Making the Saint

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

Delighted that her son is off drugs and in good health, Ortiz isn't bothered by his initiation into the Santería priesthood. "I've told him, "Whoever you are and whatever you believe in, I'm here to support you.' I was a strict Catholic and never practiced anything [like Santería] at my house," Ortiz says. "I guess he gets it from the other side of the family, his grandmother. But I do remember that, when Willie was as young as three, he used to see things, and I knew he wasn't crazy. He'd tell people things about their lives that just amazed them, things he had no way of knowing. With all he's done, some of the hurtful things with the drugs, I thought he had lost that gift. Now... we'll see."

The door to a small back room in Rios' house is usually closed. Inside, two large windows are covered by venetian blinds. The mocha walls glow warmly when the sun is high; at night the polished tile glows in the moonlight. Rios' yappy little dogs, Pinky and Misty, know better than to frolic in there lest they knock over one of Rios' many soperas. Visitors must ask permission to enter, and those who gain entry risk being cursed if they peek into the pots. The gods can be testy when it comes to their sacred objects, Rios explains. The stones, herbs, shells, river water, animal blood, and other secret implements particular to each African god are not to be viewed by the uninitiated.

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

In one corner of the room is a three-foot-tall clay vessel dedicated to Olokun, ruler of the ocean. A spiritual big gun when it comes to saving people in the grip of compulsive, destructive behaviors, Olokun helped Rios kick his drug habit. "Some [free] rehab centers said I wasn't addicted enough, and others were just too expensive," he says. "So I had a divination done by a priest in Miami, who said I had to receive Olokun immediately. For seven days I sat in this house, sweating, puking, you wouldn't believe." At times Rios drank from the god's tall earthen vessel, knowing the liquid contents included blood from an animal sacrifice. "Believe me when I tell you... I needed the ashé."

A year later Rios celebrated his 21st birthday. It wasn't New Year's Day, but he made a resolution. "My grandmother's words stayed with me, and if my destiny is to become a priest in the African tradition, then so be it. I'll be able to help other people, and believe me, honey, I know what the orishas can do. They saved my life."

For decades ethnologists and religious scholars have postulated that Santería is a syncretized religion that blends the West African Yoruban's system of ifa divination (in which priests cast cowrie shells on mats or trays, and interpret the patterns for followers) with Catholicism. In Spanish, Santería means "the way of the saints," though some Cuban practitioners object to the term because it was imposed by imperialist Spain. Many adepts prefer "la Regla de Ocha," meaning the rule of the orishas who "traveled" to Cuba in the Atlantic slave trade.

Centuries before their enslavement, Africans in the region including the modern-day countries of Benin and Nigeria practiced a religion based on the worship of ancestral spirits and nature gods, forces that devotees believe can help people achieve balance in their lives and deliver good fortune.

Even before the Spanish brought slaves to Cuba in the early 16th Century, Spain's Queen Isabella had ordered that all colonial residents accept Catholicism. Slaves on the island were forbidden from worshiping their native gods, an edict they artfully dodged. For instance, while appearing to pray to Saint Lazarus, to whom Christians often appealed in matters of sickness, African slaves invoked Babalú Ayé, the Yoruba god of smallpox, who can cause or cure illnesses.

While mixing native rituals with their oppressors' religion, the slaves made sure their traditions and oral mythology remained intact. Today millions of "Christianized" West Africans still practice the Yoruba religion. Furthermore, scholars and priests say hundreds of people, including whites, travel to Nigeria each year from the United States and Europe for initiations into the Yoruba faith. (Many followers of African-based religions, estimated to be in the millions in America, travel to Cuba for Santería initiations.)

Yoruba continues to flourish in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, where there is a largely black populace. Because South Florida is close to Cuba and has a vast immigrant population, Santería has a stronger influence here.

The homes of most Santería adherents are filled with statues of Catholic saints. But unlike Catholic priests, santeros use drums to call down the orishas; they sacrifice animals and use things like cigar smoke and rum to cleanse the sacrifices. Incantations are usually said in Yoruba: Mojuba (praises), Agó (ask permission), Omi tutu (cool water), Ashé (so be it).

Santería's survival has largely depended upon its priests, and Ernesto Pichardo has certainly done his bit to keep it alive in America. His Hialeah-based Church of the Lukumi Babalú Ayé won a controversial Supreme Court decision in 1993 affirming the rights of Santería practitioners to conduct animal sacrifices. When his family fled to South Florida from Cuba in 1961, Pichardo was a five-year-old descended from a long line of priests.

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