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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.

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Deborah Laake