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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.

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Deborah Laake