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.

In 1992, according to documents in her personnel file, Rios donated some of her vacation time to a co-worker who suffered a hernia. It was the second time she donated vacation time to a colleague in need. She spent her last vacation bringing her sister over from Cuba for a cataract operation; they hadn't seen each other in 40 years. The sister is living for now in Rios's Shenandoah home. Most Sunday afternoons the two of them travel to La Hermita de la Caridad church near Mercy Hospital to view the blessed sacrament, which is on display.

A woman picking up her kids from day care pops into the office. She and Rios chat for a while. When she leaves, Rios says, "Que Dios te bendiga." God bless you.

"I bless everyone," she says, refocusing her attention on the question of her religious beliefs. "Is that brujeria? Witchcraft? When the kids get here in the morning I say, 'God bless you.' When someone calls on the phone I say, 'What's happening, my dear? Bless you.' At home with my sisters, when I wake up in the morning I ask for their blessing. Before I go to sleep I ask for their blessing. When I wake up, I go outside and I give thanks to God. I can bless whomever I want. Is that brujeria?"

The answer, of course, is no. The more interesting question, ultimately, is how such rumors take shape and grow to assume a life of their own in the hothouse of Miami politics. Could it be that, as an older black Cuban woman with a flamboyant sense of spiritualism, she is being typecast?

Rios waves off such concerns and steps into a golf cart, determined to grant a tour of her park. A pair of basketball courts almost gleam; the paint stripes are fresh and nets hang from the rims. Circling the football field is one of the best running tracks in the city. The wide green baseball diamonds are the home field for Miami High School. Driving toward the swimming pool, which abuts a bend in the Miami River, Rios sweeps her arm across a panorama of the whole park. "All of it is mine!" she says grandly. A rosary dangles from a corner of the golf cart.

Although Rios could retire at any time, she says she can do more good at the park than she could at home. She stops the tour back at the playground, where some of her kids fly off the swings, landing softly in a bed of fine pebbles that Rios's workers have raked clean of any cigarette butts and food wrappers. It's time to feed the kids, she says. And as for those who talk of her involvement with Santeria? "All I have to say is may God forgive them," she concludes, scooting off to her duties. "For everyone who has said something about that topic and Caridad Rios, may God forgive them."

Editorial intern Alan Diaz assisted in the reporting of this story.

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