered to accompany me, for said they, you may need our assistance.” Tatita invites Fr. Parisot to say the rosary with him. Father Parisot refuses, “unceremoniously” blows out the sacred candles and for an hour, “lectures” the man attempting to make him see the “evil consequences of his false doctrine.” In response, Tatita …lifted up his eyes and exclaimed: “The Holy Cross is my Protection.” xxvii
At one point, Fr. Parisot warns Tatita that the. hand of God will someday
“Smite him…that he would die unshriven and be dragged to hell.” To which Tatita responds, “Oh, but I am going to change my life…I am going to build a hermitage and lead the life of a recluse in the future and do penance.”
Fr Parisot remains unmoved by this seeming recanting, “Oh” the hypocrite” he adds, Fr. Parisot, still on the platform, and then turns to the multitude and “Commanding silence and attention, I said,
“Brethren and Catholic Mexicans listen to me…Keep away from this man; he is not a saint but a hypocrite and an impostor. ’ Here arose a tumult of angry disapproval—but I continued…”
After a few more denunciations of Tatita and admonitions to the crowd to reject the impostor Fr. Parisot’s two companions sensing the good priest was in danger of being physically attacked by the crowd seek help from the authorities and are told to escort Fr. Parisot to the municipal palace, which they do.
“One on each side of me and each carrying a loaded carbine.”
At the palace, the mayor admonishes Fr. Parisot for being “a disturber of the public peace,” and that by law he could have him arrested and jailed. It should be noted here that at this time public activities by the clergy had been severely proscribed by the Constitution of 1857 and its reform law. In short, Fr. Parisot had indeed broken the law. The mayor rejects Fr. Parisot suggestion to get 100 soldiers for protection…., instead confronts the angry crowd himself, and quells the tumult with the threat of military force and legal prosecution if they persist in seeking revenge on the priest, called for by Tatita himself after Fr. Parisot departure from the scene.
The mayor orders Fr. Parisot to leave Mier, with an escort of fifty soldiers. The frightened Pastor of Mier also leaves with Fr. Parisot, and both arrive safely at Camargo. The next day Fr. Parisot is back in Reynosa. The preceding passages are the essential details of Fr. Parisot’s description of his encounter with Tatita.
Let us now review what we believe to be the same incident from the perspective of the Capellan of Sabinas Hidalgo, contained in his letter to the Presbyter of Mier, dated February 1, 1861.
THE CAPELLAN’S VERSION OF THE ENCOUNTER.
The Capellan’s first meeting with Tatita also seems to have been a fortuitous one. On 7 January, while on his way to a spiritual retreat in Saltillo, The Capellan “…had the pleasure (el gusto) of knowing the old man, ‘Tatita,” at the Rancho de la Laja (in the state of Tamaulipas). According to the Capellan, Tatita was actually fleeing the state of Coahuila because he had been exiled from Coahuila. However, upon seeing him enter that ranch, he states,
“..Me escandalice de verlo venir cargado en una silla, echando bendiciones episcopales dejandose besar los pies y manos; aclamado por aquella multitude como enviado de Dios o el mismo Dios.”
I was scandalized seeing him being carried on a chair, casting bishop’s blessing, letting himself be kissed on his feet and hands; acclaimed by that multitude as an envoy of God or God himself.
Unable to stand such an “ignominious scandal,” and with the courage infused by his priestly office (“y con la valentia que infunde mi caracter sacerdotal”), he confronts Tatita with the following questions: Who are you? Why are you here, and why that “pompa” (procession of splendor and ostentation: our translation) that is solely owed to God himself, and I was astounded to hear the voice of a Mexican Native who said, “I am a man who brings a holy wooden cross (Santo Madero) and my eternal father and I with him, at his side…I warned him not to cast blessings nor bless santos; but he was so shameless (descarado) that in my presence he would bless them making a sign of the cross with his hand and sprinkling water with these ridiculous words:—Agua del Jordan (water from the river Jordan). I could not suffer his impudence (descaro), and I began preaching to the people but if I had continued they would have stoned me, and I decided to keep quiet.”
The Capellan’s concern then seems to have been centered principally on the almost regal type homage which the people bestowed on Tatita (i.e., his being borne on people’s shoulders seated in a chair and they’re kissing his feet and hands), who after all was simply a Mexican “Indian.” While it is not altogether certain whether Tatita was indeed racially or ethnically a Native American, we believe the priest used the term more in the pejorative sense—uncultured ignorant, backward dirty, etc. This usage or meaning of “Indio” was as common then as it is today in Mexico. Being astounded by such a “shameless” reversal of the social order in the case of Tatita was a common reaction among la gente decente of the region who witnessed these spectacles. For example in a letter (dated February 20, 1861) to the editor of the Boletin Oficial de Monterrey (February 27, 1861), signed by eleven prominent citizens of Ciudad Guerrero (upriver from Mier), where Tatita appeared for a brief period he is described with the following words:
“La astucia de esta mondado y despotico viejo que no debe ser mas que un mocho profugo de alguna carcel criminal porque haci lo demuestra sus modales, ha infatuado tanta gente” (The slyness of this dirty and despotic old man, who must be nothing more than a hypocritical fugitive from some criminal jail, as demonstrated by his manners has infatuated so many people…).
An editorial on his death, also published in the Boletin Oficial (March 21, 1861. no. 17). Exclaims
“Jamas el fanatismo hizo tanto efecto por medio de un hombre rustico como era el indigena Rojas.” (Never has fanaticism made such an effect by means of a rustic man, as was the “Indio” Rojas).
However, the good Capellan had not seen the last of Tatita, “When it returned from Saltillo (his letter continues) by misfortune I found him here, and then I commenced to preach against the old man, but I assure you that I have been in danger of being assassinated because of this false prophet.
Finding myself in much trouble, I asked the companions (“Los Companeros”) for help and Thursday of last week came two priests, the Father Pabillo of Brownsville (Father Parisot?), and Father Pena vicar of Camargo.” xxviii After prayers and preparing themselves with confession and holy mass, the three went to the house where Tatita was lodged, armed with a lay manual (vestment and prayer book). Tatita received them.
