Sirena Selena A Novel

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2000-08-05
  • Publisher: Picador

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Discovered by Martha Divine in the backstreets of San Juan, picking over garbage, drugged out of his mind and singing boleros that transfix the listener, a fifteen year old hustler is transformed into Sirena Selena, a diva whose uncanny beauty and irrisistable voice will be their ticket to fame and fortune.Auditioning for one of the luxury hotels in the Dominican Republic, Selena casts her spell over Hugo Graubel, one of the hotel's rich investors.Graubel is a powerful man in the Republic, married with children.Silena, determined to escape the poverty and abuse s/he suffered as a child, engages Graubel in a long seduction in this mordant, intensely lyrical tragi-comedy - part masque, part cabaret - about identity (class, race, gender) and "the hunger and desire to be other things."

Author Biography

Mayra Santos-Febres is Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Puerto Rico. She has published two books of poetry, and her short stories have won many prizes, including the 1994 Letras de Oro Prize from the University of Miami and the 1997 Juan Rulfo Prize, awarded by Radio Sarandi in Paris. In 1997 her two collections of short fiction were translated into English under the title Urban Oracles.

Stephen Lyttle has translated Laura Restrepo's Leopard in the Sun, Javier Gonzales Rubio's Loving You Was My Undoing, and Laura Esquivel's Intimate Succulencies, among others. He lives in Los Angeles.

Table of Contents

"Santos-Febres examines questions of sexuality and power . . . blend[ing] lyrical hyperbole with social observation . . . in her lush and tragicomic first novel." --The New York Times Book Review

"This impishly sensual novel is an often hilarious anatomy of gender confusion and reminiscent of the classic silent film The Blue Angel . . . The boy-girl Selena is as sweetly bedazzled as any hero-heroine out of a Shakespearean comedy." --Kirkus Review

"What Puig did to transform the way we think of American film, Santos-Febres has managed for Latin music. Sirena is fantastic! Like Cesaria Evora she'll come to haunt you, like Marc Anthony she'll steal your heart. The Grammys will have to invent a new category -- Best Album of the Year in Fiction." --Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate and The Law of Love


Chapter One

Cáscara de coco, contento de jirimilla azul, por los dioses dí, azucarada Selena ... Coconut shell, melancholy and restless, from the gods you came, sweet Selena, succulent siren of the glistening beaches; confess, beneath the spotlight, lunática . You know the desires unleashed by urban nights. You are the memory of distant orgasms reduced to recording sessions. You and your seven soulless braids like a selenita bird, like a radiant bird with your insolent magnetism. You are who you are, Sirena Selena ... and you emerge from your paper moon to sing the old songs of Lucy Favery, Sylvia Rexach, la Lupe, sybarite, dressed and adored by those who worship your face....

Chapter Two

In the airplane, sitting next to la Martha, who is a real lady, a veteran of thousands of footlights: El Cotorrito, Bocaccio's, Bachelors. She once did shows at La Escuelita on Thirty-ninth Street in New York City. She even had a devoted husband who set her up in an apartment in El Condado. "Just like you now, niña , as you begin your zenith. I was his decent little wife when he came to Puerto Rico from Honduras. He was a businessman, my husband. And since I have a businesswoman's blood, I learned from him how to keep books and sneaked as much as I could to set up my own little business. Don't think that I was going to end up broke and alone when that businessman grew tired of it. Me, in the street again? Never, never, never. I went through too many police raids to get these implants and the hormones that make me so fabulous. Sorry, nena . I've gotten used to the good life."

    Martha, toda una señora , her guide, her mamá . The one she never had, the person who pulled her from the street and put her in the Blue Danube to sing. She was tall and peroxide-blond, with a portentous pair of silicon breasts and incredibly smooth skin in the cleft of her bosom. She was tanned and long-legged; her nails were always painted garnet red, like a drop of coagulated blood on the tip of each of her fingers and toes. Not a single hair showed to betray her. Only her height and her voice and her very feminine mannerisms, too feminine, studiously feminine. Her teeth were perfect, no nicotine stains, though she smoked incessantly. Maybe that explained her grainy voice, as if millions of sand particles had lodged in her throat, in her long, well-moisturized neck, already a little wrinkled, but still elegant, stretching up in a proud curve to her permed hair and down to a back that was a little too wide, but nevertheless still appeared to be the delicate back of a woman of a certain age who had already lived many lives.

    Vampiress in your novel, the great tyrant ...: la Sirena was practicing on the plane as they flew toward the Dominican Republic. They were traveling on business, he and Martha. 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.

    Before he met Martha, Sirena hadn't always been a wanderer. La Selena had once had a roof overhead, but when his grandmother died from cleaning too many rich people's houses, there was no one left to take care of him. Uncles: dead or emigrated overseas. A mother: whereabouts unknown. Social Services wanted to send him to an orphanage. But for la Sirena there wasn't much difference between an orphanage and hell. He knew he would be abused by the stronger boys; they'd hit him, rape him, then leave him bleeding and half dead on the dirty floor of some storeroom. So Selena preferred to make the street his home. First with Valentina. And later with Martha, his new mamá .

    Now they were going together to the Dominican Republic on business. Martha had taught him how to save money. And where to go for really cheap wigs and makeup. Martha had made him get rid of the cocaine habit that was wrecking his nasal passages, making them bleed. " Loca , that's not where a young lady is supposed to have her first period," she said, and gave him an alternative to hustling men in European cars. She cleaned him up and helped him find the sweetness in his voice again. "You sing like the angels in heaven," Martha had told him excitedly one day, the day Selena was collecting soda cans around the Blue Danube and, without realizing it, softly singing one of his grandmother's favorite boleros. He sang it with his whole voice, as if he were going to die when he finished, he sang it to feel his misery--like a wounded dog, a purebred, but one with leprosy, dying beneath a dismantled car.

