The Believers

Local UFOlogists bring a religious zeal to their tales of alien visitations. Delusions? For real? Whatever, they watch the skies and wait.

They are all adherents here in this small park in Kendall, getting ready for the spaceships that may arrive soon. There are seven people, mostly middle-age Hispanic women, standing in a semicircle under a tree, eyes closed and holding hands, listening to Estela Ardila, a short, dark-haired woman who claims she's received telepathic messages from the Ashtar Command and other intergalactic beings. These extraterrestrials have told her, her followers say, that spaceships will fly over Miami -- and perhaps land -- one week from now, on Saturday, April 8, in nearby Tropical Park. Today, determined and intense, she begins an invocation to make it all come true. "I am asking all my brothers in the Light to come," the woman says in Spanish. Then she begins reading from a leaflet she's produced: "As a child of the Earth, I demand that Christ come to Earth with your legions, Commandos of Light, your Brethren of the stars to open the doors for change. We ask for the descent, the physical contact with all our humanity.... Let's now welcome with open arms the knowledge and the Light."

It is, in some ways, a dry run for the big event the next week, but they know in their hearts that contact with UFOs and aliens can happen at any time. Ardila, for one, publishes approximately 200 copies of a bimonthly newsletter containing the messages she says she and others receive from extraterrestrials and holy figures, including Jesus. ("He works with the Ashtar Command," notes Coila Bega, a Peruvian-born waitress who is a loyal member of the 45-member group Ardila leads, Unidad Diamante de Las Americas, which translates loosely as the United Diamond of the Americas, a name that evokes a diamond crystal summoning celestial energies.) In their publications are messages promoting the need for greater harmony on earth in preparation for a new era of cooperation between humans and aliens. The question the Diamante members face now is whether their latest predictions will come true: Will spaceships come to Tropical Park?

Some of those here in Barnes Park today, and others in the Miami area, say they've already been visited by aliens; they claim to have seen UFOs or to have made direct contacts with the E.T.'s themselves. They are part of a growing subculture, among both Anglos and Hispanics, of buffs, spiritual seekers, and alleged contactees who have become enthralled by the labyrinthine world of UFOs, with its dark hints of government coverups, the brief but generally unproven glimpses of discs and spacemen, and the bizarre visitations that feel real to them but might just be dreams.

But among Hispanics those feelings often take on particularly fervent and religious overtones, akin to the sightings of the Virgin Mary by cultlike votaries. "They share in common a belief in the supernatural and the marvelous," notes Manuel Figueroa, a Miami-based author who studies paranormal events. For believers in both UFOs and appearances by the Virgin Mary, he points out, the sightings "are different aspects of the coming of the divinity." Many acolytes, in fact, link the two beliefs together. "For Christians who believe UFOs are here, it validates the idea that Christ is real, that heaven is up there, and that the UFOs are trying to save us," observes Robert Baker, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has studied UFO zealots. The UFOs are, some believe, portents of the approaching millennium that surely will transform their workaday lives. And so events such as the April 8 UFO watch in Tropical Park take on a special importance, part of an ongoing search for signs of a great change, the beginning, perhaps, of the end days, right here in Miami.

Since last fall, reported UFO sightings have increased, according to Virgilio Sanchez-Ocejo of the Miami UFO Center, a small hobbyist group the retired Cuban-born lawyer and salesman founded. But proof that will satisfy him is harder to come by. "We need physical evidence and data," he stresses.

Here in Barnes Park there is someone who claims to offer proof. A man displays clear-as-day photos of flying saucers that look just like those depicted in 1950s sci-fi movies, red and silver and circular, suspended over homes in Kendall, plus another disc photographed, he says, from an alien spaceship. With his blond hair, gold chains, and T-shirt emblazoned with stars and an alien ship, he looks more like a strip-club doorman than the metaphysical teacher he says he is. He won't disclose his name, nor will he provide the names of the witnesses he says also saw the ships, but he talks about his purported encounters with a surprisingly casual air: "They told me telepathically they were going to come to my house."

Snapshots proffered by devotees, however, haven't been enough to convince mainstream science to accept the reality of alien spaceships. And in recent years some of the most highly publicized cases of sightings and alien "abductions" that were supposed to give new credence to "UFOlogy" have been discredited by fraud and sloppy methodology. These include flying saucers photographed from the back porch of Ed Walters's house in Gulf Breeze, Florida (after Walters moved, new occupants found a model of a spaceship in the house's attic), and the gruesome alien contacts described in last year's book Abduction, by Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack. (Mack, it turns out, while researching alleged E.T. encounters, plied his subjects with abduction literature before hypnotizing them.) The prospects for UFOs ever being taken seriously by U.S. government authorities may be as remote as a faraway star.

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