By Tara Haelle
For Reporting Texas
One Sunday a month, in a small house in Fort Worth, Texas, the bigger-than-life spirit of a man known for his childlike demeanor comes to visit a devoted congregation. So believe the “fidencistas” who hear mass at the home of Criselda Valencia, a “materia” who channels the spirit of famed folk healer El Niño Fidencio.
On a typical Sunday, following the service, Valencia “assists” the beloved El Niño in continuing the work he started in a small Mexican town almost a century ago. Like dozens of other materias throughout Mexico and the southern U.S., she believes that the spirit of El Niño uses her body to continue healing the physical, mental and spiritual ailments of those who seek El Niño’s help.
“I don’t remember things when the Niño comes,” Valencia said during a recent phone conversation. “I just feel like I’m in the other place, some place, or sometimes I come back like I was asleep and I don’t know nothing. The people tell me what the Niño says.”
Born as José de Jesús Fidencio Constantino Síntora in Guanahuato, Mexico in 1898, El Niño Fidencio is perhaps Mexico’s most famous curandero, or faith healer. After he came to Espinazo, Mexico in 1925, he spent the rest of his life tending to the thousands of people who journeyed to see him, sometimes reportedly sleeping only three hours a night because the pilgrims kept him so busy, according to Mexican anthropologist Raúl Cadena. His high-pitched voice and boyish appearance led to the moniker “El Niño,” which means “the boy” in Spanish.
El Niño never charged for his services, which ranged from prescribing herbs for simple illnesses and pulling teeth or removing gall stones – reportedly painlessly yet without anesthesia – to curing cancer, paralysis, muteness or depression. His fame as a healer became so widespread that even Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles visited him for six hours in 1928. After El Niño’s mysterious death in 1938 – some believe from exhaustion, others from murder – his popularity escalated so rapidly that he became known as a folk saint to the thousands of “fidencistas” who believed in his divine power.
Although fidencistas, like El Niño himself, are Roman Catholic, the Church does not recognize El Niño as a saint or miracle healer. In fact, Cadena writes that a bishop reportedly met with El Niño in 1936 to request that he stop administering the sacraments of the Church because he was not ordained. El Niño complied briefly – and then resumed administering sacraments.
Today, many of the materias who believe they channel El Niño’s spirit perform their services in conjunction with a Sunday mass. At Valencia’s house, Padre Jacinto Ramos conducts a mass, after which members of the congregation pray for El Niño’s spirit to arrive. Once they believe he has come into Valencia’s body, she dons a white robe and red hat, her voice becomes high-pitched and her demeanor changes significantly. She then spends the rest of the day serving the dozens who come to the home for help with headaches, getting a promotion at work, conceiving a child, insomnia, and more serious conditions. Criselda told this reporter during one Sunday ceremony about a man whose tumor went away after asking for El Niño’s blessing.
It’s as difficult to characterize the belief in El Niño as it is to get firm details about the man himself. Cadena has called it a cult or a Catholic sect. Others, including those who trek each year to Espinazo in March and October – the anniversary months of El Niño’s death, respectively – to celebrate the folk saint’s life and seek his healing powers, do not put a name to it. To them the man is simply El Niño, a mystery and a miracle.