The Nino Fidencio


Brownsville’s Market Square, which dates to the 1850’s, is surrounded by some of the oldest buildings in south Texas, and its shade makes it a nice place to rest on a typically scorching day in late summer.  Although the square was once a busy center of commerce and trade for the town that sprang up on the Rio Grande after the Mexican-American War, it is now flanked by used clothing shops known locally as “ropas usadas,” small businesses which sell much of their merchandise in large bales which find their way across the river and into Mexico.

A block away from the square is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, also with origins in the 1850’s.  The gothic revival style church, which today is the seat of the Bishop of Brownsville, contains an unusual chapel which was pointed out to me more than twenty years ago by Dr. Tony Zavaleta, an anthropologist and now a vice-president at the University of Texas at Brownsville, who was interested in the assortment of unorthodox cults that have sprung up in northern Mexico and south Texas. Zavaleta told me that by visiting the little chapel in the southwest corner of the cathedral and paying close attention to the votive items and scribbled notes which have been left there, it is possible to surmise what groups and sects might be active in the area. 

Merely a stone’s throw from the church are small shops called “botanicas” specializing in a variety of devotional oils, amulets, waters, statues, lotions and sprays, many of which find their way  to the chapel and serve as benchmarks for understanding what mystical persuasions currently hold sway.  My anthropologist friend also found the botanicas to be accurate sources concerning cult practices for the many scholarly papers he wrote on black magic and healing in the border region.

My first acquaintance with an out- of- the- ordinary belief in south Texas occurred more than 20 years ago, when Dr. Zavaleta introduced me to a “bruja blanca” (a white or good witch) named Maria, who was widely recognized as a “curandera,” or healer.  Maria’s small house daily had numerous visitors, waiting much in the same way that patients would be found waiting in a doctor’s office.

Eventually, I would learn that Maria was a “fidencista,” a follower of the Nino Fidencio, a healer who was born in a village near Guanajuato in 1898; and, as a young man in 1925, located to the small Nuevo Leon desert town of Espinazo, where he would achieve a reputation as a folk-practitioner who would treat 1000’s of individuals for a myriad of ailments.  It is said that the Nino rarely rested and literally worked himself to death, dying at the age of 40 in 1938. After his death and owing to his miraculous feats as a healer, the Nino soon became a folk saint, as opposed to a canonized saint. As for Maria, the curandera, she was seen by those who depended on her healing ability as a “materia,” or medium, who was able to channel the power of the Nino to heal the sick and afflicted who came to her door.

According to tradition, the Nino, as a boy of six, embarked upon his career of healing when he set his mother’s broken arm.  Later, he served as an acolyte for a local priest and began to connect folk-healing with the ministry of Christ.

By the mid-1920’s, it is said that the Nino had had two mystical experiences that had confirmed in his own mind that he should lead the life of an ascetic and devote his life to healing. After the Nino’s move to Nuevo Leon, Espinazo became an oasis of healing, attracting thousands of individuals in quest of cures. Soon, the young man was being referred to as the “Christ of Espinazo,” and his reputation as a messianic healer spread throughout Mexico.

Stories abound about the many wonders that occurred at Espinazo.  The blind were made to see, the lame to walk, the mute to speak and the demented were returned to sanity.  As a result of the Nino’s renown, Espinazo became for a time the most popular railroad destination in all of Mexico.  And even President Plutarco Elias Calles, in the midst of his bitter campaign against the Roman Catholic Church, came to seek the Nino’s help for a skin ailment.

Prior to the Nino’s death, in 1938, he informed his closest devotees that he would communicate with them from beyond the grave.  However, he issued a warning that his followers should be leery of individuals claiming to be him.  After his death, one of his most intimate disciples, Damiana Martinez, emerged as the leader acknowledged by the body of believers in what would develop into an expanding cult. Furthermore, Damiana was recognized as a principal medium with the ability to perpetuate the Nino’s healing power in others. 

Other leaders, or “directoras,” would follow Damiana, and the leadership of the cult would take on a distinctly female caste. Consequently, today one finds that the great majority of the healers associated with the Nino are women.  The movement, incorporating some trappings of Roman Catholicism, has its own cycle of observances based on an oral tradition of the sayings of the Nino, divided into intervals of six months, which are punctuated by two major pilgrimages each year.  During the pilgrimages, tiny Espinazo is flooded with upwards of 30,000 visitors.  Although the Church has not vested any legitimacy in the cult, there are some priests in outlying parishes who will acknowledge the validity of the Nino’s mission.  Of the more than 1,000,000 followers of the Nino today, most may be found in the border region of northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

My own personal experience with the cult of the Nino Fidencio occurred during 1990, when I was undergoing no little turmoil from being sued in a court of law. Just prior to my court date, Dr. Zavaleta suggested that I consult Maria, the local curendara, who proceeded to put me through a cleansing ceremony.  Furthermore, Maria blessed a handkerchief, which she instructed me to wear in my suit pocket when I visited the court. 

Additionally, she informed me that I would be given a “sign” during the night before my court appearance.

During that night, I experienced a phenomenon unlike any that I had ever encountered during my life.  At a deep stage in my sleep, I was awakened by what I can only describe as my mind being invaded by a vast and overwhelming light, something akin to 1,000 flash-bulbs going off at one time.  Immediately, I felt a great sense of peace, and I quickly returned to a state of relaxation and sleep.

The next morning, I dressed in my best suit (with the consecrated handkerchief), met my attorney and made my way to court, where the judge quickly dismissed the suit.  Gratefully, I returned to visit Maria, who informed me that my only obligation for favors rendered was to eventually undertake a pilgrimage to Espinazo.  As I have yet to meet that obligation, perhaps its eventual fulfillment will form the basis for a future article.

Byline:  John Barham, formerly a dean at the University of Texas at Brownsville, retired from the University of Missouri in 2006.  He divides his time between Brownsville and San Miguel and is a frequent lecturer for the International Elderhostel program in Mexico.