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.

Harris's claim of "crazy changes" begs for elaboration. "She started, you know, changing, almost like a temper tantrum. Like she was telling me what to do and that I was going to do it." Harris claims not to know why Rios was bothered by his presence.

"She actually called [former City Manager Cesar] Odio, and Odio personally came out there and walked into the middle of the darn field," Harris continues. "She put her hand on his damn head and pulled him -- by his damn head! Everyone out there was scared because he was the city manager and she just handled him like a damned kid. I was shocked as hell."

Rios denies this ever happened. "That is a pure lie," she insists. "Odio has never been here except to watch high school games and other events. I don't know who that man is, but he is a son of a bitch and a liar." She sits in silence for about a minute before speaking again. "I think I remember him -- a tall, dark man. I did throw him out, because he was fresh and disrespectful."

Odio, incarcerated in the federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, could not be reached for comment. Rios says she loves Odio "as if he were my son. We're great friends. He is a great friend of mine."

Willie Harris once worked at the city with a man named Felix Reposo. According to Harris, Reposo was so afraid of the powers of Santeria that his co-workers would put fake blood on his belongings just to watch him come unglued. "Santeria works!" Reposo cries after agreeing to meet outside a Cuban restaurant on SW Eighth Street. "I don't know if it works 100 percent of the time, but it works! It works for sure!"

Reposo left the city years ago, fired, he says, for alienating himself from his bosses. He still remembers a nasty run-in he claims he had with Rios. "She told me that she was going to leave the park for the day to go to a political meeting with all these big shots like Ferre and Odio. And I complained that I was going to be left at the park doing all the work. So she started bending over backward and shit and doing all these crazy movements. I was like, 'Oh, man!' I was freaked out."

Reposo says he believes Rios's erratic actions were meant to play on his fear of Santeria. "I don't know if she meant it for real," Reposo admits. "It was all psychological shit, you know? She thought she was playing with my fucking mind."

Rios does not recall this event. Nor does she recall who Reposo is.

If Rios serves as Miami's unofficial santera, she clearly does so on her own time. Her days are booked solid. She arrives at the park, at the intersection of NW 24th Avenue and the north bank of the Miami River, every weekday at 8:00 a.m. She doesn't drive, so her husband, a retired city worker, takes her. Her one-room office is in the park's tiny field house. On the office walls are dozens of framed pictures of her with local politicians. On the door hang Miami Dolphins and UM Hurricanes posters. On her cluttered desk rest two open Bibles. A third Bible sits in a bookshelf at the side of the room.

Rios says her daily routine involves "everything, everything." During the summer Rios provides day care to about 30 neighborhood children. Some days they go roller skating; other days they swim in the park pool. If they are going to be in the park at noon, she serves the children box lunches and chocolate milk, which they eat on the picnic tables under shade trees alongside some swing sets. "God didn't give me children," states Rios, who earns $50,000 per year. "I don't have offspring. But all the kids here are my children."

Rios was born in Havana in 1928. From an early age, she wanted to be a dancer. "I left Cuba with a contract to be a dancer and singer in Nassau," she recalls. "I went to Nassau, then I stayed there when the trouble of the revolution came." She relocated to Miami but soon realized she wasn't particularly welcome in the Deep South at that time. "Miami in the early Sixties was no place for a black woman," she remembers. "I went to New York because here my color was very bad."

In New York, according to a yellowed press clipping she retrieves from her desk, she danced the rumba and mambo in clubs with names like El Torero, El Piano, and Los Violines. The photo in the newspaper clipping matches an antiquated snapshot framed on her wall. In the picture, she's wearing a long white ruffled dress that hugs her ample curves. Her hair is pulled back tight on her head, as it still is today, 35 years later. She retains smooth skin the color of her deep brown eyes. Her teeth are perfectly white, her eyebrows penciled on. The most prominent of her several necklaces displays a large gold cross.

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