A Miami Miracle

Jesus Cantu, an autistic seven-year-old boy, wraps his arms loosely around a marble statue of the Virgin carrying baby Jesus. Then, after circling it in a dizzying dance of affection, he stops and kisses Mary's stone-cold face.

Nearby, 80-year-old Maria Vasallo sits quietly waiting for three o'clock and a miracle to ease her pain. She needs a liver transplant.

Sitting on a concrete wall in the park is 42-year-old Roxana Arango. She says the Virgin came to her in a dream and asked her to visit the Little Havana monument. Since morning she's been kneeling and praying aloud. Now she's showing off her bruised knees to incredulous media-types while chain-smoking. After about 30 people finish praying a rosary, Arango makes the sign of the cross. Then she asks the Lord for forgiveness for not participating.

The light-gray statue is located on SW Thirteenth Avenue and Eighth Street, a few yards from the Bay of Pigs memorial. A ceiba tree, venerated by santeros and Catholic Cubans for its strength, stands behind it. The tree's foliage shades mother and son from direct sunlight. Thick, aboveground roots appear ready to embrace the Virgin. Baby Jesus' hand is broken off; some locals say vandals did the damage, others claim a baseball was responsible.

A plaque on the ground near the Virgin's feet reads in both Spanish and English: "To the City of Miami, Orden Caballeros de la Luz, 1957. To be a mother is God's greatest blessing."

Hundreds of miracle-seekers like Cantu, Vasallo, and Arango have visited here recently. Stories about the the statue have circulated both nationally and locally. Television news stations, the Associated Press, even Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, have reported on the phenomenon. (The Miami Herald, however, has not uttered a word.)

The likely genesis of these pilgrimages and the media mess that has ensued is an April 23 El Nuevo Herald article, in which reporter Charles Cotayo described a seeming miracle: Jesus Cantu's mother Elizabeth had seen a pink light shining on the Virgin's neck. Quotes from Elizabeth Cantu implied divine intervention. Two women described the light as a flower blooming from baby Jesus' stump.

Iris Iglesia, who has lived across from the Virgin and child for sixteen years, says people started to gather there only after the publication of Cotayo's piece. Elizabeth Cantu agrees: "Since my son Jesus was in the paper, people have started to leave flowers around the statue. Never before have people paid attention to her."

But is it a miracle or a mirage?
Cotayo says he heard about the spectacle from unnamed sources and first approached Cantu this past month while she waited for her son's school bus. Cantu, who resides near the Little Havana landmark, says Cotayo asked her about a light coming from it. "What light?" she responded. She says she only knew that her son Jesus had become enamored with the monument since November. Cotayo asked her to accompany him to the site.

As three o'clock drew near, reporter and homemaker claim to have seen a glare as Jesus Cantu played at the Virgin's feet. The sight of the child hugging Mary captured Cotayo's imagination. "I was more fascinated by the relationship between the boy and the statue than by the ray of light."

Elizabeth Cantu, who says she's a devout Catholic but rarely attends Mass, told New Times she only saw the pink ray of sunlight once, when Cotayo was present. She also says Jesus' affinity for the Blessed Mother might have something to do with his upbringing and the countless images of Mary displayed in the Cantu home.

Indeed Cantu admitted to the A.P. that the light may have been a miracle or a coincidence. The El Nuevo writeup gives a slightly different impression. Cotayo quotes Cantu as saying she "believes the light ... could be a heavenly sign" and that Jesus' autism makes him susceptible to spiritual revelations.

New Times left Cantu several telephone messages during the past few weeks seeking comment on the different versions. She did not return calls.

David Kling, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, says that though apparitions are rarely recognized by the Catholic Church, they've become part of popular religious lore. "There's more emphasis on the visual in Catholicism than in the Protestant religions," he explains. "The fact that Protestants don't view Mary as an intermediary, but just as Jesus' mother, precludes them from ever having visions of Mary."

Mary Ross Agosta, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Miami, says the Catholic Church encourages followers to seek God within their parish and in their hearts through careful meditation, not through a quick fix of visual stimulation. "When the sun shines on us, lots of things will glow," she comments.

In 1993 Ana Padro, a Nicaraguan-born, self-proclaimed visionary from South Dade claimed she met with Mary and Jesus monthly. After her house became too small to accommodate redemption seekers, she claimed Jesus told her to rent a bigger abode. She obeyed and moved to a place on two-and-a-half acres with orchards and nurseries.

In 1994 a Hollywood woman, Rosa Lopez, claimed that she turned into the Virgin on the thirteenth day of each month. At one point, in November of that year, 4000 people flocked to her doorstep to observe the transformation. In 1995 city commissioners briefly considered prohibiting the viewings because of the public nuisance, then rejected the idea because they feared it would only add to the publicity.

Back in Little Havana a crowd of mostly older women gathers each day at about three o'clock under the shadow of the giant ceiba to petition and pray. Countless rosaries hang from the figure. Daisies and red carnations encircle Mary's feet.

Of ten devotees who agreed to comment on a recent day, nary a one had seen a shimmer. Still they waited, hoping the clouds would disperse. Several said they assume sunshine is this miracle's main ingredient.

Three o'clock came and went without an apparition, but more than a dozen people remained at the foot of the statue. Roxana Arango talked about a communist conspiracy to eject her from the park because she prays too loudly. "These people want to shut me up and it's not going to work. This is a democracy," she said.

Maria Vasallo, who came with her daughter from Hialeah Gardens, says that apart from a new liver, she also wants to ask the Virgin to get rid of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Jesus Cantu is still clinging to Mary, his shaggy black bangs covering his eyes.

None of those questioned had experienced celestial intervention, including neighbor Francisco Pardo: "The only miracle I see is that these people who never even made the sign of the cross when passing by the statue now stand before it and pray."

Forty-year-old Lili Duarte, a manicurist at Rossy's Beauty Salon across from the park, is even more skeptical. She says the only light coming from the stump is a reflection of the media spotlight. "That's why so many people come. There's no miraculous light. It's just a sun ray that happens to hit the statue as the sun begins its slow descent at three."

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