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."

Across the table from Juan sits his brother, Ricky, who is 15. Ricky joined a rival gang to Juan's when he was 10, but he's been out more than a year, largely because of the efforts of the Ruiz family. Perhaps this longer period of freedom has given him a chance to unwind or maybe he's simply a sillier guy than Juan: He is blowing kisses to baby Natalia, and he is squirting hand lotion out of a plastic bottle onto an empty pizza carton on the kitchen table, a mindless piece of mischief that soon inspires Estela to snatch the lotion away from him. Even sitting down, Ricky is all elbows and knees and lips, a kid who hasn't grown into himself yet.

Which isn't to say that he hasn't grown. One of the things that's so changed about the boy's routine is that, instead of being on the streets, he regularly attends the rosaries that take place every Tuesday and Saturday in the Ruiz backyard, and he practically lives here at the Ruiz "compound," a row of unglamorous houses lying just off Central Avenue that shelters not only Estela and Reyes but the families of Armando and Fernando, who are twins, and Rosie, the youngest Ruiz at 28. When first invited to attend the prayer meetings by Armando, Ricky was shy about them ("The first day I came, I stood in the front yard and didn't even come in"), but he is now a proponent of the effects of the Blessed Mother and the love of God. "I will go pray a rosary at school and I come back different," he says. "It takes your bad time and turns it into a good time."

It is clear that, despite his profession of faith, his greatest influence in these matters is the Ruizes themselves. "They say, 'I love you' to total strangers!" he marvels. He remembers an evening when Estela was explaining to Ricky and some other street kids that her home is their home. "She talked about how this was a haven for us--to come off the street, come away from the violence. There wasn't a dry eye in here." He adds that Reyes demonstrated his love for the teenagers that night by literally kissing all their feet.

The display of love is, amazingly, a technique that the former tough is now trying to emulate among his friends. "It is easier to go up and pick a fight with somebody than to tell him, 'I love you,'" he observes. "They think you are gay. It's not that, though. Everybody needs to be loved."

Later in the evening, before he'll allow a visitor to leave the house, he insists on throwing his arms around her in the symbol of acceptance he has learned to extend. His embrace is as innocent as weather.

Taken together, the scenes are not what you might expect upon hearing that some woman in South Phoenix is having visions of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary has made other appearances hereabouts, usually to members of the Hispanic community, and to much of the larger population these sightings have been, well, hilarious. "There is within the Mexican community this phenomenon: She appears in a yucca tree, a tortilla, a billboard in Yuma recently," marvels Alfredo Gutierrez, formerly Arizona's most influential Hispanic state senator and a longtime friend of Armando Ruiz's. "It goes on parallel to a lot of other Mexican people who wonder what it is about, and I am one of them. I don't understand it. I have no connection to it."

And not only Valley Mexicans see the Virgin. In Scottsdale, Reverend Jack Spaulding of the upscale Saint Maria Goretti Catholic Church has been claiming for years to see Her and, like Estela Ruiz, to receive messages from Her that encourage the world to come closer to God.

Still, one doesn't imagine that sightings of the Virgin will combine in an immediately meaningful way with the gritty rehabilitation of society's forgotten street kids. Apparitions of the Mother of God--which have been recorded at least since the 1500s and have occurred most notably to historical figures who have become saints--seem like old news, irrelevant to the cruel ills of the 1990s, which demand more hands-on solutions than a flickering woman in a blue robe is likely to provide. But that is how it is happening in troubled South Phoenix, where a rather matter-of-fact family with very modern problems--a family prominent in Arizona politics, whose members have been plagued with divorce and drug addiction and egocentric ambition and marriages no longer characterized by joy--is surrendering to otherworldly forces in the name of contributing to its community in a new way.

The most public surrender has been by Armando, who is leaving not only the legislature but is turning away from a District 6 congressional race that some knowledgeable onlookers thought he could win.

