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Archive for March, 2011

El Nino Fidencio: A healer becoming God

Posted by Ron George on March 28, 2011

El Nino pulls a tooth: Such treatments were said to be painless

We recently passed an enjoyable evening with a young author from Brooklyn, Joshua Ferris, whose book And Then We Came to the End is a delightful novel if you’re into workplace humor buffed to a high shine. (It helps, too, if you appreciate the general tone of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.) Mr. Ferris is working on a novel with obscure religious themes. The story is intriguing, based on chapter one, which he read at a recent gathering of Corpus Christi’s Literary Reading Series. (I concluded that the project still has a long way to go.) He said at dinner that night that he’s interested in the phenomenon of religion not as a believer but with astonishment at the range – and sometimes the strangeness – of human faith.

This appealing young man reminded me that I once aspired to write fiction but found that I lack the requisite creative imagination. More to the point, he reminded me of a fascinating encounter with human faith in Mexico’s high and dry state of Nuevo Leon, in a tiny village called Espinazo. This otherwise undistinguished water-stop along a railroad between Saltillo and Monclova was once the home of a young man, José de Jesús Fidencio Constantino Síntora, who became known as El Nino Fidencio, the faithful boy, a phenomenally popular folk healer in life but even more so in death. Where once hundreds, perhaps thousands, flocked to Espinazo to be healed of all manner of ailments, now tens and hundreds of thousands gather twice a year to memorialize, ritualize and otherwise engage the spirit of El Nino Fidencio.

Pilgrims gather at El Pirulito: A complex of religious symbolism

It’s quite a spectacle, perhaps more so now than when Mary and I went there in March 1985. We were with a contingent of students led by Dr. Leo Carrillo, professor of Mexican-American studies at what is now Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. (Dr. Carrillo is retired.) It was Mary’s fourth visit, my first. She took her cameras. I took my pad and pen. We covered it for the newspaper, even though we weren’t officially on assignment. What we saw took my breath away.

Every train brought hundreds of pilgrims to Espinazo, usually in groups led by materias, men and women who were said to have received or taken on the spirit of the Nino and who acted as channels for the Nino’s healing power. The fidencistas came from all over Mexico and the southwestern United States. Many came to fulfill promesas, promises to perform devotional acts in Espinazo in thanksgiving for healings and blessings from El Nino through the materias.

Espinazo itself became a vibrant complex of religious symbols with paths of pilgrimage among them. The biannual festival also attracted hundreds of vendors who set up their stalls along well-established pilgrimage routes. It all contributed to a cacophony of religious folk songs, incantations and the come-on of amplified hucksters. Most were dressed in ordinary clothes, but many had donned vestments made especially for pilgrimage. (Oddly, it was not uncommon to see men dressed as women in formal gowns.) Troops of matachines, religious folk dancers, performed in an amazing array of costumes to lively music of drum and pipe.

Rising from El Charco: Resurrection from a healing grave

The religious symbolism partook of the universal. An ancient pepper tree, El Pirulito, had become a radix mundi, the root or center of the world. Pilgrimages began here with invocations, incantations and the laying-on of hands. Pilgrims circled the pepper tree three times before beginning their slow progress to La Tumba, where lies El Nino’s body. He is said to have died before his time spilling copious amounts of blood, and some say he was murdered; but he promised to return from the dead, and to loyal fidencistas, he has, through numerous materias empowered to continue his healing work. Near the tomb, pilgrims bathed in the muddy water of El Charco, which is said to have healing qualities. At some point, pilgrims young and old – even the aged – climbed a nearby and very steep hill to La Cueva, the entrance of which is small and steep. They sang the Nino’s praises in a large cavern illuminated by candles. The effect was stunning.

Just as stunning were the healing stories, while vendors hawked doctored photographs of El Nino battling a demon at the pepper tree as well as the famous photograph of him doing surgery with a piece of broken glass. You didn’t have to walk very far to hear personal testimonies of dramatic healing – a daughter saved from cancer, a son from gang threats, a grandmother from insanity. Materias persistently declare that such restorations are the work not of themselves but of the spirit of El Nino Fidencio. Devotional evidence of this belief may be found among those who deliver on their promises; for example, to walk on one’s knees from the pepper tree to the tomb, or to do so by prostration one body-length at a time – no easy feat but not uncommon, even for the elderly.

El Nino as Guadalupe: A folk healer becoming God

Mary and I spent several days amid this molten mass of devotion. We walked the traditional pilgrimage routes, climbed the hill and toured the cave with a native of Espinazo. We pored through vendors’ booths and had a memorable meal of nopalitos y frijoles on tortillas made of corn masa ground just moments before we ate them. Indescribably delicious. As we explored the village cemetery, we were captivated by a group of fidencistas and their materia who performed traditional exorcisms en el espiritu del Nino. We were invited to join this gentle group. The materia slathered her large hands with fragrant oil then swept us as we stood before her. Her eyes were downcast, her voice barely audible as she invoked the spirit to cleanse us of infirmity and bless us with abundance. Gracias was all I could muster.

The cult of El Nino Fidencio has grown continuously for more than 70 years. The Roman Catholic Church has not recognized Jose Sintora as a saint, but that makes no difference to fidencistas. He’s their saint, church or no church; indeed, some proclaim that he is the founder of a new religion, a truly Mexican Catholicism. At this point, the church had better leave well enough alone, because no doubt its first order of business would be to disenfranchise the materias and overlay the phenomenal religious structures of Espinazo with the traditional liturgical apparatus of Western Catholicism. The cult would die and with it the spirit of the Nino and the remarkable religious environment of Espinazo.

The church might do well, though, to ponder Espinazo in reflection upon its self understanding. How quickly this cult was formed, even in Jose Sintora’s lifetime and especially after his death. Where are the roots of this movement in the very soil of Espinazo? What is the folk-religious backdrop of his formation as a healer? How was he affected by Roman Catholicism? What role did historic socio-economics play in the popularity of this folk-healer saint? Does the phenomenon of this cult resonate with the rapid spread of early Christianity? Or, does Christian reflection pour the phenomena of this cult into familiar interpretative molds?

I believe it’s instructive for Christian faith and belief to understand how traditions emerge from communal experience, how ambiguous events congeal into narratives fraught with meaning and how indomitable hope can be in the human soul. Christians have for 2,000 years asserted the improbable as the basis of their faith in God and hope for all eternity. Christian claims have of late come smack up against methods of interpreting reality that call the improbable into question. In general, though not universally, Christian response has been denial and retreat into rigid fundamentalism within which there is no room for rational critique and deeper understanding and appreciation for what Mr. Ferris aptly called “the phenomenon of religion.” It’s not even a question of belief but of whether we choose to accept the status of religion in human affairs not as absolute truth but as a way of understanding ourselves before the Absolute, whatever that happens to be, and to affirm whatever makes sense – as religion, philosophy, science, and so forth – as one interpretation among many of the life each of us has been given in a hostile, virtually silent cosmos.

Fidencistas have no doubt about where they stand in the cosmos. They believe the spirit of a folk healer has touched them with divine, healing power; and it’s not as though they have reflected deeply upon their faith in light of scientific rationalism. Christians, however, don’t have that luxury, for we have historically tried to make sense of our faith in light of human knowledge in order to live out the evangelical imperative to make disciples of all nations. So, where are we these days in light of what we know of the improbable claims of our faith? Perhaps the fidencistas have something to teach us about faithful response to the spirit of God, alive and well in the cult of El Nino Fidencio; or, perhaps the phenomenon of their improbable movement sheds light upon the phenomenon of the improbable movement called Christianity.

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