San Antonio traffic had never quite bothered me as much as it did a few Wednesdays ago when I was determined to meet El Niño Fidencio, a Mexican saint. That morning, I had talked to Jonathon Ray Coronilla, who has operated Botanica Los Misterios on South Flores Street, along with his wife, Pauline, for nearly 10 years. Coronilla has been in the business for 14 years, and it was through our conversation that I learned El Niño Fidencio was passing through the South Side botanica that evening. Upon hearing that, I just knew I had to meet him.
As the cars in front of me slowed down, I began to reflect on what led me to this moment: It was 6:23 p.m. and I was in a rush to get back to Los Misterios, which I had visited that morning for this assignment on botanicas—or, shops that sell traditional herbal remedies and charms. Before going into Coronilla’s shop, I had been denied interviews at two other shops nearby and was feeling a bit discouraged.
When I first entered Los Misterios, the large ceramic religious figures on the counter drew my attention—their eyes were piercing and they towered over everything else. Behind the countertops were perfumes, rows of candles, soaps, and evil eye bracelets. The shop smelled of incense and candles.
Though I had gone into the store to interview Coronilla about the shop’s maintenance during the Covid-19 pandemic, our conversation took a turn when he mentioned El Niño Fidencio, a Mexican curandero, or healer, who was known for curing patients from their physical and spiritual illnesses. El Niño Fidencio’s curanderismo attracted countless people in need, increased tourism in Mexico and boosted the sales of religious objects well after his death in 1938.
The curandero became known as “El Niño” because of his “high-pitched voice and boyish appearance.” Thousands took it upon themselves to journey to Espinazo, Mexico, to seek guidance from him.
But if El Niño died in the late 1930s, how was I about to meet him in San Antonio of all places? Coronilla explained that he had the ability to channel El Niño to help community members who needed spiritual guidance—an ability he developed over time with practice.
“He was a healer in life and he healed a lot of people that were sick of all kinds of things,” Coronilla said. “Any spiritual stuff, like what we call susto, being scared, stuff like that. Well my spirit leaves my body and he comes in. So he wears a little outfit that’s this one right here. It looks like a priest outfit. The spirit wears it when he comes in through my body. My consciousness is gone.”
That morning, Coronilla had gotten up from the table during our interview to show me the outfit. After we sat down again, he explained that El Niño was available to see people every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
“For that one it’s donation,” Coronilla said. “The people will pay whatever they like. Or, if they don’t have money, they don’t have to pay. And they just see him.”
With customers ready to pour in upon opening, owners of botanicas and yerberias (both names for herb shops) across the city spend their days working with people who need help. Often, customers have spell and prayer requests for love, healing, and good fortune. Other times they need help putting a spell on someone who wronged them, broke their heart, or, as one customer was overheard saying in a different botanica, “I need a candle to get my niece to shut up.”
The degree to which a shop will engage in black magic varies—every place has its own set of preferences and standards. While some are comfortable helping customers seek vengeance or place curses on others, shops like Coronilla’s tend to focus on the positive aspects of spirituality.
Though botanicas across the city shut down to follow Covid-19 city protocols, these shops have sustained the spiritual community of San Antonio during the pandemic. In fact, Coronilla noted that their shop saw an increase in Covid-related requests for help.
“Some of them have been dealing with the loss of a loved one,” he said. “So we have to deal with their grieving and healing them from that. And just trying to get them to understand that it’s not gonna happen to everybody, it’s just going to happen to one of their family members. Because some people are really, really scared.”
In March of 2020, Botanica Los Misterios shut down for a couple of months, but still provided services over the phone.
“We still worked through the phone because some people call, still to this day, for phone consultations, just like how other psychics and readers work,” he said. “So we did stuff like that. We lit candles for them.”
‘We respect them all’
Coronilla was born and raised in San Antonio, but has traveled to Mexico and Cuba to strengthen his spiritual practice, he said. He said that though he believes in God, he encourages customers to reconnect with whatever religious or spiritual tradition they may practice.
“We don’t practice one specific tradition here. There’s several, and we respect them all,” he said. “So we kind of bring them back to their own systems, whatever they are.”
In addition to encouraging customers to connect with their spirituality and religion, Coronilla said they encourage positivity.
“The spiritual healing aspect removes, we believe, negativity from the aura,” he said. “So when you remove it, it kind of calms them down. We give them teas. On a physical level, the tea will work on their body, such as manzanilla, mint—stuff like that—just to calm their nerves. It helps them so they can deal with life and not constantly live in fear.”
