Making the Saint

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

Though the Santería initiation is generally a secret affair, some priests and scholars have divulged bits and pieces. Among other things, initiates are usually secluded and ritually cleansed with herbs and consecrated water, sometimes at a river. Their heads are shaved and painted in their god's symbolic colors (red and white for Shangó, yellow and green for Oshún). Priests make small incisions in the initiates' scalps to deposit their gods' divine energy, which reputedly facilitates spiritual possession. At the end of the rituals, initiates are presented to the public during a drumming party where the newly initiated iyawós, considered brides to their gods and newborn babes to the community, are congratulated and generally fawned over.

"Willie is so impatient, wanting to know everything that will happen in Cuba," Dominguez laughs. "He'll see soon enough. I am making calls home every week to get things prepared."

Rios gleans bits of information from Dominguez. When he leans over to light her cigarette, she reminds him that initiates cannot "possess fire." Rios also won't be allowed to shake hands with anyone and will be required eat on a floor mat where, for certain meals, he will have to use his fingers. He also may have to abstain from alcohol or sex for months at a time. "It is very hard, a very tough time during this year," Dominguez says, adding that, while she accepts Rios' sexual orientation, "I don't like this dressing up. I don't like to say, "You can't do that,' but I don't want to see Willie in that form again. We will wait for the itá."

The itá is a divination that gives initiates a life map of sorts. Doing drag is not expressly prohibited by the tenets of Santería, though the gods might nix it for certain individuals. Whatever the call from spiritual forces, Rios insists that Crystal is history. "After all the orishas have done for me, it's a small sacrifice. As a priest I have to think about how I want to present myself. For me this is all about change."


Rios dances under a full moon on a clear November night. A live band is playing Cuban music at Bayside in Miami, and while Smith steers their 33-foot Rinker away from the dockside restaurant where they ate dinner, Rios stands on the boat's bow dancing salsa. He wears a blue African tunic, split on the sides, but tonight his long legs are covered with white gauze pants.

Dominguez has told Rios they will travel to Cuba before the Christmas holiday; the prospect has made him giddy. "I am soooo ready, you just don't know. Lately I've been doing meditations and trying to get my head together for whatever will happen. I've heard some people say it's so hard you wonder if you can go through with it. But you do if you're serious."

The Rinker zigzags in the black water and Rios, now seated at the stern, turns his eyes away from the moon to study the swirling waves. After chattering about what might happen after he becomes a priest, he pauses to search for words to describe his goals. "First I want to show people that homosexuals can practice this religion, because the gods do not discriminate, people do," he says. "Then there's my grandmother.... She asked me to keep her tradition alive. And finally there's this feeling, the essence of the orisha, that I want to live in. Honey, cocaine doesn't even compare."

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