The Believers

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

And yet the interest keeps growing, and credible sounding accounts continue to be recorded by diligent researchers and authors. They point to what they say is the more than 3000 alleged worldwide UFO sightings by military and civilian pilots, and to a small group of current and former U.S. intelligence and military officials who have stated publicly that there have been government encounters with -- and research on -- alien crafts. (The name of one of these projects, Area 51 -- which involves alleged research on aliens near Las Vegas -- even has been appropriated for use by a South Beach clothing store.)

Whatever the truth about UFOs, there is no doubt in the minds of the ardent believers in Miami. In the park today, the inner circle of Diamante is ready for anything. Massage therapist Manuel Martin, a balding man who looks like a young Alan Arkin, has had powerful visions of UFOs arriving at Tropical Park. He says with quiet expectation, "We hope to see something visible there." He adds with a knowing smile, "There will be surprises."

What follows are the stories of some local UFO believers. For the sake of readability, such journalistic qualifiers as "alleged" and "he claims" often have been omitted, but all comments by these people should be read with that caveat in mind.

The pouring rains begin in the early afternoon and continue intermittently throughout the day, but they do not deter the faithful who have come to Tropical Park on this Saturday in April to see the UFOs for themselves. Shortly after a group of about 40 loyalists have finished their morning meditation designed to raise the vibrations in the park, a youthful looking 45-year-old Puerto Rican woman takes shelter from the rain under a small picnic pavilion and looks out at the storm with satisfaction. "This is cleansing the earth for their arrival," she pronounces.

The woman, Gloria -- who won't disclose her full name -- knows what it is to see aliens and UFOs. She's viewed them a few times since she was a teenager, with the latest encounter occurring along Hammocks Boulevard in Kendall a couple of years ago while she was driving her then-eight-year-old son to school for a field trip. It was 4:30 a.m., and they both saw a spaceship hovering overhead in the darkness; it even followed the boy later on his bus trip, although for some reason no one else saw the spacecraft. Now looking at a hilltop in the park filling up with people, she says, "I hope the UFOs come, but I'm not sure they will."

By the time the welcoming rally for the UFOs officially starts at 3:00 p.m., that hope is palpable here on this hill overlooking a lake. The Spanish-speaking crowd has swelled to about 150 people, with hundreds more arriving over the next few hours, many dressed in white, symbolic of their purity and their faith in the divine powers above. Although rain pelts them, most endure it to listen to a man with short-cropped, graying hair who raises his arms to the heavens and tells his listeners about what awaits them. "The skies will be filled with ships in the coming years," he says in Spanish, the fervent cadences making him sound like an Old Testament prophet. "You will be able to ride in them.... Don't be afraid of cataclysms, earthquakes, giants who will come here, men with heads of gold and chests of silver; these are all premonitions that the Bible speaks of." Turning his head skyward, he says, "Thank God for this rain." Then he leads his audience in a chant of "Om," followed by a prayer asking for the presence of the Virgin Mary. "Mother of God," he intones, "fly with us."

By late afternoon, 500 or more people have assembled at the base of the hill, holding hands and listening to Estela Ardila, dressed entirely in white except for a floppy orange hat, as she "channels" messages about healing the earth. There's a slight undercurrent of frustration that no ships have arrived yet, although the sense of expectation continues to mount.

Later the spiritual frenzy that has been building all day explodes. A woman on the hilltop who has been talking about a type of alien visitation known as a "walk-in," in which the spirit of an extraterrestrial being supposedly inhabits a human body, suddenly says, "If you want to know about a real walk-in, there's one here now!" -- and points to a six-foot-ten man. The man, Tony Diaz, is suddenly surrounded by a crush of people, and when he works his way down the hill and lumbers across the lawn, about 70 people move with him, eager to talk to an alien at last. There is a crazed certainty in the crowd that he is indeed from another planet, and their belief is suffused with a deep and intense hunger, bordering on mania.

"I'm not from this earth," he announces. Towering over them, a paunchy guy with a mustache, plaid shirt, and dark slacks, he moves about so awkwardly that it is possible for a moment to believe that he is different from other humans. All of the attention seems to daze him.

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