"I never thought I would be able to just walk away from politics," he says. "This is what I always wanted to be. And I am probably at the peak of my political career. I could continue getting reelected for years to come. But I want to give it up. I cannot explain it in any other terms except that I feel it is just a calling."
The calling has to do with the street kids gathered around the kitchen table and Armando's "day job" as the program director for a South Phoenix YMCA, where his contact with flounderers like Juan and Ricky is constant and direct. He thinks that the difference he makes by gathering them into the Ruiz household, by providing them with friendship and a spiritual center for their lives, is a greater one than he has effected as a legislator fighting for reforms on these kids' behalf. "You can work at the legislature, with young people and to provide jobs, but I honestly believe that the only thing that is going to move people drastically is a sense that God is alive. Very few people are standing up in front of young people today and saying that love does exist in the world," he says. This sort of testifying is one thing he plans to do more of, and he believes it will take a focused attention that isn't split between two careers. If bearing testimony is what more and more of the Ruizes are devoting their time to, however--and it is--they aren't doing it entirely for others. Nearly all of them speak of personal, miraculous changes, about the ways the Blessed Mother has healed their marriages, quieted their hearts, taken the craving for cocaine from their blood. They tell stories that, to the doubting and faithless, are at least unbelievable, but that, to the community of devoted followers of the phenomenon of Marian apparitions who travel worldwide to meet women like Estela whom they consider to be visionaries, and who fill the Ruiz yard every Saturday, set this part of the Southwest apart in a sacred way.

"I think Phoenix is going to become an important place," says Tom Collins, a mediation attorney living in Austin, Texas, and an Episcopalian with a van who once a month ferries groups of seekers to the Ruiz prayer meetings. "A lot of people are calling me that I don't even know and have said, 'I want to go on one of your pilgrimages.'"
The people who are telephoning aren't the boys in the hood, either. The appeal of otherworldliness is broader than that. Says Collins, "We are talking high-level, very educated people who just know in their hearts that something is happening, who are finding themselves fairly miraculously pulled toward the call of Mary. They are skeptical and Protestant."

And they are drawn not only to their growing belief in spirits, but by the tales told by the Ruizes themselves. They are made wistful by seeing the changed family up close and hearing its members' accounts of an inner peace that was delivered by the shimmering little lady in the hall.

They believe that the Ruizes aren't so different, that it can also happen to them.

When she first heard from the Blessed Mother in 1988, Estela Ruiz was finishing up her master's degree. She had gone back to college at age 40, after her children were raised, and over a period of 12 years had risen within the hierarchy of the Murphy School District until she was the director of its special language programs. By all accounts, she was enormously goal-driven. "When it came to her job, it seemed like nothing else mattered," says her husband Reyes. "If it took 24 hours a day, she would give 24 hours."

And she gave it for a cause. Her tenure as a school administrator was a time when the thorny issue of bilingual education in Arizona had reached its peak, and Estela was a prime force in moving the argument to higher ground. Spanish-speaking kids had long been stymied by the state's advocacy of "immersion," a philosophy that plunked them into English-speaking classrooms and expected them to learn the language through their skins. Later the concept of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes caught on, in a hit-or-miss fashion, but even those Mexican kids lucky enough to have such classes available were still spending most of their day sitting in math, geography and reading classes that they couldn't comprehend. Until their English fluency kicked in, a process that took years, they were learning nothing.

Within the Murphy district, which was 75 percent Hispanic during her years there, Estela began to stump for Spanish-speaking classes that would allow students to continue their educations in other subjects while being tutored in English. And she didn't just attack the problem from the academic end, with her own manual on bilingual education that became the basis of new programs in the Murphy district and which other districts asked to see. She came at the thing politically, picketing for bilingual education and working behind the scenes for minority candidates trying to get elected to the school board. Like her own children, she was a natural at the political game.

"Estela had the ability to mobilize people around issues; she took a leadership role," says Bob Donofrio, superintendent of the Murphy School District, who worked closely with her. "She certainly was a power in this state in moving it to where we now have mandated bilingual and ESL programs."
In the process, she developed the characteristics of the soul that so frequently go hand in hand with power. "She was a real go-getter, but along with that came a certain calculating coldness," Armando Ruiz says of his mother. "She was a slick, very sophisticated administrator, a person who knew how to play the game."

