SEEING THE LIGHT

NOW APPEARING IN SOUTH PHOENIX: THE VIRGIN MARY

The handmade Jesus in the backyard shrine wears a heart that is sunk deeply into its plaster of Paris chest. At the flick of a switch, the heart suddenly glows the color of hot coals. Sometimes another type of light also sweeps across the lawn, as the helicopters of law enforcement endlessly circle this violent South Phoenix neighborhood, strobing their powerful searchlights onto the crowd as an incidental part of the hunt for drug dealers and gang members who fire at random out of car windows. The worshipers at the shrine are the sort that see God's interference everywhere, so it is likely that, when a searchlight catches their Jesus in its brilliant beam, some of them believe it is not a coincidence but a miracle.

On a particular Saturday night in June, state Senator Armando Ruiz is warming up the crowd that is seated on rows of plastic chairs in the yard behind the modest house. Dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, looking for a place to set down the half-filled bottle he has been feeding to his baby, Natalia, Ruiz steps onto the platform where the Jesus presides. "When this first happened to my mother," he says, "my first thought was, What will it do to my chances of reelection?'"

He is referring to the fact that his mother, Estela Ruiz, has since 1988 been receiving messages for the world from Mary, the Mother of God--that she has been actually seeing the Blessed Mother, nearly as large as life, in the hallway off the living room.

What he doesn't say is that his own reelection has become a moot point as a result. His mother's visions have caused him to reexamine his life and priorities and to decide to abruptly end his ten-year career at the Arizona State Legislature.

He bears testimony to his belief in God and introduces his father, Reyes Ruiz, who calls in turn for Estela to join him on the platform. She comes forward slightly shyly from the sidelines, a pillow-shaped, middle-aged woman with a cloud of gray hair, dressed in a baggy blue tee shirt and earth shoes. She and Reyes sit close together and gaze out at their audience. Reyes' face is as animated as a performer's, but Estela's holds a great deal of modesty and reserve, as though she would rather not be on display.

The audience throws questions at her--Do you see the Blessed Mother with your eyes or your heart?" "Does anyone else in the family see her?" "Have you ever seen Christ as well?--that she answers simply and as though for the first time, even though every Saturday the questions are much the same. Sometimes Reyes firmly appropriates a question that was directed at his wife--Let me answer that, Stella,--and his responses are rambling and accompanied by vigorous hand gestures.

Finally the Saturday gathering is over, and, as though she is fragile, Estela is escorted through a break in the crowd on the arm of a family friend who proudly waves a flashlight back and forth to light her way.

On Wednesday, a very different sort of meeting occurs, not in the yard but in the small kitchen, where the appliances haven't been new for a while and the table and chairs aren't anything you would remember. Various members of the sizable Ruiz clan--Estela, Reyes, Reyes Jr., Armando and his wife, Peggy--gather around the table, joined by a handful of handsome teenage boys with too-sober eyes who are children of the barrio.

"When I am here, I feel safe and happy," one of the boys, Juan Loera, is saying. "Carefree, like you don't have to worry about anything." The comment is startling, coming from a 17-year-old boy who should know much more about the emotions of childhood than he apparently does. Juan is the son of a father with a drinking problem, and he is also an O.G.--original gangster--who founded one of South Phoenix's gangs before he entered puberty. A tall fellow, burly as an elk, he straddles his chair with a certain stillness and intensity, as though he is listening for a signal and might stride out of the kitchen at any moment, returning to the activities of the night that gang members favor.

He's not going to, though. He left his gang, the center of his life, only a couple of months ago in favor of a project Estela Ruiz heads at the South Phoenix YMCA that pairs sixth graders with teenage role models. These role models--Juan is one--cannot belong to gangs.

Now Juan's guardedness has to do with his fear of his former friends who do not always take kindly to shifting loyalties. "I finally seen all the violence and the hatred that gangs have for each other, but as big as I am and as tough as I am, I was scared to get out. I didn't know what they would do to me," he says. As he speaks, he jiggles his leg nervously. "I still fear being shot at. But I know they will not shoot at this house. Shooting at this house is like shooting at a church."

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