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Reviewed by:
  • Sirena Selena
  • Joshua Kors
Sirena Selena By Mayra Santos-Febres Translated by Stephen Lytle. New York: Picador. 214 pp.

When his grandmother dies, young Sirenito has no one and nothing to raise him but the Puerto Rican backstreets. He’s adopted by Valentina Frenesí, a drag whore from San Juan, who teaches him to suck and to snort before she ODs on smack. He is then taken in by Martha Divine, a pre-operative transsexual, who knows she can raise the cash necessary to chop off her organ only if she turns Sirenito into “Sirenita.” Divine sells the boy to the ritzy resorts as a transvestite entertainer.

Readers who trust that Mayra Santos-Febres has contrived a funky little fusion of soap opera and grit are right—for the first fifty pages or so. In the opening chapters she captures the squalor of San Juan and narrates prostitution and rape with disturbingly blunt detail. She gives us the eerie experience of being Sirenita, rummaging through trash bins to find scraps of food, bleeding into our pants after a hard night of work.

Too bad Santos-Febres bungles away our empathy. A little while later the novel coughs, hiccups, and dies. The grit and gore are through at that point; Sirena Selena unexpectedly shifts to the glam and glitz of the burlesque world and its transvestite cabarets, where Sirenita is set to perform. The author feeds us detail after detail of these drag cabarets. She tells of their lounge acts and decor, spends pages on teary-eyed speeches from queens in full tragedy mode, monologues so over the top they make Ru Paul look like Jerry Falwell. Our compassion and interest ebb.

And that’s a real tragedy. Because before the silliness overtakes her character’s pain, Santos-Febres is on her way to making a strong political statement about poor Latin children—how all too many are pushed to live on the street, with its drugs, prostitution, and crime. Sirena Selena cries out about this problem before allowing its attention to wander, in effect silencing itself.

Burying the horror of street life under a flamboyant gay romp renders Santos-Febres’s second novel not the literary Pixote that it might have been but something altogether tamer, feebler, less memorable.