Politics and Spirits

Miami city worker Caridad Rios swears she's never practiced Santera. Try telling that to the many politicians who befriend her -- or fear her.

The story goes like this: Immediately after Xavier Suarez defeated Joe Carollo in the November 1997 Miami mayoral election, a long-time city worker named Caridad Rios was brought in to remove any evil spirits in the mayor's Dinner Key office. Accounts vary. One person says she came at night, only minutes after Carollo had packed up his boxes and trudged past a mob of taunting Suarez supporters. Others place the exorcism the following afternoon, when Suarez returned to city hall to take the oath of office.

New Times could turn up no eyewitnesses to the alleged event, which Rios and Suarez flatly deny ever took place. Nonetheless, five people relayed the story recently -- all in separate interviews, all absent any prompting. Three of the storytellers now hold or have held a seat on the city commission. Two others are high-level lobbyists. It's not really a surprise, given the way rumor lubricates Miami politics, that none of the people wishes to be identified. "I don't want to be mentioned in any article about Caridad Rios," commands one former commissioner. "Not at all. I don't want to be near it."

By official classification, Rios is the superintendent of Allapattah's Curtis Park. She's also something of a fixture on the local campaign trail, having attached herself to commission and mayoral candidates from Maurice Ferre to Steve Clark to Suarez. A 69-year-old black Cuban woman known affectionately in political circles as La Negra Caridad, Rios is often credited with performing other, more extraordinary tasks. "Caridad is a big santera," says another politico, who, of course, asked not to be identified. "She's one of these hocus-pocus types of people into the religion. It's what she's known for."

Rios denies -- vehemently -- that she in any way practices Santeria, a venerable Afro-Cuban religion increasingly popular in Miami's exile community. "I do not!" she huffs in Spanish. "And I will sue anybody who says I do! Look at this statue," she instructs, pointing to a porcelain figurine of the Virgin Mary that she keeps in her Curtis Park office. "Would I have this statue if I practiced Santeria?"

Actually, she might. Santeria is a fusion of African religious beliefs with Catholic traditions and symbols. Its followers worship traditional Catholic saints as stand-ins for African gods. The Virgin Mary, for instance, is sometimes associated with the goddess Ochun. On a form Rios filled out when she first began working for the city, she listed her religion as Roman Catholic.

One prominent Miami politician laughs at her denial.
"Oh God, she's into Santeria up to her hair!" he chortles. "That is the whole basis of her power; it's what she uses to try to influence politicians. I don't know if any of [the politicians] believe any of that, but they go along with her. They probably don't want to take any chances."

Suarez, no longer mayor and now working out of the offices of Miami attorney Frank Angones, is blunt when asked if Rios performed a spiritual exorcism at his behest: "No. Actually, over the years, you sort of hear about her having that sort of modus operandi and belief. But not in regards to the mayor's office. The only transcendental things that I practice have to do with the Catholic religion."

Again: not one of the five people who told the story about Rios witnessed the alleged exorcism. After a prolonged search, in fact, no direct spectator could be located. Rios's reaction to the story was pure bemusement. "Imagine that! That's really good," she says. "I didn't do it, but if they're giving me credit, great, because at least we got that out of the way. That's what priests do, and I'm not a priest."

Manolo Reyes, a frequent candidate for the city commission, believes her. He seems particularly well-positioned to comment. "Look," he says, "I was there. When Suarez took office, Father [Jose Luis] Menendez was brought in by Teresita Clark, Steve Clark's widow. And he was there just to give the benediction and to say a prayer. It wasn't an exorcism or anything like that. And that's the only religious thing I saw."

Reyes knows Caridad Rios well. "As far as her doing Santeria and trying to haunt some people, I have never heard it," he adds. "I have never seen her in any rituals, though I have seen her go up to politicians and say, 'I am going to work with my saints for you.'"

After Rios's seventeen years with the city, the truth about her barely matters any more. Whether she likes it or not, and whether it is accurate or not, she is regarded by many as the city's unofficial santera. While she renounces this title publicly, even some of her friends say she consciously exploits it.

At the Riviera Botanica on NW Seventeenth Avenue in Allapattah, three dark-skinned women huddle around a cage crammed with roosters. As they point at the cocks of their choice, they display almost as much excitement as the hyperactive fowl they're appraising. A worker yanks the birds from the cage and places each in a separate brown paper grocery bag. Three bags blindly hop on the gritty cement floor until the women pay the bill. Behind the counter Riviera owner Gerardo Lastra rings up a sale on a spray-can potion designed to ward off evil spirits. A customer asks him if he sells axes.

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