Making the Saint

Once a drag queen, Willie Rios plans to enter the sacred world of Santería priesthood

Willie Rios has a flamboyant personality that makes him the life of almost any party. He's unpretentious, a mile-a-minute talker whose eyebrows are in constant motion. Though he stands only five-feet-eight-inches tall and weighs but 110 pounds, the 22-year-old Puerto Rican man has a commanding presence. His raspy voice is at once grating and musical like an out-of-tune piano. His large hazel eyes widen when he laughs, which is often. His toothy smile is warm, like the tone of his smooth caramel-color skin.

On a hot August afternoon, Rios arrives at a festival in Miami's Sewell Park with his partner of six years, Bernie Smith, a fortyish white guy. They stake out a shady spot for their lawn chairs, just like the 50 other people, outfitted in everything from elegant African attire to blue jeans and T-shirts, who have gathered in a lush grove near the bank of the Miami River. Seated on carved wooden stools, two hefty drummers with bulky biceps and large palms beat syncopated rhythms on ceremonial drums.

The festival is being held by a Yoruba group called the Indigenous Faith of Africa (IFA), and the crowd includes many followers of Santería. The two groups have close ties. Santería was developed in Cuba centuries ago by Yoruba slaves, whom the Spanish had ripped from their homeland in Northwest Africa. Today, in keeping with the Yoruba custom of having seasonal celebrations for the gods, the predominantly African-American crowd is preparing to honor Oshún, a river goddess who epitomizes beauty, sensuality, and abundance.

Winging it: Rios, with help from his sister Jasmine, transforms into Crystal le Papillón
Joshua Prezant
Winging it: Rios, with help from his sister Jasmine, transforms into Crystal le Papillón

The drums beat like an insistent child's cry, calling down the gods, who lend their divine spiritual energy, called ashé, to gatherings such as this. The ecstatic looks on the faces of about 30 dancers twirling on the grass show that a connection has been made.

Thirty yards from the drummers, a large concrete platform has been transformed into an elaborate altar draped with fabrics in Oshún's favorite colors, yellow and green. Curtains hang from makeshift pillars, and worshipers prostrate themselves on mats after making offerings: pumpkins, sunflowers, pineapples, lace fans, scented candles, brass bells, perfumes, champagne, and jars of honey. A hollowed gourd placed near various yellow and white soperas (ceramic tureens containing a god's mysteries) is brimming with five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills.

While Smith remains seated near the music, Rios strolls over to the altar with a half-dozen yellow roses in hand. Gingerly he props the flowers against a honey jar before bowing to his sacred mother. He kisses the ground, then rises slowly, almost hesitantly. "Her energy is soooo good," he says, stepping off the platform. "It's like something you can't even describe."

Rios rejoins the crowd near the drummers and dancers, where a priest conducts prayers to some of the major deities. (The Yoruban's religious system includes gods numbering in the hundreds.) Rios, like everyone else standing in the verdant grove, bows his head and prays:

Maferefun Eshu...

Maferefun Ogun...

Maferefun Obatalá...

Maferefun Yemayá...

Maferefun Shangó...

Maferefun Oshún...

Maferefun Oya...

Maferefun gbogbo orisha!

Ko si Iku...

Ko si Arun...

Ko si Epe...

"Keep away death, keep away sickness, keep away curses...," the ebony-skinned priest intones in the Yoruba language. Standing erect in flowing African robes, he praises gods who rule things like communication, creation, and thunder, then requests their protection from misfortune. "Ashé!" says Rios along with the other devotees. "So be it," some say in English.

The drumming and dancing resume, and Rios tries to make small talk with some of the celebrants. He doesn't make much headway, so he asks a friendly black woman why people are so cold. Is it because he's gay?

"She said, "Chile, you better not talk about that around here. I don't have a problem, but they won't tolerate that,'" Rios recalls later. Rios didn't quiz the woman about who "they" were, but the next day he saw a posting on the IFA's Website (http://209.63.201.72/). "Homosexuality cannot exist in [the Yoruba] culture," it stated. "Traditionally there were no homosexuals in Africa."

Rios objects to the homophobic overtones. "I have seen proof for myself that the orishas [African deities who are said to rule the forces of nature and act as spiritual guides] are watching over me...," he barks. "I don't want to deal with all the issues people have."

A victim of sexual abuse at 9 years old and a drug addict at age 18, Rios has bold plans for his future. He wants to submerge himself in Santería, in which some of the rites differ from Yoruba and spiritual leaders are more open to gays. He plans to leave South Florida in the next few months for Cuba, where he hopes to begin the process of "making the saint," being initiated as a santero, a kind of Santería priest. He doesn't want to get too caught up in the rapture of magic and mystery, nor is he simply seeking cosmic enlightenment African-style. As a priest, he says, he will be able use his training in practical ways to help others.

Rios' spiritual godmother, Evarista Lazara Dominguez, is familiar with his troubled past. Hailing from many generations of high priests, Dominguez has agreed to accompany Rios to Cuba. There, during a seven-day ceremony, he will be initiated as a son of Obatalá, a merciful and pragmatic god. When he returns home, Rios will spend the following year training for the Santería priesthood.

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