Longform

SEEING THE LIGHT

Page 7 of 11

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.

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Deborah Laake