El Niño Fidencio… de Roma a Espinazo

27 09 2010

A review and reflection on the film

The above is the trailer. The whole film can be watched here. You gringos got lucky, because this one has subtitles.

It is best to start at the beginning. Around the beginning of last century, a child was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, by the name of José Fidencio Sintora Constantino. He was orphaned and came of age amidst the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Unlike most Mexican young men, he seems to have been committed to domestic service rather than field work. It also seems that he was afflicted with Kleinfelter’s syndrome, meaning that his sex organs were underdeveloped and he seemed to be perpetually a boy (niño), without facial hair or a deep voice. In the early 1920’s, he would settle in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, in a small railroad town known as Espinazo.

Like a select few, Fidencio was thought to have el don. That means that he had the power to cure using traditional healing methods. Literally, it is a “gift”. But Fidencio’s gift was something extraordinary, something that comes along only every so many generations. From his humble beginnings as a local curandero, he became a national phenomenon. Apparently, he could cure anything using nothing but herbs, prayers, and in extraordinary circumstances, surgeries with a piece of glass (without anaesthetic). His fame grew to the point that the urban legend spread (not based on any facts, but still) that he cured the radically anti-clericalist president of Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles, of leprosy. Some say that in exchange for his cure, Calles was asked to cease his radical persecution of the Church, which subsequently happened. To the people of the time, and in his legacy, he was given the name, el Niño Fidencio, or the Child Fidencio, even though he lived to forty years of age.

The film itself is well-made, but pretentious at times (as in the mandatory pieces in the score lifted from Philip Glass albums). The footage, filmed in 1995, begins with a series of short testimonials from elderly people in the region trying to remember what the famous curandero looked like. Some say that he was tall and skinny, others short and fat. Some say that he was light skinned, and some say that his skin was dark. And so on. I am not sure what this scene means in the greater context of the movie. Does it just mean that old people have bad memories? Does it indicate that he was a shape-shifter? Or maybe that he has become such a myth that the real Fidencio Constantino is lost in the aura of fame and fanaticism?

The film also goes into detail showing how el Niño Fidencio’s ministry changed the small railroad town of Espinazo into a large camp of pilgrims from all over Mexico seeking a cure for hopeless ailments. It shows the sacred muddy pond the waters of which are still deemed miraculous. It shows as well how Fidencio would also cure by pushing people on a swing, laying hands on them, tossing fruit at them, or even sicking a de-fanged, de-clawed lion on them. He was surrounded by women, but because of his Kleinfelter’s, took no interest in them. His a-sexuality, as well as his sometimes childlike ways, were the primary reasons he was given the name “niño”. The term itself is spiritually charged, since in many parts of Mexico, devotion to the child Jesus in the form of el Santo Niño de Atocha, for example, is quite strong. In spite of his playful ways, many speculate that he died working himself to death amongst the crowds of sick people who flocked to Espinazo to visit him. Some say that he was assassinated. It is said that he instructed his followers to not bury him since he would rise on the third day. Obviously, he did not, so he was buried in his bedroom.

El Niño Fidencio’s legacy created an entire set of churches developed around his memory, a movement that spread all over northern Mexico and into the southern United States. So powerful was he even after death that he would come again to possess some of his followers, cajitas or little boxes, and cure through them. These mediums, no doubt influenced by the spiritism also prevalent in this part of Mexico, began to form their own church, with their own sacraments and hierarchy (which included women). In the process, they kept much of the Catholic symbolism and ceremonial that form part of the culture there. But the main thrust of their religion comes from the supposed interventions of el Niño Fidencio himself from beyond the grave. Some Fidencistas, however, continue to be Catholic, and venerate him as a folk saint. But all consider Espinazo, particularly the muddy pond of water found there, to be sacred ground: the place where the greatest thaumaturge in Mexican history healed the poor, the sick, and the lame.

The title of this film, “from Rome to Espinazo”, seems to indicate that the film makers think that the Fidencista movement will grow to be a religious rival to the Catholic Church in Mexico. I do not think that this will occur. However, I think that it is indicative of a larger movement that will challenge and change the face of Catholicism in the next one hundred years or so. Fidencismo keeps the folk elements with which modern Catholicism feels increasingly uncomfortable. People walk on their knees or crawl on the ground, lay hands, or bathe in filthy waters. At the same time, Fidencismo accepts female leadership in religion, it is accepting of homosexuals and other marginalized people, and is fairly accepting of people crossing confessional lines according to their personal circumstances. Most of all, interaction with the divine is immediate (though I will concede to objections that many, if not all, who claim to be cajitas of the famous curandero are frauds). There is no institutional mediation, no walking by “faith” and not by sight, all the while giving oneself over to an ideological structure that is completely alien to daily life. El Niño Fidencio is seen as coming down in the here and now to heal the sick and suffering through the means of ecstatic trance. In other words, Catholicism is withdrawing more and more into being a “head religion”, unable to associate with the gut beliefs of people living in poverty and social change. Catholicism itself may have to change if it wishes to survive in places like northern Mexico, Brazil, Africa, and Asia.

If all of this means anything, it is that the future is in the past. The nearly androgynous curandero seems to be an embodiment of various archetypes that have existed throughout human history. His obvious genetic disorder seems to speak of the hermaphrodite shamans of some indigenous tribes, the trickster, and the idea that sexual ambiguity is accompanied by a power to cure. “He was just a litte boy, without sin”, is what many of his followers would say. In popular religious imagery, he is even portrayed as wearing the garments of the Virgin of Guadalupe. If el Niño Fidencio is a symbol of anything, he is a symbol of how we cannot escape the cosmic patterns that govern our metaphysical consciousness. Even in the midst of secular, rationalist modernity, we continue to confront the irrational, the rhythms of eternal return that we have been hearing since time began. If Fidencismo, Catholic charismaticism, the cult to la Santa Muerte, and other sects are the faith of the future, it is because they are able to continue the religion of the distant past in a very different context.