The Capellan then wrote,
“Yo tome la palabra en este modo: En el nombre del Redentor de quien somos ministros, digamos U. Porque da bendiciones y se deja adorar?” (I spoke to him in this way: In the name of the Redeemer, whose ministers we are, tell us why you bestow blessings and allow yourself to be venerated.)
Tatita did not answer but only looked upward. After repeating the question many times and receiving no answer but silence from Tatita, the Capellan and his two companion priests began to exhort Tatita with the prayers of exorcism of the Catholic Church. xxix
When they began intoning these prayers in unison, Tatita,
“Bajo los ojos y la cabeza y comenzo a llorar.” (He lowered his eyes and his head, and he began to cry).
The Capellan wrote that Tatita responded by saying that his cures were admirable because he was possessed by the Devil, and that he bestowed blessings to fool the people. Furthermore, he stated that he was going to give up that way of life and promised to go to confession (or confess his sins) and to hear mass. The Priests then gave an account of all of this to the Judge and the “Pueblo”… A commission then went to Tatita to ask him about the Priests testimony or account, which Tatita denied, saying that the Priests were raising false testimony against him. At this point, writes the Capellan,
“Se formo tal barullo en el populacho, que si salgo con los padres nos matan.” (There was formed such a tumult amongst the rabble, that if I had gone out with the priests, they would have killed us).
He continues, “here you have us that they have put more credence in a devil-possessed old man that in three priests who had no reason to lie, and I am in such a position that to go about I have to have guards, because the old man has a sequito (retinue) of 500 men.” It could be assumed that he included the Judge and the commission in this lament, if not the Judge and the commission itself. Furthermore, as in Fr. Parisot’s version, this “retinue” was constituted by the armed Hermanos or “Brothers” of Tatita.
THE TWO VERSIONS: A COMPARISON AND CONCLUSIONS
As stated at the beginning of this case study, we believe that despite significant differences in some of the details described in these two accounts of an encounter with Padre Rojas (alias “El Santo Tatita”), both are accounts of a single event that took place in Ciudad Mier, in late January 1861. If it is possible that the history and Santiago Roel had the correspondents reversed, i.e., that the letter he reproduced in his historical notes was actually from the Priest at Mier to the Capellan of Sabinas Hidalgo, our assertion is strengthened. The similarities in what transpired are too great to be simply co-incidental. There is, first of all, the presence of a priest from Brownsville who accompanies the Capellan, along with the priest of Camargo.
Father Parisot too had two companions in his version of the encounter, although he does not tell us the identity of his two acquaintances. In both accounts, the Tatita states that he plans to change his ways, which he later denies. In both versions, local authorities are consulted, and they conduct their own investigation, and, in both cases, they judge that the priests are responsible for the tumult, and intervene to save the priests from the mob. The principal difference is that both Parisot and the Capellan each claim to be the one whom directly admonishes the “impostor.” Here we are inclined to believe it was the Capellan. After all, Father Parisot constructs his account from memory (we presume), three decades later, while the Capellan is describing what took place the week before.
Further research into the correspondence of these two priests may help clear up this: point, but we may never know which one was the real inquisitor. What is more significant; however, are the different attitudes towards the “saint” and his followers demonstrated by the two priests. Father Parisot’s main concern seems to have been that the “saint” was misleading the masses and reinforcing their unorthodox beliefs and practices, something he was familiar with, and as a missionary, he had been working long and hard to correct.xxx He seems not to have taken notice (or cared about) the fact that the “believers” kissed Tatita’s hands and feet, and carried him about on their shoulders, seated on a platform or “anda.”
In fact, he tells us that Tatita’s wanderings were constantly performed on foot. He pleads with the crowd of followers to not follow or believe this man, without any commentary on their intelligence or social standing. The Capellan, on the other hand, seems to have been as greatly scandalized seeing these forms of homage being paid to a person who was no more than a “Mexican Indian” as he was by the creed he espoused, if not more so. He is upset that the authorities would believe a “devil-possessed” old man but not believe priests. For him, this was a scandalous and dishonorable breach of the established social order-actions symbolic of a world turned upside down. xxxi
When he refers to the followers as a “populacho” (which can be translated as a mob or rabble), he is betraying a disdain for the uneducated, rural poor working people of the region, if not of Mexico—the primitive and uncivilized segments of Mexican society. Father Parisot, on the other hand, simply refers to them as “…the innocent and the credulous…”
Ironically, the Capellan’s reactions and views were shared by local authorities in this region, who themselves (as Liberals) saw the Church and clergy as a source of fanaticism, superstition and an obstacle to nation-building. For example, in early 1861 the authorities of Camargo, upon hearing rumors that Tatita was headed in their direction, approved an official petition banning his presence in their community, which stated:
“….Algunos ignorantes se preparan a celebrar su venida con estrepito de fuegos artificiales y otras demonstraciones de veneracion lo cual pasando del ridiculo a lo escamadaloso y perjudicial a la sociedad lo hacia presente (la peticion) a fin de que esta villa no se sufra un descredito como en la villa de Mier ha sucedido porque la hipocrita mision del expresado Roja no es otra cosa que una farza ridicula que propaga mas las ideas del fanatismo en el vulgo necio “ (translation: “some ignorant people are preparing to celebrate his coming with the clamor of fireworks and other demonstrations of veneration, which passing from the ridiculous to the scandalous and prejudicial to the society, he presents his petition so that this community does not suffer the discredit as has happened in the villa of Mier because the hypocritical mission of the named Rojas is nothing other than a ridiculous farce that propagates more the ideas of fanaticism in the stupid (or idiotic, foolish) multitude or crowd.” xxxii
Mier’s “discredit” was, indeed, widespread. The letter to the editor from the citizens of Guerrero (cited above) was in response to an editorial “scoffing” of Mier and Guerrero, for having pertained the presence of Tatita, written by the editors of “El Progresista” of Matamoros (February 6, 1861). Likewise, the editorial on the death of Tatita (also cited above) starts out,
“Sabe ya el publico hasta que grado llega el escandalo de Pedro Rojas, que diciendose hijo del padre eterno alcanzo lo que no hubiera alcanzado un verdadero santo. Que se le adorase y se le rinde culto, colocandose le en andas, besandole los pies y considiendose le urn mision celestial que le ha dado celebridad entre la gente fanatica que forman numerosas reuniones.” (The public now knows too what extent the scandal of Padre Rojas has gone, who, proclaiming himself the son of the eternal father, has achieved what no true saint could achieve. That he is venerated and is shown reverence, placing him on a platform or litter, kissing his feet, and attributing to him a celestial mission, has made him a celebrity among the fanatic people that form his massive reunions or meetings).