Stuck in traffic, I realized I hadn’t thought of the questions I was going to ask El Niño Fidencio. Luckily, however, Coronilla explained the process to me earlier, so I was somewhat aware of what lie ahead.
First, he said, the person walks in and meets El Niño. He begins the cleansing ritual by covering the person with holy water and uses a few vegetables central to Latin diets, like a serrano pepper, to lift any negativity. Almost immediately after the cleansing, and based on what is reflected back to the saint, he begins to give you advice. A notetaker in the room then writes down the recommendations and remedies from El Niño.
Though I had met Coronilla earlier, this was going to be different. He wasn’t going to be in his own body, and instead, I was going to be talking to El Niño Fidencio, an entirely different person.
But that was OK, I thought. This was going to be a positive experience for me.
Or was it? Overwhelmed by all the possible outcomes, I began to ponder on the more potentially uncomfortable aspects of meeting El Niño. What if he really read me?
What if he knows about my dating life? What if he calls me toxic? What if the Saint reveals the not very nice thought I had last week? The closer I got to Los Misterios, the more nervous I became.
But based on our conversations earlier, I knew that I was entering a professional space. The worries more so stemmed from agonizing over which aspect of my life he was going to dissect. Still, I refused to back down. I felt privileged to even be meeting El Niño in person since, after all, botanicas across the city had endured so much in the last year and a half to keep their shops alive. Compared to this time last year, Coronilla said that his shop just keeps getting busier.
“It actually got very busy and it’s pretty much stayed that way until now,” he said. “People are looking for all kinds of remedies because some of them can’t afford medicine, some of them can’t go to the doctor. We kind of provide alternates with herbs and, of course, the spiritual healings, you know—asking for sickness to go away, protection against death, because you know Covid brings death. Those things have become very popular.”
’Stand in front of El Niño’
Before I knew it, I had arrived six minutes after 6:30. I walked inside, signed in on the yellow notepad and took my seat. There were about 4-5 people in front of me. I was advised to prepare my questions ahead of time by Pauline Coronilla, wife of Jonathon Ray and co-owner of Los Misterios. Sometimes, she said, people forget to prepare their questions and go in uncertain of what they wanted to ask. After realizing I didn’t know much about El Niño Fidencio, or what he stood for, I decided to ask for help.
Pauline Coronilla explained that I could ask anything, really. In the past, ill people had asked if they were going to die soon and heartbroken people asked if their significant other was going to come back. No question was off the table.
With dozens of potential questions whirling around in my head, I texted my friends in a hurry to ask for advice. One of them replied, “I feel you already know the question you want to ask.”
Soon after, another person walked out with their hand-written note and remedy recommendations. A woman, who I soon learned was the notetaker, peered over the counter, “Who’s next?”
Confused about the status of the little boy who sat in front of me, I quickly realized he was the son of a woman who had just talked to the saint. The little boy, his mom told the shopkeeper, didn’t want to go inside the room, presumably because he was uncomfortable or simply didn’t understand the ritual.
I followed the notetaker to the back of the shop and she brought me into a room Coronilla had walked me through earlier. This time, El Niño Fidencio was waiting for me.
“Stand in front of El Niño,” she advised me.
I had forgotten the notetaker was going to be in the room, and as shy as that made me, it wasn’t going to stop me from asking a question about a vulnerable subject: love.
After asking my question, El Niño Fidencio responded and gave me genuine advice that was applicable to my life—advice that I’ve decided not to mention in this piece due to its specificity.
Though I had gone into the botanica feeling that my question was too cheesy or unimportant compared to the others, El Niño answered my question with sincerity. I really could ask anything.
But even after answering my question, he kept talking. To my surprise, he said something else that had nothing to do with my question: According to El Niño, I had the ability to read tea leaves if I really sharpened my practice.
After receiving my hand-written recommendations on a yellow notepad page, I said goodbye and walked to my car. I was parked in front of the Selena mural that made Los Misterios visible from far away.
When I walked into Los Misterios that morning, I had no idea that I would later experience first-hand talking to El Niño Fidencio, which highlighted for me the necessity of botanicas for those who use them.
Still reflecting on the information that El Niño had revealed to me, I looked at the Selena mural one last time and let my GPS guide me to the nearest grocery store. I needed to pick up tea.
Kayla Padilla is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She served as the editor-in-chief of Trinity University’s campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, in 2020 and 2021. Follow her on Twitter at @KaylaPadilla__
Kaylee Greenlee Beal is a freelance photojournalist based in San Antonio. She graduated from Baylor University in May 2020 with a major in journalism and minor in political science. Follow her on Twitter at @kayleegreenlee or on Instagram at @kgreenleephoto.