Longform

SEEING THE LIGHT

Page 4 of 11

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."

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Deborah Laake