In a letter (dated March 11, 1861) included in the same editorial, the writer states that Tatita scoffed at the beliefs of his followers who were
“….Personas que no tienen idea de la educacion y que no estan al son de la religion que profesan.” (Persons who have no education and are not in tune with the religion they profess).xxxiii
Finally, another letter (dated December 31, 1860, also included in the editorial) requested, from the Governor (Vidaurri), official action against Tatita,
“…Para evitar tan vergiienzoso escandalo, que le hace tan poco favor al herdico estado a quien tenemos el honor de pertener” (to avoid such shameless scandal that does little favor to the heroic state to which we have the honor of belonging).xxxiv
Father Parisot’s account and that of the Capellan also demonstrates another very significant difference between these two catholic priests. In Father Parisot’s account, he tells us that shortly after returning to Reynosa he received the news that Tatita had been killed the day after his departure.xxxv
“Had I been consulted,” he adds, “my advice would have been: Let the man go back quietly to the mountains, gather herbs, and use his knowledge for the benefit of mankind…”
The Capellan’s view of Tatita’s curing powers is radically different he states,
“Las euros son admirables y tengo 19 declaraciones de personas a quienes ha curado lobanillos y ni sienten operacion, siendo esta con una navaja que le da filo con un eslabon. Por esto creo que esta poseido del demonio… ” (His cures are admirable, and I have 19 declarations of persons whom he has cured tumors that they did not feel the operation, this being done with a knife he sharpens with a whetstone. This is why I believe he is possessed by the devil).
Father Parisot’s attitude toward the healing powers of Tatita (and perhaps folk curers in general) are very similar to the attitude of another American priest toward another famous folk saint/healer in South Texas, around the turn of the century—Don Pedrito Jaramillo. Hudson relates an incident where an Anglo altar boy was mocking Don Pedrito, only to be admonished by the parish priest, Father Bard. Father Bard explained to the altar boy that God, knowing of the great need of the people where there are few doctors, saw fit to bestow on this humble man the power of helping these people.xxxvi The Capellan’s attitude toward the folk healer Tatita, on the other hand, seems to come straight out of the Spanish Inquisition.
In her book, Idols Behind Altars, Anita Brenner succinctly describes Mexico’s passion and longing for a messiah:
“Mexico has a messiah who dies, yet always lives; who has so many names and forms that he is never graspable in one; who has humility and strength, who kills and heals, blasts and kindles, suffers and rejoices. He is the image of his people. He is a dark master of himself, and prodigal to the rest of the world. The prophecy that bears him is a prophecy that needs no future, but is constantly fulfilled; that needs no faith but vision. It is the brown hand, the color of the earth, shaping a round bowl color of the hand.”xxxvii
Like Tatita before him, in the middle nineteenth century, the persona and demeanor of El Niño Fidencio fulfilled the Mexican image of a redeemer and much more. Like the archetypal messiah Brenner describes, Tatita and Fidencio are perfect images of the simple people of Mexico. In Tatita and Fidencio, Mexico’s Messiah was a peasant as poor as the people who sought deliverance at his hand. They both claimed power derived from God, through the soil and the native plants of the desert. In both cases, their spiritual gift or don had been granted them through a direct revelation by Christ and the Holy Spirit.
In the early twentieth century, 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.”xxxviii
Oblivious to his celebrity and like Tatita before him, Fidencio became a living folk-saint during his lifetime. In the 1930’s the media lost interest in Fidencio who showed no more interest in loss of newspaper attention than he had in his celebrity of the early years. Fidencio, after all, stated often that his mission on earth was not to be famous but to ease the pain of the suffering. In the end, numerous attempts to exploit him failed, and he died as he had lived, a simple barefooted peasant. This is his story.
THE CASE OF EL NINO FIDENCIO (1928-1938)
There are only sketchy facts known about the early life of Jose Fidencio from the time of his birth, in 1898, until his appearance in the village of Espinazo in the northern state of Nuevo Leon in 1921, when he was twenty-three years of age. An official birth document filed on November 18, 1898, in the small town of Iramuco, Guanajuato, recorded his birth as November 13, 1898. Fidencio was the son of Socorro Constantino, a forty-year-old day laborer, and Maria Transito Sintora, thirty-one years of age. Interestingly, his birth certificate indicates that his parents were not Indios, as indicated earlier, an important issue of social class in Mexico. xxxix
While the date and location of Fidencio’s birth and his parents’ names are certain, our concrete knowledge of his childhood remains sketchy. For example, it is commonly stated in the Mexican popular literature that Fidencio was the fourteenth born of twenty-five children. This is doubtful and has never been documented. It is certain, however, that his younger brother, Joaquin, spent most of his life close to Fidencio’s side. It is believed that the two young brothers were contracted to work in the henequen fields of Yucatan around 1909.xl A world away from the traditional village life of early twentieth century Guanajuato, the harsh existence of Yucatan would have been a traumatic experience for the young boys. Fidencio re-appeared in the area of Iramuco and Yuriria approximately two years later. Personal interviews with his cousins, who still live in Yuriria, place the young Fidencio there in 1913, at about eleven years of age. We know, moreover, that he assisted the local priest, serving as an altar boy and working around the church at that time. From an early age, Fidencio showed a great fascination for religion.xli
At about the age of thirteen, Fidencio was contracted to work as a kitchen boy in the household of the Lopez de la Fuente family, with whose son, Enrique, Fidencio had gone to school. As an adult, Fidencio was semi-literate. He only briefly attended elementary school in Guanajuato and Nuevo Leon, never showing much interest in formal schooling. It was not common nor was it expected, in the early part of the century, for a peasant boy to attend school beyond the age of puberty. Able to perform work, he would have been expected to help support his family. However, Fidencio was orphaned at an early age. What does seem curious is that he would be selected for household work as opposed to fieldwork, which would be more common for a young Mexican boy at the time.
