Making the Saint

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

The 22-year-old maintains that he snapped at people who offered drugs the first few times. "Because of my father, I was totally against that. I'd lash out, insulted, like, "What the fuck do I look like?'" But after several months of watching people look like they were having mysterious fun, he tried Ecstasy. "It was awesome; if anybody touched me, it felt like I was having sex. Everything was beautiful, and life was happy. I felt powerful, like I could dance better."

Rios started going out three or four nights per week to local clubs and friends' houses. Soon it wasn't about lip-synching and feeling adored on stage, it was about getting high. "I'd go to drag queens' houses dressed as a boy. Eventually I stopped performing completely. I started selling, making lots of money, and lying to Bernie about getting money from drag shows. I lost interest in him, in the spirits, everything."

How true is Crystal's story? Efforts to track down others who knew her have proven fruitless. Tiny Tina, an undisputed matriarch among drag queens, who worked the circuit for 30 years, doesn't remember Crystal. But she confirms that many queens use drugs. "It comes with the territory," she says, divulging her own former addictions to Quaaludes and coke. "It's sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, honey. In society, and even in the gay life, we are considered the low man on the totem pole. But in the underground, the old saying goes: Queens rule. We know where the parties and drugs are."

At age 18 Rios left Smith and moved to his dealer's apartment in Victoria Park near downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Fearing retribution Rios declines to give the dealer's name.) He was smoking three packs of cigarettes and doing three grams of coke per day and could stomach only Fruity Pebbles and Pop Tarts. Gatorade maintained his electrolytes. At 6:30 a.m., after selling and snorting coke all night at posh private parties, Rios says he would take four sleeping pills. At 8 o'clock sharp each morning, the dealer -- at Rios' behest -- would hand him a mirror with two lines of coke. For almost six months, that's how Rios "started each and every day. Then I'd get on the phone and start taking orders for that night."

Rios was getting sick; his slender 110-pound body had dipped to near 90. "There were no voices, no spirits; I wasn't thinking about the orishas," he says. "All that was gone." And cartilage from his nose started coming out in clumps whenever he tried to clear his rotting nasal passages. One day in the shower, Rios grew disgusted at the sight of his concave stomach and protruding ribs. His heart raced. He thought he was dying. Panicked, he toweled off and headed straight for his powder-lined mirror.

While doing some coke, Rios was startled by the phone and astonished to hear his father's voice at the other end of the line. As Rios tells it, they hadn't spoken in eight years. His dad informed him that Estrada, the grandmother whose altar was filled with African religious icons, was dying in a Massachusetts hospital. In a delirium she kept calling her grandson's name. Too coked up to concentrate, Rios only pretended to write down Estrada's number. While repeating the numbers out loud to his dad, he never put down the straw.

That night Estrada appeared in Rios' dreams, saying good-bye and asking him to change his life. The next morning the ringing phone didn't startle him; he knew his grandmother had passed away. "My dad's wife said her last request was for me to fulfill her dream and become an orisha priest and carry on her tradition."


A soft-spoken, trim woman with aqua-color eyes and a peppy step, Carmen Ortiz doesn't appear old enough to be the mother of a 22-year-old. At age 37 she has long blond hair that covers a long scar, evidence of the 147 stitches that followed the stabbing by Rios' father, Juan. Ortiz, who still lives in Hialeah, recalls that her son "was a beautiful baby... very hyperactive and spoiled rotten."

Ortiz hates the fact that her son witnessed Juan's attack and sputters angrily when asked about Angel: "The thing is, I was always working. I knew Willie was troubled, but I thought it may have been the kids at school. The damage that man did to my son... As a mother it still hurts." She claims not to "know about anything sexual. Willie has never said anything to me."

As a teen Rios didn't tell his mother he was gay, but she knew. "I had a feeling even when he was young," she says. "He was kind of feminine and would wear my shoes. And he loved to cook. But the drag, that was very hard for me."

A devout Christian, Ortiz wanted Rios to take his manhood seriously. Even if he was gay, he wasn't a girl. She objected more emphatically to the drug scene Rios joined while doing drag. "I hadn't seen him for a few months [when he hit bottom], and it was a shocker when I found out he was doing so bad," she says. "He literally looked like a skeleton, like he hadn't slept for months."

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