- Translating Queer Caribbean Localities in Sirena Selena vestida de pena
Sirena Selena vestida de pena by Puerto Rican author Mayra Santos-Febres enacts the narrative flow of queer bodies, capital, and desire across the Caribbean basin, creating a transnational adventure tale of longing and displacement. Set in the neighboring islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the novel presents the postcard that is travel from the vantage points of multiple points of contact. The maps of center and periphery are twisted to examine circuits of transnational exchange that complicate the discrete binaries of first world and third world, the US and Latin America. The text offers the simulacra of Caribbean culture—the sensuous seductress, the warm, lapping waters of a crystalline sea, and the nostalgic cadence of the bolero—alongside the violence and brutality that occupy these same imaginary localities, discourses that coexist in the feminized male body of Sirena Selena, a poor, young Puerto Rican. This essay examines both the original Spanish text by Santos-Febres, Sirena Selena vestida de pena, and the English translation by Stephen Lytle, Sirena Selena: A Novel, to consider how differently imagined peripheries disrupt and engage sites of belonging and displacement for diverse readers. In the process, it attempts to pry open the folds of these interpenetrating sites of Latin American sexuality to consider how language, translation, and narration shape the formation of queer Caribbean subjectivity.
The novel opens with Selena, a fifteen-year-old singing sensation, and Miss Martha Divine, his mentor into the glam world of drag performance, leaving Puerto Rico aboard a plane en route to the Dominican Republic. The story begins after Miss Divine arranges for an audition for Selena at the Santo Domingo Hotel Conquistador, with the hope of booking an engagement at this luxury establishment. Travel in this novel occasions the possibility to shift from one subject position to another: from native to foreigner, from social insider to social outsider. Jorge Duany notes: “When people move across state borders, they enter not only a different labor market and political structure but also a new system of social stratification by class, race, ethnicity and gender” (147). In the case of Selena, we see a vivid transformation in perceived class status. For Selena, who spent his youth cleaning the homes of the wealthy alongside his grandmother and later picking up cans or men in the streets of San Juan, her experience as [End Page 205] exotic diva in Santo Domingo is filled with opulence.1 If the bolero diva is forever torn apart by love’s cruelties, she is also perpetually swaddled in sumptuousness. In fact, her intoxicating power as a diva is dependent on the performance of crippling romantic anguish in the face of laissez-faire luxury. Through travel and performance, the novel contrasts urban poverty in Puerto Rico with elite elegance in the Dominican Republic.
The possibilities for transformation offered by travel are appreciated fully by the young protagonist. Even as Selena and Miss Divine begin their journey toward Santo Domingo, Selena feels that this will be the first of many voyages toward self-definition: “Primer avión que coge, primera vez que brinca el charco. La segunda será a Nueva York, lo presiente. Allá a probar suerte como quien es” (9); “It’s his first time flying in an airplane, his first puddle jump. The second will be to New York, he imagines. To try his luck there as who he really is” (3).2 The continual shift in location is reiterated in the narrative biographies of these two characters, as each has already undergone a series of displacements: Martha from her native Honduras and Selena from the shelter of her grandmother’s house in the Puerto Rican countryside to one temporary home after another on the urban streets of San Juan. Likewise, the plot unfolds through the voices of various central and marginal narrators, shifting back and forth in time and place, enacting a narrative displacement for the reader.
Travel and movement hold very different significance for these two characters, and their different relationships to geographic travel find interesting parallels in their approaches to transgender identity. Selena, the younger...