His cousins indicate that Fidencio suddenly left Yuriria, sending no word of his whereabouts and that they did not hear from him again until approximately fifteen years later when his name began appearing in the Mexican press in 1928.xlii
In all probability, around 1913 Enrique Lopez de la Fuente recruited Fidencio to move northward from Guanajuato to Nuevo Leon to work on a ranch near Sabinas Hidalgo (note that this is the same area in which Tatita existed some 75 years earlier). In 1915, Fidencio worked briefly in the San Rafael mine near Espinazo, which is located on the main Mexican national railroad line that runs from the northern border with the U.S., down the center of the country toward Saltillo, and continues southward to San Luis Potosi and eventually Mexico City.
Today this rail line is a primary route for commerce, linking the major industrial supply cities of the American Midwest with the Mexican heartland. Espinazo remains an insignificant outpost in the mountainous deserts of northern Mexico. This semi-abandoned whistle stop still springs to life twice a year, every year, in October and March for the Niño’s fiestas, which recall to mind the peak of his popularity in the 1920’s and draw tens of thousands of pilgrims to Espinazo.
During the time between 1915 and 1921, Fidencio’s whereabouts are uncertain. However, always in the company of Enrique Lopez de la Fuente, Fidencio finally settled in Espinazo around 1921. Until the end of his life in 1938, he never again left the area of Espinazo. Fidencio would have been approximately twenty-three years of age when he settled in Espinazo and about thirty years of age when he gained national recognition as a healer. He worked as a healer for ten years, dying a few days before his fortieth birthday. Employed on the ranch as a goatherd and kitchen worker, under normal circumstances, Fidencio would have lived out his years as a simple, nondescript peasant, but that was not to be.
EL NINO FIDENCIO THE HEALER
The seven years between 1921 and 1928 provide only sketchy details about Fidencio’s development as a folk-healer. However, enough is known about his life in Espinazo to describe Fidencio’s probable emergence as a curandero. Fidencio’s first attempt at healing had come many years earlier, in the spontaneous act of setting his mother’s arm, broken in a fall. While the act of splinting an arm hardly seems remarkable, this occurred when Fidencio was only eight years old.xliii
On the ranch at Espinazo, Fidencio developed considerable acclaim in treating animals and especially in assisting at their births. It was not until he was called upon to assist with a human birth, however, that his ability and fame as a healer, curandero, and midwife or partero, began to unfold.
During his lifetime, El Niño Fidencio had several supernatural experiences in the form of revelations or visions in which he claimed to have been visited by Jesus Christ and or a Biblical prophet. In a vision, which occurred early in his childhood, Fidencio was visited by a strange bearded man who imbued him with the spiritual gift or don of healing, which included profound knowledge of medicinal plants, could this bearded man, be Tatita? While Fidencio never had any formal training on the properties of medicinal plants and home remedies, he was expert in the use of their properties.
A second and very significant supernatural visitation occurred on August I5, 1927. Fidencio related the story to his followers: at three o’clock in the morning at the sacred little tree; I was praying to the celestial father and contemplating on the bitterness and suffering that my life had been and all that I had suffered for the love of God and concern that his love reaches humanity.
“On this holy day, my celestial father ordered me to begin the preparations for the Cerro de la Campana on March 19, 1928, because the Divine Providence prepared me to have a large gathering to see if in this multitude of hearts they could understand that the author of peace was born on March 19, 1928. The divine prophecy gathered the hearts of man, but no one understood that the son of justice had arrived in the form of a divine spirit in the body of Fidencio Constantino.”xliv
This mystical event played a significant role in the life of Fidencio since it licensed him to share his gift of healing with the masses of needy and to begin his earthly mission. From this time, Fidencio adopted the persona of a holy man and lived the life of an ascetic.
EL CAMPO DEL DOLOR: THE MEXICAN PRESS 1928
In the early days of 1928, Mexico was in the throes of the Cristero revolt and the post-revolutionary government persecution of the Catholic Church. The headlines in the Mexican press announced the confiscation of church property and the expulsion, imprisonment, and execution of the Catholic clergy. During these troubling days, Mexico turned her eyes to the desert north as the first reports of miracles began to emerge:
“Como el Niño Fidencio no se Hace Llamar Medico, no Intervendra el Departmento de Salubridad Publico.”
The headlines read. Because the Niño Fidencio Does Not Claim to be a Doctor, the Health Department Does Not Intend to Intervene.xlv In 1928, no laws prohibited the common Mexican practice of folk-healing called curanderismo.xlvi The earliest news coverage of the strange young curandero, Jose Fidencio Constantino, neither described a miracle worker who claimed to be a doctor nor ever prescribed any of the popular patented medicines, but who performed healing miracles, including making the blind to see and the dumb to speak. Talk of the young healer had previously been confined to northern Mexico, but that year virtually all the major dailies in Mexico City carried articles on the miraculous cures in Espinazo.
Throughout 1928 and 1929, weekly articles, supported by dozens of eyewitness testimonies, touted Fidencio is healing abilities. News of El Niño Fidencio spread rapidly, and soon his fame extended throughout Mexico and beyond, to the United States and Europe.xlvii
El Universal, one of the leading Mexican papers 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, now formed a little town of make shift huts and tents around the home of Fidencio and that more than a hundred small wooden huts had been rapidly erected to rent to the growing crowd of miracle seekers. According to articles in El Universal, El Niño Fidencio worked near a sacred pirul 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 a familiar trademark known as the healing circle or “El Circulo de Curacion.” xlviii
El Universal described Fidencio as a
“young man of few words, muscular with a sort of yellowish color and very simply dressed.”xlix
According to these and subsequent reports, day after day and year after year, the thousands of people who formed the Niño’s healing circle saw him barefooted and dressed in a simple tunic. His room consisted simply of a crude wooden bed, a table, and a chair, though, according to reports, he used these infrequently, preferring to sit or sleep on the floor. He did not eat or drink with regularity and mostly consumed only liquids. In spite of these abstemious habits, the Niño worked for days and nights without interruption, seemingly unaffected by fatigue.l
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 described above, the Niño reportedly turned to the reporter 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, the Niño 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.” As a result of this openness, hundreds of photographs exist, documenting his life and work between 1925 and his death in 1938.
