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.

Santeria descends from a West African religion often called Lukumi. Followers of Lukumi worshipped one principal god -- Orun -- and several minor gods called orichas, each holding different powers. Slaves brought to the New World managed to dupe their captors by associating the orichas with various Roman Catholic saints -- hence the Spanish term Santeria, from santo. Modern Santeria practice sometimes includes animal sacrifice, possession of individuals by orichas, and veneration of ancestors. The religion is often associated with magic powers, which practitioners attribute to close interaction with the orichas.

"The religion has nothing to do with politics," Lastra snaps when asked about the influence of Santeria on Miami elections. "It's about self-protection."

It's often politicians, though, that seek the self-protection, contends Rigoberto Zamora, a high-ranking and controversial Santeria priest. (It was Zamora who, in 1993, ritually sacrificed nearly twenty animals in his Miami Beach apartment as reporters and television cameras recorded the event. He was later charged with cruelty to animals.)

"There are many -- mayors, federal officials, judges -- who practice it," Zamora claims. "But they do it in secret, because in this country this religion is persecuted, just like certain races are persecuted. You can't say their names because they'll sue you."

As he speaks, Zamora sits behind a wooden desk in his garage/office in Kendall. On a nearby cabinet sit five business phones, all in a row. A credenza holds a genuine lion's head that Zamora says came from Africa. Hundreds of necklaces hanging on a wall are like flags of the different saints, he notes. There is an unpleasant smell in the office, emanating from several nearly empty plastic buckets coated with a dark liquid that appears to be blood.

"If a politician is linked with Santeria," Zamora continues, "his career is threatened. Just like if you told your boss you were a santero, he would probably fire you. He wouldn't admit it was because of religion, because that would be discrimination. He'd say he's unhappy with your work, and that would be that."

Curious religion has long mixed with curious politics on Dinner Key. Two years ago, as he recited the Pledge of Allegiance at a commission meeting, Joe Carollo looked down at his leather chair and spotted a white powder many believed was linked to Santeria. In 1992 two aides of then-Commissioner Victor De Yurre found voodoo dolls stuck to their cars with magnets. According to one aide, each doll sported a rope around the neck and a pin stuck in the back. One morning De Yurre's executive assistant found a sketch of a cross, drawn in blood, on her office door. Another morning she found a small brown plastic coffin with hair inside it and the letters "R.I.P." scrawled on top.

The rumors that swirl around Rios are notably vague. Many on Dinner Key say she's deep into the religion, yet few can offer specific examples of how she uses it in the political arena. One former commissioner recalls an incident, years ago, in which he heard Ferre say to a friend that he was "going to see his santera, Caridad."

"She's into that big-time," the former commissioner adds, speaking of Rios and the religion. "One time I was out campaigning and she gave me something. She shoved it into my hand and said, 'This will protect you.' It was a little leather pouch. It had some shit in there. I took it, you know, to be polite, but I was thinking, 'Don't give me that shit.' Everyone who knows her knows she's into it. She's a believer, a santera or whatever they call it. A priestess."

When asked about Rios, Ferre smiles broadly and speaks with a bit more animation than usual. Rios began working for the city during the Ferre administration. The former mayor regards her as one of Miami's more interesting political characters. "Caridad is an archetype of the typical older black female Cuban," he says, stepping lightly around the touchy topic of Santeria. "You have to remember that for a black Cuban, the link to Africa is much more direct than it is [for someone raised] in the United States. It follows that the link to African religion is much more direct too.

"I think she does it more as a joke," he suggests when asked if Rios practices Santeria. "She spreads it around. There are a lot of politicians who believe in it in this town, and so there are a lot of politicians who listen to her." Ferre, however, declined to identify any of those politicians. And he made it clear that he is not among them.

One of the few folks who would speak on the record about Rios is Willie Harris, supervisor of Moore Park in Allapattah. A turf specialist, Harris used to work for the city as an Orange Bowl groundskeeper. A few years ago, he says, he was assigned to work on the fields at Curtis Park, apparently without Rios's knowledge. "She's into voodoo or something," he recalls. "When she found out I was there, the lady physically walked up to me and bumped her body into mine. Then she started going through all these crazy changes. I said, 'Damn!' and I called the office. I was shocked to death."

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