Making the Saint

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

Rios still faces some major life changes, though. "For one thing," he says, "I'm saying goodbye to Crystal."

The stifling summer heat has yielded to cool autumn breezes, and Rios is hosting a party on a Saturday night in October. He is in the bedroom of a house that he shares with Smith in a blighted area in Fort Lauderdale near Wilton Manors. "Bigger, Crystal!" he orders the feminine visage staring back from his mirror. His fiery hazel eyes are even more luminous with silvery eye shadow. Thick layers of face powder, coated with hairspray for staying power, smooth his clean-shaven skin. But the puckered lips, slathered with ripe melon and champagne-grape­colored lipsticks, aren't quite full enough. "She allllways wants bigger lips," Rios quips. "A son of Oshún, what can you say?"

Evarista Lazara Dominguez loves Rios to pieces. It's Crystal she can do without.
Evarista Lazara Dominguez loves Rios to pieces. It's Crystal she can do without.
The many phases -- and coked-out stages -- of Crystal le Papillón
The many phases -- and coked-out stages -- of Crystal le Papillón

Ten minutes later Crystal le Papillón emerges from the bedroom and saunters through the tastefully decorated three-bedroom house. Closed in by a tall wooden fence, Smith and Rios' home is in better repair than many that surround it. Few of their neighbors have backyard swimming pools and Jacuzzis like those the two men installed during a three-year remodeling project.

About 40 guests have come to Smith's birthday party, where Crystal will give her farewell performance. In a navy print minidress with a kelly-green wig covered by a royal blue chiffon scarf tied at the neck, the drag diva swishes and clacks across tiled floors and onto a patio decorated with balloons. There the guests, including Rios' mother, Carmen Ortiz, and his two teenage sisters, Jeannie and Jasmine, mill around buffet tables, where large foil pans are filled with beans and rice, roasted pig, and yuca. Dominguez, the party chef, sits at a table nursing a light rum and Coke. She smiles as numerous guests compliment her cooking.

Rios has done drag for five years, mostly at private parties. Unlike the Yoruba festival, where he was uncomfortable, here the sociable young man is in his element. "Welcome to my party," Crystal says to each guest. "So glad you came." She offers males an extended, gloved arm; females receive a peck on the cheek. Many of the straight men watch Crystal's every move, grinning like she's something naughty but nice. "She's beautiful and sweet," one straight guest says of Crystal while hugging his wife. "What more could a guy ask for?"

After six years with Rios, Smith, a ruddy-faced man with piercing gray eyes, is no longer in awe of Crystal. But Smith, who overcame alcoholism and homelessness to become a successful electrician, is nevertheless pleased by his lover's spunk. Asked about Rios' pending initiation into the Santería priesthood, Smith says it's OK by him. "The drag thing, the religious thing, whatever. All I care about is that Willie is happy. That we make each other happy. I've told Willie that if he wants to proceed with his initiations, I'll support him 100 percent."

Moments later Crystal reappears, this time outfitted in a silky black miniskirt and a sequined blue knit top that clings to her ersatz 36Cs. The bright green hairdo has been replaced by a black China-doll wig; her satin gloves and platform heels are also black. She gestures toward a cluster of chairs, where guests are to take their seats. The yard has been prepped for Crystal's performance: Floodlights shine against the bases of palm trees, a fire roars in a potbelly stove, and a strobe light, placed near a wooden platform by the pool, flickers toward a clear starlit sky.

"And Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii will always love youuuuuu...," Crystal lip-synchs, blowing a kiss toward Smith, then turning it on for the audience in the first of several numbers she takes from an arsenal of fiery love songs by Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. Forty-five minutes' worth of emoting, twirling, posing, and puckering elicits loud clapping and a few catcalls. Several men, perhaps emboldened by visits to an open bar, drop money at Crystal's feet.

"Whew, I gotta go change, babies," Crystal gurgles. "My pussy's perspiring!" Amid howling laughter she skips into the house. In his bedroom, Rios cleans his face, peels off seven pairs of beige pantyhose and tosses them, along with the padded bra and size-three woman's clothes, into a pile on the bed.

Fifteen minutes later, dressed as a man in sweatpants, a T-shirt, and baseball cap, Rios pauses to reflect a moment before rejoining the party. He knows he is at a crossroads. Though he loves transforming into a spirited femme fatale who sings to adoring crowds, Rios is a deeply spiritual man who has a passion for African cosmology and lives to please his gods. "I enjoy this, and I'm going to miss it," he says. "But I don't want people who can't have children and need Oshún saying, "Oh, let's go to the drag queen's house and get fixed.'"

But there are other reasons Rios has decided to vanquish Crystal. Although she makes him feel alive, ravishing, and tingly all over, she also reminds him of death. Or near death.

Two weeks after the birthday party, Rios sits on his haunches atop his barrel-tile roof on a cool October night, looking like a slender bird poised to fly into the blue-black sky. Periodically he shifts to align his body with the waning moon. Mercury is in "retrograde," he says, a part of the astrological cycle that causes miscommunication and mishaps. "I need the power of the moon," he adds, "and up here I feel at one with it."

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