With the national press focused on El Niño Fidencio, a massive response was predictable. In the early months of 1928, the needy, the sickly, the terminally ill, people from every walk of life and social class, began converging on the little desert town of Espinazo, a place characterized both now and then by its remoteness and harsh environs. The precious little water that existed in Espinazo could never support more than a few extended families in eking out a subsistence living. For the majority of the year, the town baked in an unrelenting heat; when there was not a killing heat, a desert chill descended upon the landscape and its inhabitants. Today, in the early 21st century, comfort in Espinazo is still impossible, and survival requires careful preparation, modem equipment, and brief visits.
As hundreds and then thousands of sickly and dying people arrived in Espinazo in 1928, this desolate and unforgiving spot turned into the Camp of Pain, El Campo del Dolor,li where the hopeful created their own accommodations by forming impromptu shacks made by stacking the brush of thorny desert plants into the shapes of huts and lean-tos. There the crowds suffering from insanity, paralysis, cancer, leprosy, and syphilis were so large that the sick might have to wait for weeks, or in some cases months, to be seen and, thus, virtually became residents of Espinazo.
The newspapers’ accounts contained many case histories of El Niño Fidencio’s miraculous cures. One famous case, retold many times, involved a young blind boy, the son of a Spanish emigrant.lii The boy, age two, had suffered a firecracker accident that caused him to gradually lose his sight until he became completely blind. The doctors in his hometown had given him no hope of recovery; and after tales of the miraculous Niño filtered throughout Mexico, the child’s parents decided to take him to Espinazo, an arduous journey that took them two weeks to complete. The family lived in a brush shack that they constructed using their clothing to cover the many openings. Weeks passed as they patiently waited to see the Niño.
When the day finally came for Fidencio to see their son, the Niño did not allow the mother to explain the cause of the boy’s blindness.
“It is not necessary that you explain it to me,” he said. Asking them to be patient, the Niño applied his fingers to the boy’s eyes, massaging them for a few minutes. Then for several more minutes, Fidencio lifted his eyes to the heavens in an ecstatic state as if he had a vision. When some time had passed, the Niño lowered his head, continued to massage the boy’s eyes, and said finally,
“Ya estas curado… You’re healed; bring me a handkerchief to cover his eyes and be sure not to remove it until the early morning light.”
The family returned to their shack. Early the next morning, as the day was breaking and as the mother carefully removed her son’s bandage, the boy exclaimed, “Ya veo. I can see.” This documented case of restored sight was later judged an extreme case of autosuggestion, which it may very well have been. This famous case and many others like it accounted for the Niño’s rapidly growing fame and popularity and the frenzy of this followers.liii
Another interesting case typified the cures for which El Niño Fidencio was famous. A woman reported that her husband, who suffered chronic dyspepsia, had consulted numerous doctors and had eventually undergone surgery, which had not been successful. His condition was so extreme—even the smell of food made him sick—that he was expected to die. With no other hope available, the couple decided to go to Espinazo. The 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. After two hours, he had eaten four bananas and finally vomited violently.
Fidencio returned the next day and continued to massage the patient’s stomach with a medicine 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.liv
In another story, among the early curiosity seekers was a medical doctor from Torreon who arrived in Espinazo, according to reports, afflicted by paralysis. Fidencio cured him after only one week of treatments; but while in Espinazo, the doctor witnessed many cures, which he later reported, including a notable cure of a young man from Monterrey who had gone insane. The doctors had declared the boy’s 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 Torreon, 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 the Niño’s household. It was a familiar pattern in Espinazo for the healed to volunteer service to the community.lv
The newspaper reports that flowed out of Espinazo in the early months of 1928 carried the reputation of El Niño Fidencio out of Mexico and into the world at large. The Spanish language newspaper, La Prensa, in San Antonio, Texas,lvi and the premier North American daily, The New Times,lvii reprinted stories that eventually traveled to other Spanish speaking countries such as Cuba and Spain.lviii In a remarkably short time, El Niño Fidencio had become a world figure. Then the ill and incurable from around the world set out for Espinazo.
THE MYTH OF EL NINO FIDENCIO
If the press played a large role in spreading the news of the Niño’s cures, it might have played an even larger role in promulgating the myth of El Niño. El Niño Fidencio was said to have had special powers from childhood, particularly clairvoyance. According to some reports, when an incurably ill person would approach, Fidencio would remark to the crowd, “A person is coming that is wasting his time; tell him to go off and prepare for his death; I can’t help him except to pray for him.” Also, through Dalejuelta, El Universal reported that a well-known General Peraldi came to Espinazo with an incurable illness and that the Niño told him to stay if he wanted to, but that he, Fidencio, could not help him. The Niño told him to make peace with God because “Your sufferings are going to take you on an eternal adventure.” According to the report, General Peraldi died before the end of that day.lix
Followers and observers alike reported that the Niño often seemed to enter a trance while healing. Fidencio denied being part of the spiritist movement that was common in the early part of the century.lx A very religious person, Fidencio simply asserted that he was communicating with his Heavenly Father who healed through him. While he seldom referred directly to the supernatural, simple comments like the one he made to the photographer Casasola—about the photographs not coming out if he was not given a copy were passed on by word of mouth and then by the press, greatly adding to and enhancing the myth and lore of the Niño as having 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, The Brazilian Dr. Neumayer, a professor at the national medical school, gave a public “demonstration” on the types of psychic cures performed by the El Niño Fidencio. Neumayer claimed that psychic healing could effectively treat any illness, especially those involving paralysis or having neurological or mental origins. Neumayer claimed that Mexico was fertile ground for these types of healings and predicted that the Niño’s ability would soon wane.lxi
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 Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles could have a private consultation with the Nino. The Calles visit came at the height of the government’s persecution of the Catholic Church and his visit naturally led to speculation that it was intended to be a further slap in the face of the Church.
