Saturday, Feb. 20, 1999

Praying to the healers

George Gongora/Caller-Times
Frank Fregoso, a Tex-Mex Curios employee, displays some Don Pedrito and Nino Fidencio paraphernalia the store offers. Fregoso says statues, amulets and candles depicting the two are the store's best-selling items.

Folk saints

From Catholicism to Pedrito and Fidencio

Staff Writer

   A little girl with braces on her legs sits in the lap of a statue of faith healer Don Pedrito Jaramillo, putting her arms around the figure's neck as her father prays. He has brought her to Don Pedrito's shrine in Falfurrias in hopes that the spirit of the curandero, who has been dead for almost a century, will make her walk again.
   In Robstown, medium Emilio Carreon claims to channel the spirit of Nino Fidencio, calling upon the wisdom of the famous Mexican healer to give advice to the troubled and cure sickness.
   And on Univision, Walter Mercado, with his blond bouffant hairdo and colorful, flowing, rhinestone-encrusted robes, casts horoscopes, reads runes and says Catholic prayers, throwing kisses to the camera as he wishes his viewers "mucho, mucho, mucho amor."
   Folk saints, in their humble, agrarian mode and in their flashier modern manifestations, are popular figures among Mexican-Americans in South Texas, said Miguel Leatham, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
   Authorities say about 100 mediums claim to channel Fidencio's spirit in Corpus Christi. Many others say they work with the spirit of Don Pedrito, bringing healing and advice to seekers. Most see no conflict between the Catholic religion in which they were raised and their reverence for folk saints.
   Margaret Soliz's forehead was smudged with ashes Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent as she worked in a local yerberia.
   But her traditional Catholicism doesn't keep her from praying before a statue of Don Pedrito, the famous Falfurrias curandero.
   "I know my grandfather was cured by him," she said. "So I pray to him for everything."    

Followed, not canonized

   Folk saints are individuals who have not been canonized by the Catholic church but who are treated as sacred by believers, Leatham said. Followers created a New Age-type religion around them, a hundred years before the New Age movement became popular, Leatham said.
   "In many ways the belief in folk saints allows for a sort of cafeteria Catholicism," Leatham said. "It incorporates healing and spiritualism and shamanism - a wide variety of beliefs - just like the New Age movement."
   The same eclecticism the folk saints possessed can be seen in the work of the wildly popular Univision personality Mercado, Leatham said. The flamboyantly dressed Mercado combines Afro-Caribbean influences with astrology, tarot card reading, numerology and psychic predictions. "Walter y las Estrellas," "Walter Mercado y los Signos de Amor" and "El Show de Walter Mercado" have made him a famous spiritual leader in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.
   What the humble Mexican healer and a Latino superstar like Mercado have in common is that they have been canonized by the people, Leatham said.
   "The people aren't going to go to the bishop to ask if Don Pedrito is a saint," Leatham said. "For them, the proof is in the results."    

Threatening the church

   The folk saint movement at times poses problems for the established church, Leatham said. The Fidencistas, followers of Nino Fidencio, are threatening breaks with the church throughout Mexico and South Texas, Leatham said.

George Tuley/Caller-Times
Miguel Leatham, a professor of anthropology at A&M-Kingsville, holds a statue of the Mexican folk saint Nino Fidencio. Fidencio, who died in 1938, was androgynous. Folk saints are individuals who have not been canonized by the Catholic Church but who are treated as sacred by believers.

   "They want to form their own churches and in some cases, they have," Leatham said.
   The first Fidencista church was formed about 30 years ago in Robstown and is still active today, said Leo Carrillo, a professor of Mexican-American studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
   "It is a real threat to the church, particularly in Mexico," Carrillo said. "Most of these people are baptized Catholics. They registered as a church in Mexico four years ago, and the Catholic Church has responded by talk of possible beatification and canonization of Nino Fidencio."    

Channeling the spirit

   Emilio Carreon and his mother, Nieves Reyes, head the Templo Nino Fidencio in Robstown. They are both mediums who claim to channel the spirit of Nino Fidencio.
   "We believe Nino Fidencio was the Jesus Christ of Mexico," Carreon said. "We believe that he and Jesus Christ are the same person. We are still Catholic, but allow for a universal Christianity. Baptists and Pentecostals come here, too."
   Monsignor Thomas Meany with the Diocese of Corpus Christi said the church has no problem with people praying to folk saints.
   "We pray to our parents and to other people who aren't canonized," he said. "The problem is when these cults develop and there is superstition. There has been talk about canonizing Don Pedrito, but this cult that has developed around him gets in the way. We are against mediums, spiritualism and magic. In some cases its just mass superstition, and as people get more educated they get away from it."    