None of which sat too well with Reyes, the keeper of the flame.
It does not begin to describe Reyes Ruiz to say that he is prayerful or religious. Reyes is a prayer: His every thought leads him back to God, and he carries a rosary with him always, holding it in his teeth when his hands are busy.

By the time Estela had worked her way up the career ladder, Reyes, who has only a sixth-grade education, had achieved his goal as well: He was working through the Catholic Diocese as a full-time minister to migrant farmworkers. It wasn't a high-paying job and it was a vocational choice that was also a little irritating to Estela. (I used to get angry with Reyes because he always had a rosary in his hand; I used to think it was embarrassing," she says. "I was even embarrassed to say the name 'God' because in educated circles you don't mention God.") But it is difficult for Reyes to imagine that his life could ever have traveled in another direction.

As a child growing up in a New Mexico farming community, he had watched his great-grandparents carry their religious icons into the fields. He remembers a particular great-grandfather who often paused while hoeing corn or chopping wood in order to drop to his knees to run through the rosary. "To see him kneel with that love, in adoration of God!" Reyes exclaims. "I would see him from a distance, and I liked what I saw! He was in his own world!"

Reyes made his choice to follow a spiritual path very early, and so Estela's career choices were disturbing to him. He remembers that, shortly before Estela was visited by the Blessed Mother for the first time, he burst into tears while telling son Fernando of his deepest wish: that Estela would reevaluate her goals and begin to accompany him to daily Mass. "I knew that she had taken the wrong road," he says.

And by the time he made his pilgrimage to Medjugorje, nothing had changed.
To many devout Catholics, the word "Medjugorje" itself is holy, seeing as how it denotes a Yugoslavian village where six young visionaries have been seeing the Mother of God and receiving messages from Her for a decade, an event of such duration that it's unprecedented in Catholic Church history. These visionaries, like Estela Ruiz, are part of the phenomenon known as Marian apparitions that has long been with us but that has greatly increased since the 1920s: Since then, accounts have numbered in the hundreds and have been reported in 32 countries. Some apparitions have captured the world's imagination and been legendary for generations, like the visions of Bernadette Soubirous, now Saint Bernadette, who saw Mary 18 times in 19th-century France, and whose visitations have been documented and approved by the Catholic Church. Because of Bernadette, a shrine in Lourdes, France, has been the destination of many pilgrims.

In modern times, it is Medjugorje that pilgrims favor: An estimated 20 million have traveled there to pray upon a magical mountainside. It isn't surprising that, in 1988, Reyes felt he was being called to Yugoslavia, and that Estela refused to make the journey with him. "He was so excited about it, and I thought, 'This man just gets carried away with anything,'" Estela remembers. "I have never quite believed in supernatural phenomena. I wasn't interested."

She got interested, though, after Reyes had already gone to Europe. This occurred because, as she passed a painting of the Blessed Mother on her way into the kitchen one morning, she heard a musical voice saying, "Good morning, daughter." Heard with her ears, as though it had been a neighbor speaking. And the next morning she heard it again. "I thought, 'I am losing my mind,'" she says.

But she thought other things as well. As the days passed and Reyes returned with his stories of Medjugorje, Estela found herself drawn to his proselytizing in a new way. "I began to feel something change in me," she says.

Other family members were feeling a new religious fervor, too, to the point that they began mentioning it to Estela and each other. "Something unexplainable was moving everybody individually and collectively; there was a real desire to make some changes in our lives," says Armando of the weeks before the visions began. "If it had happened any other way, I think we would all have said, 'Mom has lost it and Dad has lost it. Let's call in a psychiatrist.' But because each one of us began to change, when it happened it was not with shock and was not with alarm. It was very natural."

Which is not to say that Estela's conversion was without its element of extreme drama. On December 3, 1988, a Saturday night when various members of the Ruiz family had gathered to say the rosary, Estela Ruiz saw the Mother of God for the first time.