However, eyewitness reports indicate that Calles suffered constantly from a serious skin aliment and came seeking relief from El Niño Fidencio. Regardless of the speculation on the real purpose of Calles’ visit, it had multiple effects that served to protect the Niño from serious interference from local and state governments as well as from the Church and medical communities.lxii
The state medical associations called for immediate intervention, not based on Fidencio’s practice, but rather based on what was not being done to protect the public health of the community at large. So many seriously sick people had congregated in Espinazo by February of 1928, in a place devoid of any public health supervision 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.lxiii
Among the incurable who journeyed to Espinazo hoping for a miracle, many were reported to have received one. However, while those who boasted of miraculous cures added to the Niño’s stature as a healer, others died waiting for their turn to see the Niño in his Healing Circle. Still, others were turned away by El Niño because their illnesses had progressed beyond his ability to help them. With thousands of seriously and incurably ill people flocking to the site of miraculous cures, it was inevitable that the death rate in a small village the size of Espinazo would rise disproportionately.
The alarming number of deaths in Espinazo in 1928 and 1929 concerned the authorities, especially given the fact that two new cemeteries had to be created.
“A new cemetery for the miracles of Fidencio,” reported the Monterrey newspaper. “How could the President of the Republic go there and not see the truth of what is happening,” the press asked.
“Was some deal made to protect Fidencio?” asked the Monterrey newspaper. In a small village where normally one death might be recorded every year, forty-four persons had died in less than one month.lxiv
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES
The focus of the Mexican press turned from reporting the issue to hosting a debate between the medical and the spiritist communities.lxv With such negative publicity, the governments of the northern states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila experienced extreme pressure to resolve the case of the young thaumaturge.
The early newspaper accounts were also among the first to mention the Niño’s cult following that emerged from among the loyal masses of the healed. lxvi Between 1928 and his death in 1938, a small army of faithful, called “the red brigade,” encircled, sheltered and protected the Niño from the constant attack of the press, the medical community, the government and the Church. When concern arose over the threat to the region caused by the congregating masses of ill and dying persons, Fidencio’s inner circle of supporters defended the Niño. Their faith that God would provide protection never wavered.lxvii
During the early months of 1928, the Mexican press varied sharply on its opinions of the Espinazo phenomenon. The major provincial dailies in the northern cities of Monterrey, Saltillo, and Torreon agreed with the need for government control and concurred with the outrage of the medical community.
“Monterrey is threatened to be converted from a Mecca of Health into one of suffering and death,”
Read one headline, claiming that Monterrey and the entire area of northern Mexico were in danger of a major epidemic with its origin in Espinazo.lxviii Health authorities in the state of Nuevo Leon clamored that all manner of persons had congregated with every possible disease and that it was now time to end the farce. In all probability, such articles were merely expressing the general embarrassment that the international attention on this barefooted kitchen boy brought to northern Mexico.
It did not help matters that the area had been plagued by a rash of scandalous curanderos and miracle workers throughout the early part of the century. The headlines read,
“A real plague of miracles workers has invaded Coahuila and Nuevo Leon. 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.” lxix
One young girl claimed to be ordained by God. Other so-called “Niños” included El Niño Marcialito and El Niño Juanito, as well as others from the area of Monterrey.lxx
The Mexico City press, on the other hand, largely supported Fidencio, if only in a cynical way. The news generated in the north was an appreciated diversion from the serious problems plaguing a country in the midst of civil war. Dr. Charles Morpeau, a French physician in Mexico, speaking in favor of the Niño Fidencio in the Mexico City press stated that it would be medical folly to
“negate in the name of science the cures of the spiritual forces of the world,” Morpeau stated that,
“Because all of life is based upon illusion or suggestion, we doctors have not tried to completely understand the nature of our successes. There are many things, which happen in medicine, which are completely unexplainable. If the truth is known, many have died because of our autosuggestion and inability to treat an illness.”lxxi
“The peasant poets of Espinazo sing to Fidencio,” the headlines read. In retrospect, it is obvious what was happening; all of the essential elements for the establishment of folk hero status, including folk sainthood, were beginning to take shape. “Lines of hope in search of relief” and tales of the Niño’s philanthropy were becoming folklore as stories about “cures” and “miracles” performed were constantly told and retold. The tales of miraculous cures and healings were transformed into lyrics and from there into folk songs or corridos and religious hymns or alabanzas to be sung to and by the faithful. These popular songs sung by common people became the voice of the Niño’s “successes” and the way in which the faithful expressed their thanks to the Niño and 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.” lxxii
Day and night, in the face of adversity, Fidencio continued to personally console the suffering. Fidencio attended to his sick tirelessly. It was his mission. From around the nation, thousands came to Espinazo, accepted his medicine, and listened to his gentle words of spiritual healing. The thousands returned to their homes without the Niño’s never knowing their names.lxxiii The journalists remarked that while the cured might never return to Espinazo, they had been helped by simply looking upon the face of El Niño Fidencio.
Bands of musicians strolled through the dusty streets of Espinazo singing,
“Fidencio, the day that you were born, the nightingales sang because you were chosen by God. You are a doctor among doctors.”
Even the story of his election by God and the revelation of his gift were recorded in song.
“One day at high noon, while with great hunger, you knelt beneath the tree and cried until your heart ached and you heard a voice. Fidencio don’t cry because very soon you will receive the gift that the heavenly father has given you, and you will become the doctor of doctors; and all of the illnesses that befall man you will cure with plants from the countryside that you like to prepare and that will be the medicine for all the ailments of man.” lxxiv
Throughout the remainder of 1928, and for several years afterward, the little desert train-stop of Espinazo became the single most important train destination in Mexico. During this time, more people bought train tickets to Espinazo than to any other destination in Mexico. This tiny desert village, which formerly did not need a mail service, was forced to establish a post office that processed the approximately twenty-five to thirty thousand letters that had arrived for the thousands of persons who had come to Espinazo in search of a cure.lxxv Similarly, Telegrafos Nacionales was forced to establish an office in Espinazo. Fidencio himself was the first person to utilize the telegraph services, sending a message of thanks to the national office.lxxvi
During 1928, newspapers reported that shipments of the Niño’s herbal medicine were sent to Spain and the rest of Europe,lxxvii and that several millionaires had invited the Niño to come to the United StateslxxviiiAnd to Cuba.lxxix The Niño often stated that he would never leave Espinazo and he never did.lxxx The Niño accepted neither money nor gifts, stating that his mission on earth was to “serve mankind and not to become rich.lxxxi
Fidencio’s fame continued to grow throughout 1928. Never before had one of Mexico’s hundreds of folk healers reached this level of popularity and scandal. Day after day, the press followed the story printing headlines such as:
“Large Caravans of Sick Leave for Espinazo,” “Hundreds of Sick Return to Their Homes Let Down by Fidencio,” “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 Fanaticism of his Followers Increases,” “It’s God that Cures With My Hands Says the Miraculous Niño Fidencio,”lxxxii
Within two years, Espinazo began to recover from the frenzy of 1928-29. By 1930, gone were the tens of thousands of insane, deformed, blind, paralytic, and diseased persons searching for a personal miracle, although a steady stream of the faithful, as well as many newcomers and curiosity seekers, continued to make the difficult trip year after year. Therefore, during the early 1930’s Espinazo began to take on a routine way of life.
