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.

Although nearly 70, Rios retains the vigor of a woman at least three decades younger. The chasing after kids is endless. She supervises four workers in the field, and a few high-school-age aides. During occasional breaks in the action she sips water from an aluminum mug. "I always wanted to be in Miami," she says, mostly in Spanish. Her English is fine, but her Spanish is so much stronger that she lapses into it unconsciously. "Miami is the capital of el exilio. I'm like Livan Hernandez now," she says, pointing out a newly acquired picture of the Marlins World Series MVP, which she holds over her head as she chants his famous refrain: "I love Miami!" This part she says in English. "I love Miami for the simple reason that Miami is the second home of the Cubans. After we lost our homeland, we all came here, to fight, to work, to lift ourselves up."

Rios is reluctant to reveal much about her private life. She declines a request to visit the modest home she shares with her husband in Miami's Shenandoah neighborhood. When asked if her husband, Rene Cabrera, might agree to an interview, she balks: "Oh, he won't want to talk. No way." To prove her point, she dials him on the phone, tapping the keypad with her long polished nails. When he answers, she hands over the receiver. "All you will want to ask me about is our interracial marriage," Cabrera stammers before any questions have been asked. "I know it. So therefore I am not going to talk to you!" When Cabrera worked for the city, he was the supervisor of Jose Marti Park. She chuckles, "I've been married for 54 years to ese blanquito" -- that little white guy.

Despite guarding her privacy, Rios is not at all reticent. Without prodding, she offers a tour of the pictures on her wall. There must be 50 of them, all encased in simple black frames and tightly wedged next to one another. There's Rios with former Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins. Rios with State Sen. Alberto Gutman, and with Cesar Odio. On a credenza rests a framed photo of her with a smiling Humberto Hernandez, the former Miami city commissioner who sits in the downtown federal detention center awaiting two criminal trials. There are photos with current, unindicted pols like Alex Penelas and Xavier Suarez, but it seems that most of the people she is photographed with went on to be indicted and/or convicted of crimes.

"I met all these people through political campaigns," she recalls. "Everyone seeks me out because I have good ashe." (Ashe, a term associated with Santeria, is defined as the spiritual energy that makes up the universe, all life, and all things material.) After a moment's thought, Rios amends the reason behind her popularity. "I have sex appeal," she jokes.

The majority of the photos on the wall are with two people, Cesar Odio and Maurice Ferre. The men, she explains, are her benefactors. She first started working for the city in 1980 to help with the Mariel boatlift. Odio orchestrated the relief efforts; Ferre -- "that's my baby, the love of my life" -- was mayor at the time.

To take the city job, Rios quit work as a maid in a downtown hotel. By most accounts she worked hard as a city employee. "She did a very good job there," recalls Commissioner Tomas Regalado. "As a reporter, I was there most every day. I did a lot of stories about the tent city there. She cared. She was one of the employees bringing food and taking care of women and children. She was good at that time."

When Odio rose from assistant city manger to city manager, he promoted Rios to her current post at Curtis Park. To judge her by her personnel file, she is a model employee. The manila folder overflows with commendations, letters of appreciation, and certificates of accomplishment. There are perfect-attendance awards and thank-you letters from people and organizations she has assisted. "Your dedication, commitment, and willingness to go the extra mile to ensure the job is well done is greatly appreciated. Please be aware that your diligence, efforts, and professionalism do not go unnoticed," wrote Park and Recreation Department director Al Ruder in 1992. Every annual evaluation in the past decade has judged her performance above average or better. "Mrs. Rios has done an outstanding job," concluded her supervisor, Barry Friedman, in the most recent evaluation. "[She] is an asset to the department."

Friedman retired earlier this year. Reached at his home in Tamarac, he heaps praise on his former underling. "We used to have problems at Curtis Park with some of the gangs. Caridad actually went to a meeting of the gang and talked to them. She said this is your park; you can use it or you can destroy it. She also hired one of the gang members to work for her part-time. We never had a problem with gangs again. Nobody's going to mess with Curtis Park, believe me.

"She never had children of her own," Friedman continues. "She always used to say that for some reason God didn't let her have kids, so in return she vowed to handle all the children who came into the park as if they were her own. If they needed something, she would try to get it for them. She even potty-trained one kid."

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