Serving the uneducated

   But it was exactly these humble people, often ignored by the government and the church, whom Don Pedrito and Nino Fidencio came to serve, Leatham said.
   "They helped poor, uneducated, agrarian workers," Leatham said. "Jaramillo was helping people in the most abject poverty. This was at a time when Mexican-American field workers couldn't even enter the town of San Angelo. He was Christ-like in that he helped the most needy and didn't charge for his services. Nino Fidencio had a colony of about 10,000 in northern Mexico where he did everything from go into trances to healing to psychic surgery."
   Nino Fidencio received his calling as a child in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. When he was 5, his brother was very sick. A man knocked at the door and told Nino Fidencio what herbal remedy to use to cure his brother. Fidencio later identified the man as Jesus and said this was the beginning of his calling.
   Fidencio, who died in 1938, was androgynous, Leatham said.
   "That is something that seems to have a great appeal in folk saints," Leatham said. "He appealed to both men and women, and though he was a man, he had the nurturing quality of a woman. It was like the Sacred Heart and the Virgin of Guadalupe combined."    

Fidencio the spiritualist

   Leatham says Mercado also has that appeal.
   Fidencio, like Mercado, employed a variety of methods. His cures were sometimes unorthodox. He was known for rolling people in the dirt to heal them and for getting the mentally ill to swing in circles in a giant swing he invented. He performed surgery using shards of glass, saying he was led by God. Thousands descend on the small town of Espinazo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, outside Monterrey each year to call on his spirit and partake of similar cures.
   "Fidencio was a spiritualist at a time when spiritualism was very popular," Leatham said. "He communicated with the dead. This was a time when Mary Todd Lincoln had a picture taken with what she thought was the ghost of her dead husband. It turned out to have been done by double exposures."
   Although there are parallels between folk saints like Fidencio and television personalities like Mercado, Mercado doesn't quite fit the role of modern-day folk saint, Leatham said. Unlike Jaramillo and Fidencio, who lived lives of humility and poverty, Mercado has created a money-making entertainment empire.
   "There really isn't anyone today who truly compares with Fidencio and Jaramillo, although Mercado has appropriated elements of the folk saint and his audience really seems to identify with that," Leatham said. "I think it is largely because of advances in modern medicine and medical services becoming more accessible to the poor that mega-curanderos like Jaramillo have disappeared."   

Healing missions

   Some say they haven't disappeared at all, but are still carrying on their healing missions in spirit form.
   At Jaramillo's shrine in Falfurrias, crutches and braces are propped against the wall, left by those who testify that they came crippled and walked away.
   His grave is covered with bouquets of bright artificial flowers and milagros, the tiny silver and gold figures shaped like an eye, a heart or an arm, given in thanks for answered prayers.
   The walls are plastered with photographs, driver's licenses, letters and prayers scribbled on note paper. One note begs Don Pedrito to cure a child's illness. A tiny hospital bracelet with a child's name on it is pinned to the letter. Another note offers thanks for curing a grandmother of pneumonia. Another asks Don Pedrito's advice for clearing up acne. A long, thick black braid is taped above his grave, tied with a red ribbon on which a woman's name is written. There is no further explanation.    

Don Pedrito

   Don Pedrito was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the 19th century and died in Falfurrias in 1908. According to one story, he came to Texas after he suffered a strange affliction of the nose. He suffered so much that he went to the woods and lay down near a pool of water, where he buried his face in the mud at the edge. He continued doing this for three days, until he was cured.
   When he went home, he lay down and slept. He was soon awakened by a voice that told him he had received the gift of healing from God. He was told to go and cure the man he worked for, who was sick. Don Pedrito prescribed to him the first thing that came to mind, which was the way he prescribed for the rest of his life. He gave God the credit for the cures he performed.
   Don Pedrito was a liquor supplier in South Texas, which was how he initially became so widely known, Leatham said. He set up a practice as a curandero that would last for 25 years and became known as "The Healer of Los Olmos." Thousands came to visit him.    

Prescriptions that cured

   Copies of prescriptions written by Don Pedrito still exist.
   One reads "Senor Feliciano: Bathe seven nights, at whatever hour you choose, entirely nude, soaping yourself in cold water."
   A cure for athlete's foot involved pouring cans of tomato juice in the boots. One rancher's cure failed when he was told to eat a raw egg every morning, and substituted a turkey egg for a chicken egg.
   At Tex-Mex Curios in Corpus Christi, almost everyone in the store seems to have a Don Pedrito story.
   "I have a friend whose grandfather went to him for cures," said Lillian Roman. "Even though I'm Puerto Rican, I pray to Don Pedrito."
   Joe Curiel, a customer at Tex-Mex, said his grandfather was cured by Don Pedrito, who healed him by getting him to drink a blessed glass of water. His wife's grandfather was also cured by Don Pedrito. Curiel did not know the nature of their maladies.
   "We are very devoted to him." Curiel said.

Offering help

   Store owner Lucia Chapa said Don Pedrito told her underweight mother to drink half-and-half milk to gain strength and weight when she was a child. Her mother gained weight, Chapa said.
   Store employee Frank Fregoso said statues, amulets and candles depicting Jaramillo and Fidencio are among the store's best-selling items.
   "You see the same devotion to folk saints throughout Latin America," Leatham said. "Brazilians like Father Cicero and Anthony the Counselor set up whole cities and are still revered.
   "I think it is a matter of what works. You have very poor, disenfranchised people with no medical care. These folk saints offered them help when no one was there for them. Even though they haven't been accepted by the church, what they did worked. So people believe."

   Staff writer Mary Lee Grant can be reached at 886-3752 or by e-mail at