In Bayside, N.Y., Veronica Lueken said the Virgin appeared to her shortly after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. She led thousands of followers for more than 20 years. Even after her death in 1995, hundreds have continued gathering at a shrine known as Our Lady of the Roses, where Lueken often spoke.
Acuna, for her part, is reclusive, saying she cannot speak about her past without the permission of a "spiritual father," whom she refuses to name. Information about her past is scarce. She was born in Sonora, Mexico, and came to the United States 38 years ago "for the same reason everyone comes, to look for a better life for my children," she said.
Acuna says she lives in a trailer in California City, in Kern County, with four women, whom she calls "sisters," though they do not appear to be recognized by any church. They manage a nonprofit known as the Marian Movement of Southern California that reports tens of thousands of dollars in donations every year. The group passes its days praying the rosary, making embroidered textiles for donations and preaching to inmates at the nearby jail, Acuna said.
"I am poor, but I am happy," she said.
Like others, Acuna's messages can tilt toward the apocalyptic. In one of her sermons a few years ago, she said the world would end in four years, Bitel said. But the majority of her followers seem not to dwell on these points.
"One feels closer to God here," said Alberto Ramos, 51, of Los Angeles, who has been coming to the site with his four brothers for nearly a year.
"I've seen the body of Christ. I've seen angels. I've seen the Virgin," Ramos said, flipping through a stack of Polaroid pictures. In one, dark rings appeared around the sun. In another, the silhouette of a woman seemed to shade the sun.
Others say they feel closer to Mary or even the Catholic Church by coming here.
Later, Acuna put her hands on every person who approached her. Erika Lopez, 25, glanced down on her daughter's bald head briefly before handing her to Acuna, along with a quickly scribbled note: "Paulina Lopez, Bakersfield, 4 years old, kidney cancer." Acuna smiled at the girl and prayed briefly before returning her to her mother.
A few minutes later, Cynthia Muro's family asked Acuna to pray over the 21-year-old, who appeared to have difficulty walking and moving her arms. Acuna squeezed her hands, and asked her to lift her arms up and then out, all the while murmuring prayers.
"She needs physical therapy," Acuna told the woman's family. "There's a problem with her nerves." They smiled politely and walked away.
After Acuna made her way through the crowd, people returned to their cars, and one by one they drove off. A woman sold the flowers that adorned the altar for $5 apiece. A pair of men raffled off framed paintings of the Virgin that had been laid at a nearby cross.
The tents, umbrellas and folding chairs were packed away, and, slowly but steadily, the community that had appeared for a few hours in the desert disappeared.