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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.

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Deborah Laake