Mexican healers offer hope to sick
ESPINAZO, Mexico — Frustrated with the failure of medical specialists to help them conceive, Tomas and Patricia Castilleja traveled from their home near Houston to this fly-speck village in northern Mexico, hoping for divine intervention.
They came seeking the aid of El Niño Fidencio, a faith healer who died more than 65 years ago, and of other long-departed saints who many are certain can work miracles.
“We’ve spent a lot of money, and nothing has worked,” Tomas Castilleja, 25, said during a recent festival here that drew more than 20,000 believers. “So we thought we needed to come here.
“You have to have a lot of faith,” the Texas-born Castilleja said in Spanish as he and his wife awaited a meeting with what they believed would be the spirit of El Niño. “It’s something so unusual.”
The lame and the sick, the faint of heart, mind and soul — all travel to Espinazo, a parched community of fewer than 500 people, for El Niño Fidencio’s healing blessing.
God’s power is channeled here, the faithful hold, via the living people who lend the spirits of El Niño and other saints temporary flesh and voice.
“They call this place the Field of Pain, because those who come here have all these hurts, these pains, these anguishes,” said Alberto Salinas, 53, a former sheriff’s deputy from Edinburg who says he has been acting as a medium for El Niño’s spirit for 25 years.
“People who don’t find answers in modern medicine seek an alternative,” said Salinas, who drove from his Texas border home in March to take part in a semi-annual celebration of Fidencio.
“We as Fidencista healers have dedicated ourselves to cure them,” Salinas said. “We are at the service of the people.”
His many followers say that El Niño, who was a grown man despite his nickname of “The Child,” removed tumors with shards of glass, gave sight to the blind, restored sanity to the deranged, banished disease with the touch of a hand.
The healer, a semi-literate child of peasants whose real name was Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino, became famous in the late 1920s after he reportedly fell into a trance beneath a pepper tree and began to cure in the name of God.
“These things don’t happen by themselves. They don’t happen by chance. They happen by instruction of the Holy Spirit,” Salinas said. “We believe in El Niño Fidencio and that his gift is the manifestation of the spirit of Jesus.”
At a time when Mexico’s revolutionary government was persecuting those who practiced the Roman Catholic faith, El Niño Fidencio became a magnet for the desperate and the anxious, those with no access to, or faith in, regular medicine.
Like his faith-healing contemporaries in the Depression-era United States, El Niño’s fame also was fueled in part by people’s desire for an answer to their economic difficulties, academics say. And his following reflects the blend of Roman Catholic and pre-Hispanic faiths that many Mexicans practice.
As many as 500,000 Fidencista faithful worship at least occasionally at temples headed by about 2,000 spirit channelers across Mexico and in Texas, California and other states, estimated Tony Zavaleta, an anthropologist at the University of Texas-Brownsville who is a leading scholar of the movement.
Like those held here for many years, the recent festival for El Niño and other faith healers was a three-day marathon of equal parts quest, carnival and cosmic conclave.
“Visiting Espinazo at the height of the El Niño Fidencio festival is a real trip,” said Zavaleta, who frequently attends. “It will affect your mind.”
Clad in brilliantly colored capes and hats or in simple white gowns accented with pastel scarves and belts, the mediums began leading their followers into Espinazo several days before the actual festival opened.
Visitors camped on the edge of town or bunked in villagers’ homes. Some slept in their cars or on the open ground.
Vendors flocked from Monterrey, Saltillo and other nearby cities, lining the streets with wooden booths and offering everything from herbal remedies to flashlights to old photographs of Fidencio, other saints and the revolutionary hero Pancho Villa. Bands wandered the streets, hiring out for a song or for the day, playing trumpet-accented ballads about El Niño and other icons.
When the actual festivities got under way, pilgrims lined up by the several thousands to parade past Fidencio’s tomb, inside the house and clinic where he lived and worked. They bathed in the muddy, concrete-encased pool next to the clinic that many believe has curative powers. They gathered around the scores of faith healers plying their trade throughout the village.
Closing their eyes in concentration, the mediums called out to Fidencio and other spirits. Often their bodies jumped as if touched with a low voltage cattle prod, a sign that people said showed the spirits were with them.
And then, the healing begins.
Many mediums change clothes, voices and attitudes when adopting the personas of the spirits. Most of the faithful instantly recognize which spirit is being channeled. They call out to them as if to old friends, laughing at their jokes, reveling in their company.
“Do you want to know who I am, or whose body this belongs to?” said a middle-age woman with heavy-lidded eyes and a high-pitched voice, clad in sensible slacks and a red cape that reached to her ankles.
“I am Jose Fidencio, servant of God,” she explained in Spanish. “You must ask someone else who this flesh is.”
An assistant helpfully explained that the body belonged to Maria Garcia, a medium from Saltillo. While some mediums charge set fees for their services, many others, like Garcia, simply accept donations from the grateful.
Garcia moved down a hastily assembled line of the faithful, anointing each with holy water, rubbing a crucifix over chests, arms and bodies, embracing heads with both hands, grasping the backs of necks.
As she worked, a recorded sales pitch blasted from the loudspeaker of a nearby vendor’s booth, running down a list of physical woes, offering antidotes.
“Ulcers, cancer of the skin, diabetes, high blood pressure,” the electronic voice intoned, with a tinge of knowing lament. “We have the best herbs in the country. Direct from Mexico City.”
Having driven from the border to Espinazo on the final morning of the festival, the Castillejas timidly approached Garcia, the medium from Saltillo, as she and a handful of other mediums worked the crowd on the edge of the mud pool.
First-time pilgrims, the couple had come with Salvador Vargas, a pipe fitter who works with Tomas Castilleja at a Pasadena refinery.
Vargas’ mother, Sara Martinez, is a spirit channeler who has journeyed to Espinazo many times. The Castillejas were amazed as Martinez appeared to evoke the spirit of a long-dead indigenous man at Fidencio’s grave within moments of arriving in the village.
Though novices, the Castillejas were hardly skeptics.
“I am very happy, certain of what I am doing,” Tomas Castilleja said. “This will work, God willing.
“God willing,” he repeated.
Tears sprung from Patricia Castilleja’s eyes as she watched her husband whisper the couples’s desire for a child to El Niño Fidencio through Garcia’s ear.
“I was kind of scared, because I’ve been through a lot of stuff, a lot of doctors,” Patricia Castilleja explained afterward, the tears returning. “I don’t know what to do.
“I asked them to help me,” she said, “and I feel much better now.”