Almost from the beginning of his brief media fame, Fidencio predicted his early departure from this earth. Daily he emulated and acted out the life of Christ. His protectors actively modeled religious symbolism around him, perpetuating the suggestion that the Niño was the Messiah, that he was the Christ. The Niño’s life in Espinazo so mirrored that of Christ that he was expected to die at age thirty- three in 1931. In fact, the Niño did not die as predicted but lived on until October 1938, dying one month short of his fortieth birthday. When he died, the faithful fully expected him to rise from the dead on the third day.lxxxiii 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 short years of life to serve as a symbol for the poor and to treat the ill and the forgotten of Mexico. Almost immediately, after the media frenzy of 1928 and 1929, his popularity in the media began to decline sharply.
During the early 1930’s, the Niño was almost constantly under fire by the agents of public health and medicine; and in later years, he was attacked by the Church. He was arrested and brought before tribunals in Monterrey on two occasions.lxxxiv 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. It must be recalled that Fidencio Constantino was a simple man who never sought celebrity, who shied away from the doting crowds of admirers, and who rarely would look directly into the eye of a camera. From the outset, he declared that his purpose and mission on earth were to care for the ill that came to him and that he had no interest in fame or wealth.
ESPINAZO: UTOPIA ON THE DESERT
In 1930, Dr. Francisco Vela, the vice-president of the State of Nuevo Leon’s committee on public health, secretly visited Espinazo, although Fidencio knew he was there. The throngs of the waiting and the curious were gone: the spectacle was largely over. Approximately fifteen hundred genuinely sick persons and their families remained, still an enormous number of people compared to the one hundred or so permanent residents. In the 1930’s, Espinazo was a place of serenity. While Vela attempted to portray the setting more as a place inhabited by lunatics and fanatics than a place of organized and effective healing, he inadvertently provided the first glimpses of Espinazo as an emerging utopian society, the New Jerusalem, built around a central cult figure.lxxxv Long, orderly lines of men and women proceeded patiently for their morning drink of hot herbal medicine or coffee. The dirt streets were perfectly laid out, each with a name, with residential sections named after those in Mexico City.
Fifty children in a small building received instruction from a teenage girl at The Niño Fidencio School. When Vela arrived, the Niño was seated in a large room called “El Foro” or the little theater, built for the plays and musical events that were popular with the Niño and his followers. Admirers surrounded him, literally hung on him, caressed him, stroked his hair, and kissed his hands and feet when they approached to greet him and seek his advice and counsel. El Niño Fidencio, always attired in a white tunic and barefooted, was described as looking serene and intelligent, he had a “rare” skin color, which was a mix between brown and white, almost a yellowish color, with thick lips, a full set of large teeth and light colored eyes that chose to look away from the intruding eyes of visitors.lxxxvi
Upon arrival, Vela was immediately ushered into the presence of El Niño Fidencio, who extended his hand meekly. El Niño 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 today. El Niño Fidencio performed operations without using anesthesia, using only a broken piece of bottle glass as a surgical instrument. Vela claimed to identify many as “obviously” benign tumors and commented that the most highly trained surgeons of the day would not have dared attempt extraction’s in their offices, implying something remarkable about an untrained curandero performing such surgeries.
Vela was escorted to all of the places described in dozens of newspapers that had appeared during the previous two years: the corral where the demented were kept, the place where the lepers were treated, the maternity ward, the post-operative room, the swing used to treat the mute, the large containers where the fresh herbal medicine was cooked every day, the flower garden and the famous healing mud pond.
The visitor was stunned by the orderliness of the place and by its childlike simplicity. He reflected that “was like a child was playing hospital in a life-size place.” None of this could possibly work, none of this could possibly be effective, he thought, like the first, and then the second and finally third funeral procession of the day filed past. Someone remarked proudly,
“Only two years ago there had been hundreds of lepers here; today there are only twenty,” implying that the others had been successfully treated and had returned home. The different treatment venues were hundreds of yards apart, and as Fidencio made his daily treks to see his little sick ones or enfermitos, he was followed on foot by a parade of the faithful. The peregrinos sang religious hymns as they walked barefooted 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 that 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.”lxxxvii
During the years, numerous attempts were made to call El Niño Fidencio before a tribunal, as he was constantly being accused of violations of public health laws. None of the changes was ever taken seriously, and Fidencio was never imprisoned or forbidden from performing his healing. Although a “serious embarrassment” to the State of Nuevo Leon, Fidencio continued working until his death in 1938.
El Niño Fidencio’s rise to the national scene coincided with Calles’ persecution of the Catholic Church between 1929 and 1931.lxxxviii In 1932, the Archdiocese of Monterrey, having returned to power, sent two emissaries to Espinazo specifically to ask the Niño to refrain from administering the sacraments. The prelates were received respectfully by Fidencio, who agreed to cease from the administrations of the sacraments. However, at the insistence of his followers, he continued this act to the end of his life.lxxxix
LAST DAYS ON EARTH
The final national media glimpse of Espinazo and El Niño Fidencio came in 1937, one year before his death. The Mexican photographic magazine, Hoy, Mexico’s equivalent of Life Magazine, offered an analysis of the events at Espinazo ten years or so after the media blitz of 1928. This valuable expose provides an intimate view of life of the Niño’s last year of life. This important photo journalistic account depicts scenes that are familiar even today since Espinazo has changed little since 1937. Only dozens of persons are reported to disembark from the trains. Gone are the mail office and the telegraph office of eight years earlier. The desperately ill, stripped of hope by their doctors or with no doctor at all, continue to come to Espinazo in search of a personal miracle; however, many returned home each day disappointed.