6 responses

6 07 2011
salina guinn

ive have seen this on a personal level but has lost time in the healing n would like to know if it is known where his follwers are jealing in texas in the lomitas tx area

29 09 2010

My apologies then. This one should’ve stayed in my ideas scrapbook and not on the blog. Better then to bounce the idea off a prof. This isn’t my field, so I got caught in the undertoe.

29 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez


Cults like Fidencismo are pretty easy to understand on one level. To a certain extent, they are the result of a Church and society in crisis. Remember that Fidencio came into his own around the time of the Cristiada and in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Also, northern Mexico was and is a “border zone”. In other words, it is a “border” between various ideologies, cultures, epochs, and so forth. You would never see a phenomenon like Fidencismo in Oaxaca or even Guanajuato: there the Church and the way of life is too ingrained in the populace. Remember, just as in California, most people from Nuevo Leon and Coahuila (my mother’s home state) are ultimately from somewhere else. There, the Church was “badly organized”, to quote one cleric in the film. In that case, it is understandable that someone like Fidencio Constantino would come in and fill the gap.

The ironic thing is that the places where the Church is best organized are often the places that are most vulnerable to secularism. That might have to do a lot with socioeconomic factors as well, but one should realize that in places like France, the Netherlands, and the United States, where there was a strong clerical culture and institutions, the Church succumbed to secularism much faster. The little known statistic about religious vocations is that they have went up since Vatican II in Latin America, at least for priests, in contrast to everywhere else in the “developed” world.

That is why I suspect that the “crisis in the Church” is the result of the Church’s own institutional success. In places where the Church was strong institutionally, people stripped the institutions of all they could, and left the religion behind. (Thus, the internecine battles between various factions over the “Catholic identity” of hospitals, universities, etc. in the U.S.) In other places, the religion is all that was ever offered, and that is all they ever kept, at least for now.

29 09 2010


hard to follow

29 09 2010

Arturo: In other words, Catholicism is withdrawing more and more into being a “head religion”, unable to associate with the gut beliefs of people living in poverty and social change. Catholicism itself may have to change if it wishes to survive in places like northern Mexico, Brazil, Africa, and Asia.

The rifts between pietism and state Protestantism in early modern Europe contrast well with the interplay between Fidencismo, ecclesiastical Mexican Catholicism, and EWTN. Hang with me. I wasn’t playing with Magnetic Poetry earlier today.

It’s fairly clear that the Tridentine liturgy did not bring about Catholic unity on the continent. The true outside agitators were the Habsburgs and their multipronged attack on newly Reformed Holland and the Calvinist preachers among the Czechs and Hungarians. Philip failed with the former but handily succeeded in the latter. The Counter-Reformation tied the power of Rome to monarchical financing and brute power alone rather than the inculcation of a common identity between loosely related peoples. As I have said elsewhere, the Prayer Book cohered the various tribes of England into a modern English nation-identity and language. No Romanized Slav derived his nationality or tongue from the Tridentine liturgy.

Scandinavian Pietism illustrates the ability for folk religion to survive in a sublimated and salutary form under a national church identity. Beginning in the 18th century, many Scandinavians became members of charismatic and pietistic “free” churches. The monarchical heads of the state churches permitted departure so long as the national identity continued to subsist in the monarch as head of the state church. Pietism exerted a great influence on the Norwegian and Danish state churches because of this symbiotic policy. Methodism, though intended as an evangelical reform movement, did not change Anglicanism to this level. Nevertheless, both the Scandinavian and English royal houses successfully created nations through religious identity manipulation.

Trent’s failure to cohere tribes into confessional national identities explains one facet of the friction between Fidencismo, Mexican institutional Catholicism, and now EWTN televised ultramontanism. The rise of a compromised nationalism in nominally Catholic regions often involved a battle between hardened secularism and a hardened clerical caste (or in the case of the Risorgimento, the Holy See itself.) This scenario also took form in Mexico. The continental European and diasporic Catholic inability to create nationality from creed resulted in nationality from unstable politics and strife.

While Fidencismo resembles traces of the charismatic and a-liturgical aspects of Lutheran Pietism, Catholic syncretic movements have not exerted a symbiotic and salutary relationship within any national Catholic hierarchy. Any disagreements between the Mexican hierarchy and Fidencismo result from a dysfunctional layering of religion and nationalism. Add to this the EWTN dystopic view of Catholic historical and cultural significance. The EWTN narrative of Juan Diego completely erases the interaction of Mesoamerican indigenous influences with imposed Catholicism.

This Jenga-esque nonexistent creedal nationalism in nominally Catholic lands illustrates the anti-national tendencies of Catholicism and the result of the inefficient or nonexistent integration of syncretism.

27 09 2010

While the West’s experiences with industrialization and modernity led to secularization, the exact opposite seems to be occuring in other parts of the world. Like many countries in the Middle East, Mexico is ruled by a secular government of questionable effectiveness and even more dubious integrity. In the Middle East, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizballah arose to fill the void created by governments that were unable to unwilling to provide the material and spiritual needs of the populace. In the West (with the exception of the US), the opposite occured when the churches ignored the plight of the working class, causing them to take refuge in the socialist and communist movements. In Mexico, the situation appears to be more complicated since the Catholic Church has traditionally held a monopoly on religious expression, even during periods of persecution. The institutional church isn’t enough for many people, so they go to groups that use the same language and symbols as the Church but use them in different ways. What is evolving in the non-Western world are forms of Christian religious expression that do not fall into the category systematic religiousity (i.e., Mere Christianity).

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