It is a story that the Ruizes have told and retold until, asked separately, each family member will recount it with nearly the same words. They describe how, in the middle of family prayer, Estela fell suddenly to her knees in front of a portrait of the Virgin and began to cry, "Oh, my God! She is here! She is here! She is so beautiful!"

Estela says that, during the prayer, "I looked up and saw this light just filling the room. I was paralyzed. I couldn't say anything. Then I began to see a mistlike cloud around the picture. I could feel my heart pounding. I looked up and all of a sudden I saw her alive. She was in front of the picture. It was as if she had come out of the picture and changed.

"There were no doubts. I knew exactly what was going on."
Every Saturday since that first one, Estela says she has been visited by the Blessed Mother. She appears to Estela in three dimensions, smaller than life-size, between three and four feet tall. She is solid; Estela cannot see through Her. The Blessed Mother has a long face and when She smiles, which is often, Her eyes turn up at the corners until She looks distinctly Oriental. All Her movements are slow and understated. She wears a white gown and a blue robe except that, on some Christmas and Easter holidays, She has arrived decked out entirely in brilliant gold. She has always come alone except for one occasion when She brought the Christ child with Her, a baby cradled in Her arms.

Neither Estela nor Reyes is dismayed that her accounts of these visions have not received the approval of the Catholic Church. After a commission of inquiry appointed by Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien concluded that Estela's experiences were not miraculous, but that the prayer meetings held every Saturday in honor of the visions could continue, the Ruizes were actually relieved. They say it is the right thing that Estela's visions gain recognition slowly. "Too many things happen that later cause people to lose faith in God," says Estela. "Every time somebody says this is happening doesn't mean that it is. The Church must be careful." Whether the Church believes or not, the Ruizes' lives have been greatly changed by the visions, and Estela's life changed first. Very soon, she says, the Blessed Mother asked her to give up her work as a school administrator and devote her time to God. It was a shocking idea, since Estela was earning $40,000, a salary that was more than twice as large as Reyes'. The couple's income was about $70,000 when the income from some rentals was counted in--and Estela at this prosperous point in their lives was already looking for a bigger and better home than their tiny stucco affair that has grown with uneven add-ons. Moving up was Estela's lifelong dream.

But soon she discovered that it wasn't so difficult to switch tacks. "In my work I began to change," she says. "I no longer felt the joy that I had felt before. I did things mechanically and couldn't wait to come home."

To her boss Bob Donofrio, the change appeared less like a religious conversion than like job devotion that had been taken too far. "She had worked so hard and was so committed; toward the end it became obvious to me that the vigor with which she stood ground and stuck to her convictions was starting to break down," he says. "You could tell that she was suffering from the traditional symptoms of job burnout."

Nonetheless, he was surprised when Estela announced her intention to quit when her contract ran out in the summer of 89. "She had worked tirelessly to get to a point where she had the credentials. She could have named her own ticket in terms of her career movement," he says.

Within a year of the time Estela quit work, Reyes' job for the diocese was cut to part-time. The Ruiz income had gone from $70,000 a year to about $13,000, but the plunging salary had brought no lessening of responsibilities. They say they have made no effort to advertise, and yet the word of their peculiar ministry has spread. Not only does their yard fill every Saturday night with seekers from across the country, but their days (and their living room) are filled with the tools of modern-day prophets: a photocopier, a fax machine, a computer, a veritable system of telephones. After the Mother of God has delivered Her weekly messages--messages that encourage the world to return to a belief in God as the foundation of life--Estela enters the messages into the computer in English and Spanish and then faxes them to those who wait throughout the country: She says the fax list now includes someone from nearly every state.

She and Reyes travel nationwide to take their story to the church groups that pay their expenses in exchange. (The Ruizes say they receive no additional pay for these appearances.) Some of these meetings have drawn up to 1,200 worshipers.

When they are at home--in the stucco house they have not been able to afford to leave, after all--the hours are filled with an endless stream of telephone calls from people seeking spiritual help, visits from wandering priests looking for a place to sleep and vagrants who've heard this is the house for a handout. (They are right: Reyes says he is always able to come up with at least an egg sandwich and a soda pop for the asking. The Ruizes do not ever turn away someone who is hungry. "You can get hung up worrying about money until someone approaches you without a meal to eat. And then you realize that you have enough money to give him a meal," he says.) The back door flaps open and shut constantly to admit the pilgrims who have visited the shrine but want to come indoors, to see and cross themselves before the photograph that the Blessed Mother appears to step out of.

