By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Can you see her?" he whispered. We were standing about six feet away from the tree, which was surrounded by a chicken-wire fence. Pink plastic flowers and burnt-out candles circled the trunk.
He introduced himself as Martin Espinoza of Oak Cliff. He wore gray sweats, leather sandals and a hat bearing the emblem of Chivas, the popular Mexican soccer team. This was his first visit to the tree, he said. He heard about it on the news and came to see for himself.
Behind us were his two children, as well as a teenage girl with untied shoelaces and a grandmother making her sixth visit to the tree.
Small crowds like this had been coming here for weeks, ever since Eva Alejandro-Peña saw an image of the Virgin Mary in one of her trees. Now every tree in her small Oak Cliff yard had a shrine of poinsettias and candles left by people who'd seen Mary in the bark or in a knot or in the space between two branches.
Espinoza pointed to a dark spot near the base of the tree we were facing. It looked like a section of bark had been chipped away, leaving the outline of a bell-like shape, about three feet high and a foot across. Then he pointed to a knot near the lower branches.
"That's her head, no?"
"Sí," the woman behind us said. "La Virgen."
She took out her cellphone to show us a picture she'd taken of it. "Do you see that white spot?" she asked, pointing to the smudged screen. "Some people see Jesus' face."
The teenager, Araceli, led me to another tree in the yard. She pointed to a knot near the bottom. "I spotted this one," she said. "Can you see it?"
I looked hard. In the middle of the knot was a straight line. At a certain angle, it looked like a stick figure surrounded by an aura of light.
"It's the Virgin of Guadalupe," she said proudly.
When Alejandro came across the first image in late November, her husband, Gilbert Peña, called WFAA-Channel 8. After their report aired and a picture of the tree appeared on the front page of Al Día, Dallas' Spanish-language daily, other media outlets started calling. Four channels did stories on the tree, including Univision and Telemundo. After the story hit Central America, hordes of believers started making the pilgrimage to Alejandro's yard in the 2900 block of South Edgefield Road. A woman brought a crippled boy in a wheelchair, pushing him close enough to touch the image. Others knelt before it, hoping it would cure them of cancer or diabetes.
"People come straight from the hospital with bandages still on them," Alejandro said. "They come from all over. We've had people from Waco and San Antonio. We even had a couple from Korea."
One night, there were close to 500 people in the yard, Alejandro said, including a mariachi band. On another occasion, a city bus driver stopped in the middle of the street, ran to touch the tree, then rushed back to his bus and drove off. So many believers have come, she said, her front lawn has been reduced to a plot of dirt.
Nothing, not even cold, biting December winds, has stopped the stream of seekers.
I visited her on an overcast Tuesday in December, hoping to find out more about how the image came to be and what it meant. She invited me inside to watch a news program on the tree. She said she didn't mind the constant flow of people in her yard. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the attention. While we were talking, an NBC television reporter poked his head in the door to say he was waiting outside for an interview. She smiled and asked if she could change first and put on fresh makeup.
Even though Alejandro is not Catholic, she said the appearance of Mary in her tree has deeply affected her, and that it has renewed the faith of her husband, who is Catholic. She speaks often of miracles, especially the time God saved her from death during childbirth. And while she seems prone to hyperbole (she said she has had more than 30 operations on her ears), she comes across as honest and sincere.
"People tell me, 'You're truly blessed. Y'all are the chosen ones,'" she said. She smiled at the thought. "People come out here with cancer and diabetes and can't walk, and they're praying for a miracle. My heart goes out to them."
Alejandro said her youngest daughters, ages 4 and 5, uncovered the image after picking bark off the tree for weeks, sometimes until their fingers bled. When she asked what they were doing, they told her they heard crying from the tree.
"They told me, 'She's sad,' and I said, 'Well of course she's sad, you guys are picking away at her.' I thought they meant the tree, but they meant Mary."