“I do not even know how to write, sir,” El Niño Fidencio remarked to the reporter. “I only use the gifts of healing that God has given me to help these suffering people.” One of his young helpers remarks, “El Niño knows all of the medicinal plants that are used for healing; too bad he never studied medicine.”
One photograph declared, “Behind him, the life-size statue of Christ from whom he claims his power; before him, the suffering people who will leave with cures that defy medical explanation as well as those who will never leave.”
Some leave perfectly healed, others only feeling better, some worse, but all leave believing that Fidencio does for them what no doctor can do. Almost all consider him to be a priest, and they beg for his blessing as he raises his crucifix to the heads of his followers for a blessing.
“What sort of man is this, who easily could have been one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Mexico?” “What sort of man gives away more than one 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 barefooted through the dusty streets of Espinazo in care of the suffering?” xc
The enigmatic 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 and to spread the word of the New Jerusalem.
This last major article written about El Niño Fidencio during his life did not speculate about Fidencio’s sanity or whether the government should step in to save the region from an epidemic. Fidencio, now aging, tired, and disheveled, simply and humbly attributed his success to God and reiterated that he had not chosen to be selected for this life. He stated that 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.” xci
Ruiz, Eduardo Ramon, 1992, Triumphs and Tragedy: A History of the Mexican People, W.W. Norton Co., New York.
iiBejar, Ruth, 1993, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story, Beacon Press, Boston.
iii Octavio Romano, Charismatic Medicine, Folk Healing, and Folk Sainthood. American Anthropologist, 67:1965, p. 1151-1173.
iv Fernando Garza Quiros, El Niño Fidencio y el Fidencismo (Monterrey, Mexico:
Editorial Font, S.A., 5th ed., 1991).
v Elizabeth H. Boone, Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe, (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1989).
vi Darley, Alex, M., 1968, The Passionists of the Southwest, The Rio Grande Press, Glorieta, New
vii Nebel, Richard, 1995, Santa Maria Tonantzin Virgin de Guadalupe: Continuidad y transformation religiosa en Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico.
viii Woodward, Kenneth 1990, Making Saints, Simon Schuster, New York.
ix Madsen, William, 1967, Religious Syncretism, In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Robert Wauchope, editor, Vol. 6, The University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
x Cumrine, Ross, N. and Alan Morinis, editors, Pilgrimage in Latin America, Greenwood Press, New York.
xi Stoll, David, 1990, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth, The University of California Press, Berkeley.
xii Martin, David, 1990, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
xiii Nebel, Richard, 1995.
xiv Kelley, Francis C., 1987, Blood-Drenched Altars, TAN Publishers, Rockford.
xv Ricard, Robert, 1982, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, The University of California Press, Berkeley.
xvi Madsen, William, 1967, “Religious Syncretism,” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Robert Wauchope, Editor, The University of Texas Press, Austin.
xvii Weckmann, Luis, 1992, The Medieval Heritage of Mexico, Fordham University Press, New York.
xviii Benitez, Fernando, Los Indios de Mexico, 1994, Biblioteca ERA, Vol. 1-5, Sixth Edition, Mexico City.
xix Bricker, Victoria Reifler, 1981, The Indian Christ, The Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Maya Myth and Ritual, The University of Texas Press, Austin.
xx Holden, William Curry, 1978, Teresita, Stemmer House, Owings Mills, Maryland.
xxi Parisot, Father Pierre Fourtier, 1899, Reminiscences of a Texas Missionary, Johnson Brothers, San Antonio, Texas. p.43-50.
xxii Roel, Santiago, 1938, Apuntes Historicos por la Historia de Nuevo Leon, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.
xxiii Tatita Santo File, State Archives, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, Monterrey.
xxiv Corpus Christi Ranchero, January 12, 1861, New Saint in Mexico and, That Saint, January 19, 1861.
xxv Boyon, Bernard, OMI, 1956, The Calvary of Christ on the Rio Grande, Blake Press, Milwaukee.
xxvi Father Gaudet was superior for the Brownsville “ranchero” missionaries.
xxvii Roel, p.169-170, 1938.
xxviii There was no Oblate from Brownsville named “Pabillo” see Doyon, p.238, must have been a nickname.
xxix In a letter from Manuel E. Rejon, Secretario del Estado, to Juzgado Primero Constitucional de Cadreyta Jimenez, Diciembre 31, 1861, reprinted in Boletin Oficial de Monterrey, Marzo 21,1861,#17.
xxx Father Parisot, along with Frs. Clos, Olivier, and Maurel were zealous rancho missionaries when their superior Father Gaudet considered abandoning the ministry of the isolated ranchos the four protested vehemently and forced Fr. Gaudet to abandon his idea. (see Juarez, 1973, 224.
xxxi This interpretation is supported by the fact that the people of the ranchos often showed their reverence and respect for the priests by kissing their hands and feet and addressing them as Santo Padre or Su Majestad, see Doyon.
xxxii This document is a typed copy from Libro de Sessions Extraordinarias, Libro no. 7, 1861.
xxxiii In a letter from Manuel E. Rejon, Sr., Alcalde Primero de Cadereyta Jimenez, to Secretaria del Estado, March 11, 1861.
xxxiv In a letter from Juan Quintanilla Sr., Secretario del Estado, to Juzgado Primero Consticional de Cadereyta Jimenez, December 31, 1861.
xxxv Fr. Parisot’s account of Tatito’s death is at odds with official accounts found in the State Archive. He was killed by the Cadereyta police and posse acting under orders of the Governor of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, Santiago Vidaurri.
xxxvi Hudson, Wilson, 1951, The Healer of Los Olmos, SMU Press, Dallas Texas
xxxvii Brenner, Anita, 1929, Idols Behind Altars.
xxxviii Brenner, Anita, op. Cit.
xxxix Quiros, 1991, op. Cit.
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xlviii El Universal de Mexico, February 16, 1928.
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