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.

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."

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.

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."

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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