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by Julia Bencomo Lobaco, AARP VIVA, February 2008
En español | The fragrance of roses was so strong that it slid through the backyard fence and into the neighborhood. But there weren’t any roses in Estela Ruiz’s yard or even in a vase in her modest Phoenix home. Even so, she says she and the hundreds gathered around her knew the sweet smell meant the Virgin Mary was nearby and ready to share more messages with Ruiz and the world.
December 3 marks the 20th anniversary of what Ruiz says was the Virgin’s first appearance to her, a grandmother and educator who was facing a family crisis when what she believes to be a miracle occurred.
Ruiz is among the 86 percent of U.S. Hispanics ages 45-plus who say they believe in miracles, and among the 56 percent who say they have witnessed one, according to an exclusive AARP study on miracles, angels, and divine healings. That compares to 80 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of their white non-Hispanic counterparts who say the same.
The numbers don’t surprise Ruiz. “The longer you live the more you get to see. I think God [performs miracles] so we can grow and get closer to Him. He shows us many beautiful things and what He’s about, so it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
But the Rev. Tony Sotelo, 76, a retired Catholic priest in Phoenix, wonders why the Hispanic numbers aren’t even higher. “Miracles don’t just take place on the outside, but on the inside too,” he says. “Sometimes it’s something just the priest sees; it’s something you can’t explain any other way.”
He speaks easily and still with wonder about the miracles he’s witnessed, from driving directly to a wheelchair-bound dying woman’s home—having only been given the name of the town where she lived—to seeing a young parishioner walk again after a prognosis of lifelong paralysis. “She ran up to me and people started crying,” he says of the girl, for whom parishioners had prayed every Sunday. “I had told them that if we were going to pray, we had to pray very seriously.”
The AARP poll also found that more than six out of 10 Hispanic respondents believe some people are more likely than others to be recipients of a miracle or divine healing. About four out of 10 white non-Hispanics feel the same way.
Sotelo says, however, that “no one is really worthy; it’s up to God.” He adds: “A person we think is unworthy, God might think is worthy. God sees the heart; man sees the exterior. That’s from the Book of Kings.”
What Martiliano Gonell saw was a clear, blue light that appeared above him and, for five years, lighted his way every time he walked into the darkness alone. It first appeared, he says, when he was 12 and living in a rural area of his native Dominican Republic. “I could see the cows and all the animals,” recalls Gonell, now 45 and living in Yonkers, New York. The only plausible explanation, he says, is that it was a miracle.
Mexico-born Aurora Porras says she’s witnessed miracles, too, including the overnight disappearance of a fast-growing tumor on her then-infant cousin. Because the baby was so young, doctors couldn’t operate, and predicted the red-colored growth would cover an eye and steal her sight. Porras, who’s 45 and now lives in Dalton, Georgia, credits God and the Virgin of Guadalupe for answering the family’s fervent prayers. “Her name is Lisette Guadalupe, because we’re so grateful to the Virgin,” she says, referring to her now-24-year-old cousin, who bears no sign of the tumor.
“Angels take care of us”
The AARP study found that many Latinos—including Porras—believe angels exist and play an important role in their lives. Among Hispanic respondents, 84 percent believe in angels and, of those, half believe deceased relatives are angels or guardian angels in their lives. Among white non-Hispanics, the numbers are 75 percent and 40 percent, respectively. “I have a little angel who is part mine,” Porras says of a baby she miscarried. “I feel angels take care of us.”
“I think angels have become part of the popular culture, regardless of religion,” says Rob Reynolds, associate professor of Sociology at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. But he points out that when it comes to believing in angels and miracles, age seems to play a role.
The AARP study found major differences between boomers (ages 55-64) and other age groups. While nearly nine in 10 boomer respondents believe in angels or guardian angels, only five in 10 of those ages 45-54 do so.
And when it comes to miracles, the younger and boomer groups both outpace the age 65+ cohort—88 percent, 90 percent, and 80 percent, respectively, believing in them. Reynolds doesn’t know if the numbers signal a trend or why the differences exist. “I wonder if (the two younger groups) have been more influenced by the trends of larger society, by the popular culture, than the older group.”
Roads Much Traveled
Reynolds, who has done extensive research on pilgrimages, expected more Hispanics to have visited a site where miracles or divine events had been reported. Even so, the difference between Latinos and white non-Hispanics was stark: 23 percent to 6 percent.
“I think the [Hispanic] number would be higher if you could break it down by immigrants and those born in the United States,” the sociologist says. “In Mexico, for example, it’s such a huge thing to go see the Virgin of Guadalupe, there are many local pilgrimages, and for parishes to go as a group is common.” He adds that it’s also an important part of the culture in a lot of other Latin American countries.
While seven in 10 Latinos believe such sites are holy, only about four in 10 white non-Hispanics think so; but 48 percent and 38 percent, respectively, say they would travel to a holy site if given the opportunity.
Reynolds says the lower numbers among white non-Hispanics could represent non-Catholic respondents who consider such trips history tours or cultural pilgrimages instead of religious ones. “There’s no one reason for going,” he says. “You might be interested in a physical, not spiritual, healing, want to improve a relationship, or to find an answer to a question in your life. Can we connect more to God by being in Israel? A lot of people would say yes, even though doctrine doesn’t support that.”
And a lot of people would say that a holy place could be anywhere, such as Estela Ruiz’s backyard. Or even her living room, where her miracle began.
“We were a good Catholic family, yet we were more in this world than in God’s realm,” she says of the time her first priority was earning master’s and doctorate degrees in education. “It was, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ for me.”
But her youngest son, then 27, used drugs, and had been addicted since he was 11. Throwing him out, welcoming him back, sending him to rehab; nothing worked, she says. After having a dream in which the Virgin Mary appeared, Ruiz says she began to pray, not only for her children, but also for herself.
Two months after the dream, while the family prayed near the Virgin’s picture in the living room, she saw the apparition. “They (the Virgin and God) came to knock me over with a wonderful two-by-four, which was our wonderful Blessed Mother,” Ruiz says. “I wanted to rub my eyes, but I couldn’t even move. I was like paralyzed, and she talked to me. She said, ‘Don’t you know that I’m going to take care of your children?’”
Two weeks later, she says, her drug-addicted son also felt the Virgin’s presence, fell to the floor crying, and hasn’t used drugs since. “From one day to the next, he became a worker for the cause God wanted,” his mother says.
Since then, thousands of people have visited the Ruiz home, but more importantly, Ruiz says, she and her family have not only traveled the world with messages of God’s goodness, but, with the help of missionaries and the Catholic Church, have built schools literally in their backyard and around the world, including in Spain, Africa, the United Kingdom, India, and Latin America.
“Our Blessed Mother once told me, ‘The greatest miracle is not that I appeared to you, but the hearts around you that are changed,” Ruiz says. “So those are the miracles, miracles that change lives.”
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