"It is very hard! It is very, very hard!" Reyes says. He always speaks this way, with emphasis and adverbs, his hands flailing a rosary around in the air and his eyes and teeth flashing in his dark face. He is larger than life, both Latin and zealot.

"When you are constantly, constantly doing something, it gets to a point where you just are very, very tired!" he says. "And it still keeps coming to you! And you know you are going to continue to do it!

"The people who come from out of town all seem to think they are the only ones! They think, 'If I can only talk to the Ruizes!' They don't realize that everyone is doing the same thing!"
He points out that, every Saturday, the entire family must pitch in to clean the yard in preparation for the evening service. "It is a lot of work! It is like putting on a wedding a week! At the end of the day, we are exhausted!"

But the rewards have been great. For one thing, there are the personality changes. "She was not open and giving of herself," says Armando of his mother in the years before the visions. "She was the mother who didn't crack." He says that now he is amazed at her desire to cuddle her grandchildren, but she doesn't limit her newfound warmth to family. Anyone who has entered Estela's house has been in her arms.

Perhaps as important to Estela, she has been able to "let go" in a way that is unimagined to many driven by ambitions they nonetheless don't find satisfying. "You know what? We have survived," she says of this much leaner lifestyle. "I don't even desire things anymore. When I was working, I wanted to show myself that I was very successful. I used to buy jewelry, I bought clothes every week. Now I am fulfilled. I have peace in my life that I could never have imagined."

The changes for Reyes are not as marked. One gets the feeling, watching him blow leaves from in front of the Jesus statue on a Saturday afternoon, watching him energetically polish the wooden shrine and rig the speaking system, that he has only found his element. He seems to revel in, rather than resent, the sacrifices this new life demands. "These socks were given to me, these pants were given to me, these shorts were given to me, these shoes were given to me!" he says proudly of his unremarkable clothes. "I prayed four months for the shoes! Somehow it has always worked out!"

Where Estela needs to be drawn out a little, Reyes is always ready to testify, to pray in a deep voice, to talk at length about the family "conversions" that now link him to his wife and children as though they have themselves all become the beads on a rosary. He refers constantly to this one and that one: "Have you heard Little Rey's story? A beautiful story! A beautiful, beautiful story! Have Fernando and Leticia told you their story? A beautiful story!"

You get the feeling that there can never be enough stories for him, that each transformation within the family is proof to him that life is at last working out.

There is nothing little about Little Rey, which is the point. He's about the size of a camper. This, and the fact that he considers himself not as smart as the other Ruiz boys--he is the only one who hasn't attended college, and he works as a school custodian--has since his earliest memories played havoc with his self-image. He says that he began smoking dope when he was 12 in order to dull the pain, and began roaming the streets at 15 with a gang in order to find acceptance. In time he outgrew the need to work others over with his fists and fire shots into crowds as a way of making friends, but he never outgrew the dope. "I used to tell my friends I would be 72 years old and still doing dope," he says.

It didn't stop with doing dope, of course. Little Rey's interests progressed into selling dope, snorting coke and finally smoking crack. He remembers once smoking an entire eight-ball--a mixture of cocaine and heroin--during a long night. When he finished, he was shaking and sweating and his lips were blistered. Furious with himself, he stormed over to the fireplace and flung his smoking paraphernalia into it. "I am never going to do this again!" he fumed. "From now on, I'm just going to snort it!"

He laughs about this story today, but his family probably never thought it was funny. His father, Reyes, threatened to disown his youngest son if Rey didn't give up drugs, and everyone else just worried. Primarily to please them, Little Rey enrolled in a drug-rehab program about the time that he and his addicted friends "were selling enough to put us in jail for 20 years." After that he was clean, for a while. Although he scaled back permanently on cocaine, Rey's dope use was soon the same as before. He wasn't seriously looking for a cure.

