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As Martinez prayed on that Sunday morning, Rosa Lopez took a seat in a corner of the room. A diminutive 65-year-old grandmother wearing a long, pale, blue-flowered dress with her gray hair cropped short, Lopez issued greetings and pecked the cheeks of new arrivals as though they were guests at a gigantic family reunion. Her pet dogs Chile, a Chihuahua; Piccolo, a tiny mutt; and Papito, a Pomeranian, wandered in and out of the room as the sliding door opened and shut. In halting English, Lopez spoke to the crowd, which by then included about 30 people.
"Attention please, please," Lopez shouted above the din of the crowded room. "The significance for the apparition, for the mother coming is for conversation. The mother is coming for to bring the love to the Jesus for the conversion to the people. The people no make attention to the sick. All the family is distant and separate. There is no love, no respect to the father, to the old people abandoned in hospitals. Nobody attends to them. Nobody loves them."
Before she began having visions of the Virgin Mary, before she became sick, Lopez had a glamorous life. As a child in Havana, she performed as a singer with her brother Robert. The pair appeared on television and radio, she says. As a young adult, Lopez continued to perform her own songs.
In 1957, she married Jacinto Lopez, who had been enamored of Rosa since she was 16 years old. They had a daughter named Caridad in 1958 and a son, Alejandro, in 1963. Jacinto was a sergeant in the military of dictator Fulgencio Batista until Fidel Castro took power in 1959. After the revolution, the couple found the conditions intolerable. The only role for a singer, Lopez recalls, was to praise the revolution in song. "Never!" she says.
The couple fled the island in 1967, settling in Passaic, New Jersey. Jacinto worked in manufacturing, and Rosa took whatever jobs she could find. For a while, she worked in a sewing factory. "Anything to help the family, we did," she says.
After moving to Hollywood in 1972, Lopez began singing again, this time for the Cuban exile community that crowded Miami's Little Havana. Performing under her maiden name, Rosita Rondon, she thrilled audiences with her long, thick, blond hair and sultry mischievous air. "Life has taught me to value all things and all moments," she sang in the song "Amor Desesperado" ("Hopeless Love").
"I was a beautiful woman," she says. "Beautiful."
Lopez gave her last performance on September 12, 1982, at 1 p.m. at El Bosque Restaurant on Calle Ocho and 27th Avenue in Miami. She was the headline performer on a packed bill.
In December of that year, Lopez developed severe pains. Her stomach swelled up so big, she looked pregnant, she says. She had five hernias, five surgeries, hepatitis, colitis, and an operation to remove her gall bladder. For ten years, she endured physical agony. At first, she tried to change careers. She went to beauty school and hoped to open her own salon. But the pain made it impossible to work. By 1992, she spent most of her time in bed or a wheelchair. "I lost everything," she says. "Everything."
Her life changed when a friend brought Lopez a bottle of holy water from the apparition site in Conyers. Lopez says when she opened it, the scent of roses filled the room. Although she had been raised Catholic, she says she attended Mass more out of duty than understanding. In October 1992, Lopez took a bus with a group of Catholics to visit Virginia Fowler in Conyers. Lopez says she received her first visions there when she saw an image of Mary in a tree. She started making monthly pilgrimages.
In May 1993, as Lopez sat in a wheelchair on her back patio, a cloudy apparition appeared in an orange tree next to her. Lopez says there were no words spoken, but a feeling of peace came over her as the shape hovered in the tree. It was Mary.
A few days later, as she lay in bed saying her rosary, Mary -- this time accompanied by Jesus -- made a second visit. The house calls became almost daily occurrences after that.
Mary gave Lopez specific instructions. Under her tutelage, Lopez converted her house into a Marian shrine. She rid herself of the Oriental-style furniture she coveted and of all her knick-knacks, replacing them with images of Mary and donated furniture. The only personal effects Lopez has today are stuffed into a small bedroom.
Jacinto wasn't too happy about the transformation of his house into a sanctuary.
"I've lost my privacy," he complained. "You've taken my house away from me."
Lopez says she often had problems convincing Jacinto that what she was doing was right. "You want to question to me?" she told her husband. "Question to the God!"
Jacinto thought his wife had lost her mind. He asked for a divorce. "You are crazy, and you are trying to make me crazy too," he told her. For a time, he convinced the couple's children that his wife had gone berserk. Then, after seeing an image of the Virgin in the window of the couple's bedroom, Jacinto had a slight change of heart. Even after that experience, though, he still grumbles about the upheaval in their lives. "I have a lot of problems with my husband," Lopez says now. "A lot of, a lot of problems."