Making the Saint

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

The moonlight, along with a steady stream of Marlboro Lights, helps calm Rios as he talks about growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. His mother, Carmen Ortiz, arrived there in the 1960s with her mother, Marieta, who was escaping an abusive husband in Puerto Rico. Carmen met and married a Puerto Rican immigrant named Juan, and Rios was born in 1978. Rios recalls cold winters in a six-story brick walkup in his childhood. One night when Rios was three years old, he watched Juan stab his mother with a butcher knife. "He never hurt me, but he had problems with drugs and alcohol," Rios remembers. "Still, my mother was old-school. She felt like you had to have a man in the home."

By the time Rios was five years old, the abuse had become too much for Carmen. She divorced Juan, married a U.S. Army sergeant named Carlos, and had two daughters by him. But Carlos' long stints away from home took a toll on the marriage. While struggling to support Rios and his sisters, Carmen met Angel, a handsome, baby-faced guy who didn't work regularly but seemed like a good family man. Seemed.

"When I was eight, he used to beat me every morning after my mom left for work," Rios recalls. "He just couldn't stand my relationship with my mother. I was a lovey-dovey kid, and we have always been very affectionate." He says he covered the bruises with long-sleeve shirts and trousers, even in summer. When Angel knocked out one of Rios' teeth, the boy told his mom and teachers that he had fallen. When he started wetting and shitting in his pants, school counselors thought it was caused by his fear of bullies who, since kindergarten, had called him "mama's boy," "sissy," "faggot," and "Maybelline eyes."

Ernesto Pichardo says Rios' initiation into Santería stands to reason. "For us," he says, "being gay just isn't an issue."
Ernesto Pichardo says Rios' initiation into Santería stands to reason. "For us," he says, "being gay just isn't an issue."
What Rios' grandmother, a vodou practitioner, didn't live to see: her grandson on the path to becoming a priest
Joshua Prezant
What Rios' grandmother, a vodou practitioner, didn't live to see: her grandson on the path to becoming a priest

When Rios was nine years old, he contends, Angel -- along with his elder brother, a down-and-out alcoholic who had moved in with the family -- began to sexually molest him. The traumatized nine-year-old sought comfort from spiritual forces. Although he was raised Catholic, Rios found peace at an altar in his paternal grandmother's house across town. A corner in Margarita Estrada's living room was filled with "statues of saints, pictures of deceased relatives, candles, and offerings of food," Rios remembers. "My grandmother's lineage included vodou priestesses in West Africa. She used to tell me to pray to Simbi, to Mami Wata," two West African gods to whom vodou practitioners often appeal for protection.

One morning Rios was dressing for school and dreading the usual beating when he saw a spirit. "I had reached into my closet for school clothes and turned around," he says. "My body froze, I was just petrified. It was a tall black male wearing a worn beige shirt with red pants that were ragged at the bottom, just below his knees. His hair was knotted, and he looked like a slave. He just stood there, staring at me with this look in his eyes, like he was feeling my sorrow. I was scared, but in a way I felt a connection." (The fact that such encounters are not considered strange in Santería -- that they are even thought to be a blessing -- is one of the things that would later attract Rios to the faith.)

In the years that followed, Rios claims, he often saw people or heard voices telling him to be strong, to hold on. But, he asserts, Angel had spiritual forces of his own. He was a priest of Palo Mayombe, a religious sect that practices Congolese witchcraft, who misused his training. "He made me drink potions that made me feel fuzzy-headed and sick. He said I'd die if I told anybody what was going on."

When Rios was 12 years old, he collapsed and landed on a psychiatrist's couch. The doctor prescribed Ritalin, but Rios says the drug made him lethargic. He dropped out of school at age 14. (Rios earned his GED two years ago, but to date the sharp-witted young man has never read an entire book.)

"I tried to keep [the abuse] inside because it made me feel so disgusted," says Rios, climbing down from his roof. The moon has shifted from east to south, and Rios looks visibly drained. It is as if, during the retelling, his harsh childhood has come and gone twice. Sadder still are memories of how, even after Carmen Ortiz moved her family to Hialeah in 1992 to start a new life, the hellish experiences continued. But this time the torture was self-inflicted.

A glossy photograph taken three years ago shows Crystal looking like a luscious, lanky Christmas present. Wearing a sleek red dress with a bright green feather boa and curly wig, she was preparing to perform at a local holiday charity event. Rios doesn't remember exactly which one, Toys For Tots perhaps. Detailed memories are difficult to form when normally round hazel eyes have narrowed into cocaine-glazed slits.

Dressing in drag was initially a ruse that an underage Rios used to enter a local gay nightclub with Smith. (Rios moved in with Smith when he was 16 years old after lying to his mother about finding a job in Fort Lauderdale.) But in his telling, Crystal quickly became part of the Fort Lauderdale drag queen set, entering lip-synch contests at clubs like the Saint and the Copa, where his Whitney Houston impersonation often won him free bar tabs or cash prizes of as much as $150. Win or lose, there were always consolation prizes: drugs like GHB, Ecstasy, and cocaine.

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