The Force of Living Faith

Mercedes Pérez-Meyer

Niño Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open, photographs and interviews by Dore Gardner, essay by Kay F. Turner. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1992. 135 pages. $34.95ˆ

Niño Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open, a traveling show organized by the Houston Center for Photography, was on view in Houston January 8-February 14.

In her book entitled Niño Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open, Dore Gardner explores the force of living faith based on the interesting spiritual movement of el Niño Fidencio aided by a series of photographs and personal accounts. Although this movement originated in Mexico, it has spread across the border and has gotten as far north as Seattle and Chicago.

In 1898, José Fidencio Sintora Constantino was born in Guanajuato. He lived most of his adult life in a poor rural area in Espinazo, in the state of Nuevo Léon in northeast Mexico. At a very young age, some say as young as eight, el Niño Fidencio as he was called, became a curandero or healer. His talent with medicinal plants, curing potions, and his charismatic personality drew many followers. Although he died at the age of 40, his followers continue to call him “el Niño” because they believe he was a child from God, a holy person, and a man of faith. He was a healer of the body and the mind whose message was friendship, peace, and love.

This movement began at a very volatile time in Mexico. During the first forty years of this century, Mexico was going through many changes as a result of the Mexican Revolution. Also due to the economic depression of the country, many Mexicans migrated to the United States. During this time of unrest, el Niño Fidencio devoted himself to the poor and the needy; he was a healer and a real live miracle worker. When he died in 1938, he was the most famous healer in Mexico. El Niño even cured the Mexican president of the time, Plutarco Elias Calles.

Thanks to the intervention of the camera, many of el Niño’s miracles were captured in photographs, some of which have been included in Gardner’s book. These powerful photographs are undisputed proof of the reality of the miracles he performed, and more importantly the photographs were distributed of other saints among Catholics. El Niño Fidencio has reached the lebel of folk saint by popular acclaim, albeit as an unsanctioned interpretation and expression of Catholicism.

Following in this search for the force of living faith, Dore Gardner has created a body of photographs that uncover for us some of the mysteries of this interesting and powerful spiritual movement. The photographs help us understand how this living tradition continues through active practitioners. Some of the photographs depict the pilgrimages that take place in Espinazo. They come in March, which marks the feast day of el Niño Fidencio’s patron saint, St. Joseph; and in October, the month of el Niño Fidencio’s birth and death. Pilgrimages which were very popular in Europe during the middle ages, are continued today by followers as a form of offering pain or discomfort. The fidencistas believe that this pain and discomfort touches their spiritual belief and helps them renew their commitment to el Niño.

The photographs included in this book not only visually document the actual conception of a miracle, but they are also accompanied with written information describing the type of miracle or healing that is taking place. These photographs are very reminiscent of the Spanish old tradition of ex-votos or retablos (as they are more popularly referred to), offerings of gratitude that are placed on altars. It seems as though photography ahs replaced this old art tradition, since photographs can be mass-produced and therefore reach many more followers. Also, photographs are more believable and are regarded as true depictions of reality or an event.

Probably the strongest elements of the book are the actual testimonies and accounts by the materias and others. These testimonies are sometimes personal and intimate expressions of their contact or experience with el Niño. The materias usually become chosen practitioners as a result of a miracle performed for them by the Niño and then work as channels to the power of el Niño and his prophecies. They are not the ones that make a miracle happen; it is el Niño who, through them, performs miracles. The materias establish missions, usually in their own homes, in a special room that has an altar called a tronito filled with images of Christ and photos and images of el Niño. Using the accounts and the photographs, we are able to learn more about the different types of people and the different types of miracles his followers have experienced. Even though the stories, opinions, and way each material works differs, everyone agrees that there is only one Niño, and you must have faith for the power of el Niño to help you.

Also in the book, there is an insightful essay by Kay F. Turner filled with information and details about this movement. The essay really helps to summarize and clarify some important factors of el Niño Fidencio’s movement. Turner has written and published widely in the area of Mexican folklore. This book is very enjoyable and thoroughly done. The photographs and personal accounts go hand-in-hand and complement each other nicely. The book can be a reaffirmation of the belief to this movement or it can prove to be an in-depth look at the force of living faith. A Faith Thrown Open will clearly spread the message of el Niño Fidencio to those who believe, and it does provide a comprehensive look into this, a most interesting phenomenon, which has crossed the physical boundaries of our country’s border and continues to be a popular and powerful force to this day among his followers.

Mercedes Pérez-Meyer was born in El Salvador and now lives and works in Houston at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Education Department.