But he nonetheless found one. Shortly after her visions began, Estela told Rey that the Blessed Mother had specifically asked him to devote his life to Her. Rey believed his mother, but he imagined that a life of religious service would demand that he be clean and sober, a prospect that didn't interest him. "I told my mom, 'If Our Lady can't take me for what I am, then I wish to have nothing to do with Her.' I knew that I didn't want to quit," he says.

"That's the way She wants you," Estela said. And after that, the huge cracks in Rey's psyche were somehow filled in. "When the Blessed Mother accepted me the way I was, with no strings attached, I knew now that if She was going to stick with me that I would stick with Her," he says. Almost formally, he knelt and gave himself to God. And he says he never did drugs again.

Unlike Armando's story, Rey's isn't so much about change as it is about healing. Another family healing that has taken place is the marriage of Fernando and Leticia, college sweethearts who, by the time Estela's visitations began, had felt the energy drain out of their life together. "The relationship just wasn't growing," Leticia says, and they both admit to having felt that, despite their four children, they would someday drift apart and divorce.

The way Fernando sees it, the rift between them was the result of his disappointment in himself. As a young man he'd been interested in the priesthood, in selfless things. Now, like his twin, Armando, he was caught up in success and politics. Never the candidate, he has always been the family's most aggressive political organizer. In addition to managing all of Armando's races and wife Leticia's successful campaign for the school board, he has worked for many other Democrats and was principal organizer in South Phoenix for ex-mayor Terry Goddard's campaigns. An executive with an insurance company, he and Leticia, an assistant high school principal, were making more money than they'd ever foreseen--so much money that they are now able to fill in some financial gaps for Estela and Reyes. But these circumstances did not, for Fernando in particular, equate with fulfillment. "It is shocking to see that you can become something that you abhor," he says of his mindset in the weeks right before Estela first saw Mary.

Afterward, he didn't immediately accept the weird phenomenon as some other family members were able to do. But in time something got through to him: the part of Mary's messages, as relayed through Estela, that had to do with how much the Beautiful Lady cared for him. "I knew that there was somebody who loved me; I knew that there was hope," he says.

He says that gradually he has been able to forgive himself for not turning out perfectly, since he feels that on a higher plane he is forgiven. And that transformation has also remade his marriage. On their 13th anniversary, he and Leticia renewed their vows in church, and they say their relationship is now growing "by leaps and bounds."

Their little house is just to the west of Estela's, and Armando's is to the east. Fernando and Armando have always lived within a mile of each other, have always seen the parallels in their lives.

When Armando Ruiz announced he was leaving politics, no one was more surprised than Pete Rios, the president of the Arizona State Senate. Only a week or two before this change of heart, Armando had told Rios of his decision to run for Congress in the new District 6, and the about-face didn't fill Rios with delight.

At the time it happened, the District 6 dimensions were still up in the air, as both Republicans and Democrats argued in court that the lines be drawn according to their own parties' best interests. Armando, as an experienced minority candidate for Congress, was a factor in the Democratic arguments for a district with a high percentage of minorities. "I said, 'If you pull out, it takes the wind out of our sails,'" Rios remembers.

And that, in fact, is what he believes happened. Instead of the 50 percent the Democrats asked for, the new district is 36 percent minority. "We lost a lot," says Rios.

And in the beginning, Armando may have himself felt that his decision was a loss, a personal one. He says that, when he first began to believe in the Blessed Mother and then to experience the conviction that God had fingered him for a higher calling, he thought the calling was Congress. "I thought that God wanted me to do the great and wonderful things that would be good for me," he says. Later he realized that "maybe God was asking me to walk away from that and do whatever work was going to help Him."

