Making the Saint

Willie Rios has a flamboyant personality that makes him the life of almost any party. He's unpretentious, a mile-a-minute talker whose eyebrows are in constant motion. Though he stands only five-feet-eight-inches tall and weighs but 110 pounds, the 22-year-old Puerto Rican man has a commanding presence. His raspy voice is at once grating and musical like an out-of-tune piano. His large hazel eyes widen when he laughs, which is often. His toothy smile is warm, like the tone of his smooth caramel-color skin.

On a hot August afternoon, Rios arrives at a festival in Miami's Sewell Park with his partner of six years, Bernie Smith, a fortyish white guy. They stake out a shady spot for their lawn chairs, just like the 50 other people, outfitted in everything from elegant African attire to blue jeans and T-shirts, who have gathered in a lush grove near the bank of the Miami River. Seated on carved wooden stools, two hefty drummers with bulky biceps and large palms beat syncopated rhythms on ceremonial drums.

The festival is being held by a Yoruba group called the Indigenous Faith of Africa (IFA), and the crowd includes many followers of Santería. The two groups have close ties. Santería was developed in Cuba centuries ago by Yoruba slaves, whom the Spanish had ripped from their homeland in Northwest Africa. Today, in keeping with the Yoruba custom of having seasonal celebrations for the gods, the predominantly African-American crowd is preparing to honor Oshún, a river goddess who epitomizes beauty, sensuality, and abundance.

The drums beat like an insistent child's cry, calling down the gods, who lend their divine spiritual energy, called ashé, to gatherings such as this. The ecstatic looks on the faces of about 30 dancers twirling on the grass show that a connection has been made.

Thirty yards from the drummers, a large concrete platform has been transformed into an elaborate altar draped with fabrics in Oshún's favorite colors, yellow and green. Curtains hang from makeshift pillars, and worshipers prostrate themselves on mats after making offerings: pumpkins, sunflowers, pineapples, lace fans, scented candles, brass bells, perfumes, champagne, and jars of honey. A hollowed gourd placed near various yellow and white soperas (ceramic tureens containing a god's mysteries) is brimming with five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills.

While Smith remains seated near the music, Rios strolls over to the altar with a half-dozen yellow roses in hand. Gingerly he props the flowers against a honey jar before bowing to his sacred mother. He kisses the ground, then rises slowly, almost hesitantly. "Her energy is soooo good," he says, stepping off the platform. "It's like something you can't even describe."

Rios rejoins the crowd near the drummers and dancers, where a priest conducts prayers to some of the major deities. (The Yoruban's religious system includes gods numbering in the hundreds.) Rios, like everyone else standing in the verdant grove, bows his head and prays:

Maferefun Eshu...

Maferefun Ogun...

Maferefun Obatalá...

Maferefun Yemayá...

Maferefun Shangó...

Maferefun Oshún...

Maferefun Oya...

Maferefun gbogbo orisha!

Ko si Iku...

Ko si Arun...

Ko si Epe...

"Keep away death, keep away sickness, keep away curses...," the ebony-skinned priest intones in the Yoruba language. Standing erect in flowing African robes, he praises gods who rule things like communication, creation, and thunder, then requests their protection from misfortune. "Ashé!" says Rios along with the other devotees. "So be it," some say in English.

The drumming and dancing resume, and Rios tries to make small talk with some of the celebrants. He doesn't make much headway, so he asks a friendly black woman why people are so cold. Is it because he's gay?

"She said, "Chile, you better not talk about that around here. I don't have a problem, but they won't tolerate that,'" Rios recalls later. Rios didn't quiz the woman about who "they" were, but the next day he saw a posting on the IFA's Website ( "Homosexuality cannot exist in [the Yoruba] culture," it stated. "Traditionally there were no homosexuals in Africa."

Rios objects to the homophobic overtones. "I have seen proof for myself that the orishas [African deities who are said to rule the forces of nature and act as spiritual guides] are watching over me...," he barks. "I don't want to deal with all the issues people have."

A victim of sexual abuse at 9 years old and a drug addict at age 18, Rios has bold plans for his future. He wants to submerge himself in Santería, in which some of the rites differ from Yoruba and spiritual leaders are more open to gays. He plans to leave South Florida in the next few months for Cuba, where he hopes to begin the process of "making the saint," being initiated as a santero, a kind of Santería priest. He doesn't want to get too caught up in the rapture of magic and mystery, nor is he simply seeking cosmic enlightenment African-style. As a priest, he says, he will be able use his training in practical ways to help others.  

Rios' spiritual godmother, Evarista Lazara Dominguez, is familiar with his troubled past. Hailing from many generations of high priests, Dominguez has agreed to accompany Rios to Cuba. There, during a seven-day ceremony, he will be initiated as a son of Obatalá, a merciful and pragmatic god. When he returns home, Rios will spend the following year training for the Santería priesthood.

