Making the Saint

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

Pichardo understands the struggle Americans like Rios face in connecting with their spiritual roots. "Here some people, from whatever country they came from, lost their religions and became Christian," says Pichardo, a soft-spoken, erudite man with a slight build. "That did not happen in Cuba, where our different African-based religions, their essence, survived. Here people are trying to rediscover something we never lost."

If he completes the training and joins the Santería priesthood, Rios will be able to do more than reconnect with the gods of his grandmother and other ancestors. He will also be a spiritual ambassador to other gays. That would be more difficult in the Yoruba community. Based on beliefs that affirm marriage and procreation, some followers of Yoruba believe homosexuality should not be part of the culture. "You've probably got two straight versus eight gay" out of every ten followers of Santería, Pichardo contends, exaggerating somewhat to make his point. "The idea of homosexuality not being acceptable is true in theory, according to some traditions like the Yoruba... but it's not true in practice. Gays have always existed, and for us it's just not an issue."

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

A former religious-studies professor at the University of South Florida who has authored several books on Santería, Raul Canizares says, "Make no bones about it, babalawos [Yoruban priests] can be very homophobic, and they are generally condescending toward gay people." A Cuban immigrant who was initiated into Santería at seven years old, Canizares left the university five years ago to start the Orisha Consciousness Movement (a nonprofit group based on Long Island). Canizares has initiated more than 200 people, at least half of whom he says are gay. "The good thing about this religion is that it is very open and teaches that, bottom line, no human being has a right to judge another. As priests we offer people the opportunity to achieve spiritual balance in their lives. That is our duty."

The issue of homosexuality among Yorubans is complex and frustrating, says Ifatóla, a Yoruban priestess in West Palm Beach. A lesbian, she was initiated into Yoruba 12 years ago at the Oyotunji Village in South Carolina, where, she says, "I was told that, if I wanted to live in the village, I would have to take a husband -- not for sexual reasons but for protection and financial security. They didn't condemn me, but I definitely couldn't publicize being gay. It was like, "Whatever you do behind closed doors...'" But for men, especially those entering the priesthood, Ifatóla makes a different assertion. "That's a definite no-no. I used to hear that gay men were taken to the woods and beaten, like it was an evil spirit or egun on them, and they tried to beat it out of them."

It's almost Halloween, and in the back room of a nicely furnished trailer in Miramar, a brass bell rings above Rios' head. He prostrates himself, arms at his sides with palms up, in front of the altars of his iya (spiritual godmother). Evarista Lazara Dominguez, standing over Rios jingling the bell, prays to Oshún, asking her guardian to bestow sweet blessings on her only godchild. She looks matronly in a blue flowered housedress, but her face, with nary a wrinkle and blue-gray eyes that sparkle when she laughs, makes her appear younger than her 53 years.

When Dominguez came to South Florida eight years ago, she wanted to become a nursing assistant and live a better life; bringing others into the faith was the last thing on her mind. Still, she knew she would continue to practice Santería. Initiated at five years old, Dominguez practiced her religion right under Castro's atheistic nose until she left her homeland 40 years later. The American government's promises of religious freedom, she believed, would enable her to worship more openly.

Dominguez says she has met no one in the religion who has problems with gays. But she has met fake priests. "I once met a man who said he'd been initiated in Cuba and invited me to his house for a party," she recalls. "He had his soperas, but when I [bowed in respect], I felt sick to my stomach. He was playing drum music on the stereo and asked me to dance. Suddenly he started to flail his arms, saying, "Shangó is coming!' like he was getting possessed. I said, "How's that? From the stereo?' The idea that the fierce warrior god, who rules thunder, would arrive in the absence of live ceremonial drums was preposterous." Later Dominguez discovered the man's ceremonial pots were empty rather than filled with sacred implements.

Rios had also run across his share of shysters by the time he met Dominguez seven years ago. But she was a constant, remaining a friend while he went through his drug phase and subsequent visits to various priests. Godparents, she points out, have a huge responsibility. They don't just oversee initiations, they also form karmic ties with their godchildren and commit to each relationship for life.

But six months ago, when spiritualists with questionable backgrounds were demanding thousands of dollars from Rios for obscure initiations, "I could see that he was spiritually tormented. I said, "Enough! I'll take you to Cuba and do it myself,'" Dominguez comments. Like many people who travel to Cuba on spiritual business, Rios and Dominguez will probably fly to Mexico or the Bahamas or even Canada, then catch a second plane to the island. (The U.S. embargo on Cuba prohibits most direct flights to the island.) When they return with sacred implements in tow, American customs officials will be none the wiser.

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