Armando would have you believe that it was typically self-centered thinking on his part--that his lifelong pattern has been to serve his own interests first, interests that, following graduation from Loyola Marymount University in California, became dominated by a voracious appetite for politics. He says that two previous marriages shriveled from his neglect in the years when he was career-obsessed and cavalier to his wives. It's a difficult thing to believe these days, watching him tenderly interact with his new wife and baby, listening to him alternately chide and encourage the street urchins who follow him around like ducklings. And even onlookers who don't buy into the Virgin phenomenon admit that for some reason Armando is a new man. "He was an intensely ambitious fellow, and his ambitions made him very closed, someone who played the cards very close to his chest," says ex-state senator Alfredo Gutierrez. "Now he has a very different view of the world; he is open and appears to be happy."

Which isn't to say that Armando's life is perfect. His new faith has led him in directions he hasn't wanted to go. Particularly, it has transformed his life with his wife, Peggy, into something he could not have imagined and certainly didn't wish for. And sometimes doesn't still.

Peggy, a 34-year-old Anglo from Scottsdale, is a woman whose former boyfriend, the son of a famous man, is now a screenwriter living in Malibu. Around the house she wears khaki shorts and work shirts, the upscale uniform of the thirtysomething generation, quite as though she weren't living in South Phoenix in a house in which she and her husband can't afford to run the air conditioning. "I used to dream of being a lawyer, marrying a lawyer and being a yuppie," she says.

Her dreams began to change less than three years ago, when she met Armando and learned of Estela's visions. She believed in them both absolutely. She converted to the Catholic faith--she carries a rosary around with her with Reyeslike regularity--and then she married Armando. Immediately afterward, she mourned: Both she and Armando were divorced and were now forbidden to partake of the Catholic sacraments.

They say that it changed them, this sudden separation from the wafer and wine they believed to be the literal body and blood of Christ. It became unthinkable that they could go on feeling so empty. They approached their priest to see about circumventing the rule and were told this: If they wanted to take a vow to live as brother and sister, without sex, until their annulments were granted, they could take Communion in the meantime. Last year, while Peggy was pregnant with Natalia, this is what they decided to do. At this writing, Peggy estimates that they won't know whether their annulments will be granted for another two years. "Sometimes it drains us," she says of their decision, but she adds that there was "no question" what they would choose.

It is Saturday night again, after the rosary service, and Peggy and Armando are sitting side by side on Estela's sofa, their baby stretched out on a blanket on the floor in front of them. They smile a little ruefully at each other and admit that friends from their previous lives would probably not believe this particular sacrifice is one they could make. "Sex was always the first ingredient and priority in my other relationships," says Armando. "So my relationships were shallow.

"Once you remove that sexual aspect, you start saying, 'Who is this person I am committing to?' You are concentrating on who this person really is.

"I was looking at Peggy tonight at the rosary. The thing I have learned about her is the kindness of who she is. She always brings in abandoned animals, and she befriends older people who are ignored in our society. I love that about my wife. I might have learned it about her, but it might have taken me twice the time.

"Maybe there should be a different example of relationships in the world. Maybe others should know that the sexual aspect doesn't have to be the primary relationship."
These new realizations about the value of women do not seem to Armando to be unconnected to the fact that his reformer--the Mother of God--is also a woman. "My idea has always been that I would make the decisions and no woman would influence me. I was a typical Latin-American chauvinist," he says. "Now here is a woman--the Blessed Mother--who for the first time in my life is calling me to a sense of values and purity. I am very unaccustomed to that." He feels it was inevitable that he would begin to take women more seriously, and that his difficult arrangement with Peggy is just a part of that lesson.

This marriage so far, in fact, has been about perceptions that radically change. In Peggy's case, the education has been about the reality of the wrong side of the tracks, where she moved to be with Armando.

There was never a serious possibility that Armando would move to Peggy's part of town, and it had to do with more than his need to live in his legislative district. The eldest Ruiz son, Isidore, lives in California, but the other five children have rarely left the old neighborhood. In the past, it has been a matter of tradition but with the coming of the Blessed Mother it has become something deeper.

And if the family was to stay in South Phoenix, it probably had to. Within the past four years, there have been three gang murders a block away, and there was a period recently when close-range, rapid-fire gunshots were rattling the windows every night. Law enforcement helicopters fly over the property three or four times a night, and Estela Ruiz always leaves the backyard shrine lighted as a beacon for neighborhood street toughs who are running for their lives. She has seen them run to the shrine, too. If there was ever a time to pull up stakes, this is it.