Rios still faces some major life changes, though. "For one thing," he says, "I'm saying goodbye to Crystal."

The stifling summer heat has yielded to cool autumn breezes, and Rios is hosting a party on a Saturday night in October. He is in the bedroom of a house that he shares with Smith in a blighted area in Fort Lauderdale near Wilton Manors. "Bigger, Crystal!" he orders the feminine visage staring back from his mirror. His fiery hazel eyes are even more luminous with silvery eye shadow. Thick layers of face powder, coated with hairspray for staying power, smooth his clean-shaven skin. But the puckered lips, slathered with ripe melon and champagne-grape­colored lipsticks, aren't quite full enough. "She allllways wants bigger lips," Rios quips. "A son of Oshún, what can you say?"

Ten minutes later Crystal le Papillón emerges from the bedroom and saunters through the tastefully decorated three-bedroom house. Closed in by a tall wooden fence, Smith and Rios' home is in better repair than many that surround it. Few of their neighbors have backyard swimming pools and Jacuzzis like those the two men installed during a three-year remodeling project.

About 40 guests have come to Smith's birthday party, where Crystal will give her farewell performance. In a navy print minidress with a kelly-green wig covered by a royal blue chiffon scarf tied at the neck, the drag diva swishes and clacks across tiled floors and onto a patio decorated with balloons. There the guests, including Rios' mother, Carmen Ortiz, and his two teenage sisters, Jeannie and Jasmine, mill around buffet tables, where large foil pans are filled with beans and rice, roasted pig, and yuca. Dominguez, the party chef, sits at a table nursing a light rum and Coke. She smiles as numerous guests compliment her cooking.

Rios has done drag for five years, mostly at private parties. Unlike the Yoruba festival, where he was uncomfortable, here the sociable young man is in his element. "Welcome to my party," Crystal says to each guest. "So glad you came." She offers males an extended, gloved arm; females receive a peck on the cheek. Many of the straight men watch Crystal's every move, grinning like she's something naughty but nice. "She's beautiful and sweet," one straight guest says of Crystal while hugging his wife. "What more could a guy ask for?"

After six years with Rios, Smith, a ruddy-faced man with piercing gray eyes, is no longer in awe of Crystal. But Smith, who overcame alcoholism and homelessness to become a successful electrician, is nevertheless pleased by his lover's spunk. Asked about Rios' pending initiation into the Santería priesthood, Smith says it's OK by him. "The drag thing, the religious thing, whatever. All I care about is that Willie is happy. That we make each other happy. I've told Willie that if he wants to proceed with his initiations, I'll support him 100 percent."

Moments later Crystal reappears, this time outfitted in a silky black miniskirt and a sequined blue knit top that clings to her ersatz 36Cs. The bright green hairdo has been replaced by a black China-doll wig; her satin gloves and platform heels are also black. She gestures toward a cluster of chairs, where guests are to take their seats. The yard has been prepped for Crystal's performance: Floodlights shine against the bases of palm trees, a fire roars in a potbelly stove, and a strobe light, placed near a wooden platform by the pool, flickers toward a clear starlit sky.

"And Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii will always love youuuuuu...," Crystal lip-synchs, blowing a kiss toward Smith, then turning it on for the audience in the first of several numbers she takes from an arsenal of fiery love songs by Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. Forty-five minutes' worth of emoting, twirling, posing, and puckering elicits loud clapping and a few catcalls. Several men, perhaps emboldened by visits to an open bar, drop money at Crystal's feet.

"Whew, I gotta go change, babies," Crystal gurgles. "My pussy's perspiring!" Amid howling laughter she skips into the house. In his bedroom, Rios cleans his face, peels off seven pairs of beige pantyhose and tosses them, along with the padded bra and size-three woman's clothes, into a pile on the bed.  

Fifteen minutes later, dressed as a man in sweatpants, a T-shirt, and baseball cap, Rios pauses to reflect a moment before rejoining the party. He knows he is at a crossroads. Though he loves transforming into a spirited femme fatale who sings to adoring crowds, Rios is a deeply spiritual man who has a passion for African cosmology and lives to please his gods. "I enjoy this, and I'm going to miss it," he says. "But I don't want people who can't have children and need Oshún saying, "Oh, let's go to the drag queen's house and get fixed.'"

But there are other reasons Rios has decided to vanquish Crystal. Although she makes him feel alive, ravishing, and tingly all over, she also reminds him of death. Or near death.

Two weeks after the birthday party, Rios sits on his haunches atop his barrel-tile roof on a cool October night, looking like a slender bird poised to fly into the blue-black sky. Periodically he shifts to align his body with the waning moon. Mercury is in "retrograde," he says, a part of the astrological cycle that causes miscommunication and mishaps. "I need the power of the moon," he adds, "and up here I feel at one with it."

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

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.

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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