"The miracles he does bring the people here,'' saidFlor Lerma, 35, who runs a catering business in Pharr, Texas. "He helped mynephew survive open-heart surgery. He cured my little brother who was sick.I come because it's true.'' El Nino was a poor peasant from the centralMexican state of Guanajuato. Believers say he discovered his calling as ahealer through a direct revelation from Christ and the Holy Spirit beneatha sacred tree in Espinazo in 1928. He was 23.

Old newspaper photos show ElNino purportedly operating on people in the street using only shards ofglass. He provided herbal medicines for the sick, and he treated thementally ill using a giant swing. Even former Mexican President PlutarcoElias Calles sought out his help. Today, a cabinet next to his tomb holdsbottles with tumors, kidney stones and teeth that the faithful credit ElNino with extracting both himself and through mediums who practice hismethods. A bathtub where he brewed herbal concoctions is filled with oldcasts, lockets of hair, photos and thank-you notes.

El Nino is said tohave never charged for his services, calling his abilities a gift from God.Mediums who say they "channel'' his spirit keep up the tradition, offeringtheir services only for food and lodging during the fall pilgrimage. "Themain reason people come to El Nino is for their health,'' said HectorHernandez, 48, a medium from Reynosa near the U.S. border. "He doesn'tcharge, while medicine keeps getting more and more expensive.''

Duringthis year's celebration, families came from all across Mexico and fromTexas, Indiana and Washington. Buses, vans and cars filled the village of500 people, spilling into the yucca-studded plain surrounding Espinazo.Spiritualists led the groups, one of which wore matching purple T-shirtsreading: "In the name of God, we walk with Nino Fidencio into the NewMillennium.''

Donning colorful pointed caps and flowing white robes tiedat the waist with a rope like the one El Nino used, mediums spoke inhigh-pitched voices. They danced to Mexican cowboy trios belting out songsabout El Nino's life. Some threw candies into the crowd as El Nino oncedid. Pilgrims made their way down the Street of Penance toward the tomb.Grandmothers inched on their knees. Others rolled on their sides up therocky road. Some followed on crutches and in wheelchairs. The processionto the former clinic-turned-shrine continued day and night. Outside,celebrants in pre-Hispanic costumes danced to beating drums.

Most of thefaithful are Roman Catholics, although the church does not recognize ElNino. But such phenomenons are not uncommon in Mexico, where Spanishevangelists allowed Indians to maintain local beliefs while adopting thechurch's doctrine. For years, Fidencistas were accused of witchcraft andhad to practice their faith in El Nino discreetly. Catholic priests wereknown to bar Fidencistas from their churches, and even to refuse to performlast rites for them. Mediums were jailed for practicing medicine without alicense.

"We suffered a lot of criticism and attacks,'' said Gerardo Lopezde la Fuente, a lawyer whose grandfather adopted El Nino as his son. "Wedecided to form a civil association to dignify the Fidencistas and preventpeople from exploiting our faith.'' But even as they created their ownchurch, Fidencistas were surprised to find that many followers want toremain Catholics, which has caused a split in the movement, said LeoCarrillo, a professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi who is workingon a book about the movement.

The movement seems sure to change. Theleading channeler of El Nino's spirit is 85 and in poor health, raisingconcerns about who will guide the folk movement in the future, said AntonioZavaleta, a University of Texas-Brownsville anthropologist who has studiedFidencistas for 11 years. Yet the movement in itself doesn't mean much tomost Fidencistas, like Ricky Vasquez of Dallas, who says he'll continuecommunicating to El Nino as he always has from his heart.

Thetattoo-covered 32-year-old credits El Nino with saving him from everythingfrom the law to cancer. "For Hispanics, this type of thing is normal,'' hesaid. "A lot of people go to the doctor and think anything he says willhelp. But really it all boils down to one thing: faith.''

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