    Las dragas , the drag queens, listening to the bolero just stood there with their mouths hanging open. They were working the street, negotiating with clients, when suddenly they heard a sorrowful murmur, a heartbreaking agony that invaded their flesh and kept them from being sufficiently alert to negotiate prices for their couplings, or for quickies with husbands escaping their homes. They couldn't do anything except remember what made them cry, and their false lashes began to come unglued from their eyelids. They spun around on their high heels and loosened their wigs to hear better. Then, in a daze, they called for their manager, Miss Martha Divine, to come hear this street hustler with the voice of a holy angel.

    It was Lizzy Starr, shouting at the top of her lungs, who got Martha's attention. She stood closest to the door of the Blue Danube, that little bar of derailed travestis , where the splendiferous Martha Divine reigned as sole proprietor. Lizzy merely swung open the door, stuck her head inside for a second, and shrieked, "Martha, hurry, come see this!" Martha emerged quickly from the Danube, preparing herself for the worst. She thought she was going to have to fight with some policeman looking for a bigger take who was beating up her girls, or clubbing some client. But that's not what it was. As soon as the door closed behind Martha, she heard a subtle melody that held the entire street in suspended animation. Martha's gaze sought out the origin of the voice. And found it. It was coming from the throat of a young boy who, drugged way beyond unconsciousness, was singing as he collected empty cans. Martha just stood there, like all the other dragas , like all the clientes , stunned, like all the people driving cars along the street. When she recovered, her businesswoman's blood started pumping through her veins. She walked over to the boy and invited him into the bar for a Coca-Cola. She ordered him some food, took him to her apartment, and before long helped him kick his habit and taught him how to dress like a bolero singer. Little by little she helped to transform him into who he really was. And now she was personally taking him to the Dominican Republic, because la Selena had never flown in an airplane before. They were going on business, to see if they could sell his show to a hotel. They both had the blood of businesswomen running through their veins.

    Young Selena was nervous, perhaps because of the emotional impact of her first trip, or the hope of a new life through this plan of performing in another country, even though it was just a neighboring island. She had already done her little show at Crasholetta. She had already sung privately for the most glamorous locas in the city's gay scene. But she was still too young to be able to get a contract in the tourist hotels. "Even if you lie about your age, they can't hire you, mi amor . Federal laws prohibit child labor. Didn't you know that? So, instead," said her new mother, "we'll go to the Dominican Republic, where they don't care about such things." And now, thanks to the federal laws, Sirena Selena was about to become the diva of the Caribbean. She would awaken the yearnings of a whole new public with her songs. Her show would make her the brightest star in any four-star hotel. She would have a dresser and lights and wardrobes made of the finest fabrics. She would finally be able to display the full glory of her voice. Oh . Her voice, please don't let it fail now, Virgen Santa, don't let it change, let it stay just as it is, sweet and crystalline. The girls she worked with at the Danube never tired of telling her how a trickle of tarnished melancholy flows from the center of her chest, but it was always fresh, as old and as fresh as the perennial pain of love on the face of the earth. So many people had told her so many things about her voice. "Your voice smells like honey. Your mouth is a piece of fruit," an admirer once murmured into her ear as he tried to kiss her. She had just finished singing and was exhausted from being onstage, so she let herself be kissed. She allowed the man to wiggle his eager tongue past her exhausted lips, caressing them to see if he could loosen her up a bit. She let his tongue explore her mouth, sip the dense saliva of a night of cabaret. But in the middle of the kiss, Sirena noticed that the other mouth was seeking something more than is normally sought in a kiss. That mouth wanted to swallow a melody. That kiss was trying to devour her voice.

    When the admirer finished kissing her, he looked at her victoriously. Sirena resumed the role of mysterious woman and walked away without a word toward the back room that served as a dressing room for all the dragas at the Danube. Her slight hips swaying, she held the foreign saliva in her mouth, without swallowing it, suspecting sabotage. When she arrived in the dressing room, she rinsed her mouth with water from the faucet and Listerine. Afterward, when she arrived at Martha's apartment, she gargled with a mixture of rose petals, magnolia petals, and garlic to rid herself of any envious bacteria that might have remained hiding in her mouth.

    And that's how she felt now, wanting to put a handkerchief full of herbs around her neck, drink a shot of brandy with honey, orange blossom water, and cinnamon, swallow a raw egg yolk, pray to San Judas Tadeo. She wanted to protect her voice. It's a good thing that Sirena knows it. Her voice is the only thing she has that can get her anywhere in life.

    In the airplane, Martha didn't notice her nervousness. She gazed at Sirena, who was seemingly deep in thought, never imagining that she was praying to Santa Clara, or to la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Martha thought she was going over the words of the boleros she had selected for the audition. It amused her to think that others might see them as a family, her the mother with her fifteen-year-old son, who seemed like, but wasn't exactly, any other boy; his too-meticulously-cared-for nails, his high arching eyebrows, the slender waist, all indicating something else. And she, who was, but not really, the doting mother, a doña of a certain age who never allowed herself to be conquered by motherhood, someone who had been a young mother, a friendly confidante, and a support to the family. La Martha Divine, a little too tall, a little too strong in the lines along her chin, a little too smooth and round here and there ... But even so, anyone would think, at a casual glance, that the woman and her son constituted a family going on vacation in the Dominican Republic. She gazed lovingly at her hijito , touched his head, and Selena responded with the usual smile, distant and almost imperceptible, still engrossed in the whisper of words, prayers, and songs that was throbbing in his mind.

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