But the Ruizes believe that leaving is not a part of Mary's plan for them. Says Leticia Ruiz: "She has said, 'I came to this place in particular because you cannot run away from the world. You have to help the world to change. This is where I need you.'"

So Peggy left her more comfortable milieu. "I didn't know this side of life existed," she says. "My idea of giving to charity was giving money through my paycheck to the United Way. I always gave my clothes to Goodwill, but I never knew the people who would be wearing them. Now I am the thrift-shop queen!"

She has become accustomed to houses without central heating and the tradition of moviegoing on Sunday afternoons in the summer, seeing as how theatres are air-conditioned. It's all right with her that, instead of going to the lake, she may spend Saturdays for the rest of her life helping to feed homeless people who show up for a handout. She deals somehow with the fact that Armando devotes so much of his time to the needs of street kids that she sometimes feels neglected. (She says, "The biggest change is that I have had to learn not to be so selfish.") She is no longer set atwitter by the frequent sounds of gunshots, "unless they are very close by, and then my concern is whether anybody needs help."

She does not give the impression as she speaks that these changes represent much sacrifice. In fact, she relishes the new life that is bleaching out the stains on her soul and teaching her not to sweat the small stuff. "Evil sneaks into our lives in so many ways," she says, explaining that in her former life she did such things as have cocktails. "The more I think about it, the more I realize I was a terrible, terrible person." Now she is someone with a different perspective that has set her free. "My car was stolen about a month ago, from right in front of my house," she says, "and I said to Armando, 'I am mysteriously unaffected by this.'"

Which isn't to say that she feels things less, unless you're talking about unimportant things.

The thing that does affect her is the prayer meetings.

Every Saturday, everyone who lives at the compound attends and does his part. Leticia will perhaps man the table at the rear of the yard, where prints of a painting of the Blessed Mother, painted by Reyes in a folk-art style, are sold for $10 apiece. Armando will perhaps lead the rosary while Peggy stands by the front gate and helps out of a long Cadillac a local pediatrician who frequently attends with his two profoundly retarded sons--grown men now--one of whom must be lifted into a wheelchair.

If you are not a believer, if you don't expect to see the Mother of God's eyes change and become real in the painting that hangs just behind the shrine of Jesus, as many claim to have seen it, it is difficult at first to understand what about these meetings so stirs the blood of the Ruizes and other visitors.

It is not the impassioned, mystical atmosphere that one usually equates with tales of miracles. No one in the audience shouts Hallelujah or collapses in an ecstatic fit. (Reyes says someone did the latter once, but the worshiper quickly regained all faculties upon hearing Reyes say that he was going to call 911 for help.) No one bursts into tongues.

Even during the moments of the rosary when Estela is seeing and talking to Mary, you wouldn't know unless you knew. Sequestered indoors with a few worshipers while the larger prayer group carries on outside, able to hear the crowd's Hail Marys through a speaker system that pipes every syllable into the house, Estela stops praying for a few minutes and her gaze fixates a little. That is all; in a few minutes the vision is over.

Far from being frenzied demonstrations of belief, the Ruiz prayer meetings are occasions when common sense and the supernatural somehow combine, as when a man swooshed up to Estela after prayers were over and declared he felt the evening had cured him of cancer. "How can I know that I'm cured? Do you think the Lord will send me a sign?" he inquired of his prophetess.

"Aren't you about due for a checkup?" Estela asked him. "I think the doctor will be able to tell you whether you still have cancer or not."
And if the Ruizes aren't in it for show, what moves them again and again to clean up the yard and pray into the night with strangers?

"There are people who need love, and we can give it," says Peggy Ruiz.
"Sometimes I started thinking, 'It's crazy to live here, there are gunshots!'" Armando adds. "But I also start thinking, 'Where would I go?' The Blessed Mother is appearing here. It is holy ground. If I get killed here, I prefer that."

THE WORD IS OUT... v7-15-92

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Deborah Laake