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Sirena Selena.

Sirena Selena, by Mayra Santos-Febres. Trans., Stephen Lytle. New York: Picador USA, 2000.

Leocadio sang boleros as seductively as a mermaid, which his why his grandmother called him Sirena, "mermaid." One day the drag queen Martha Divine hears him singing as he picks through garbage on a back , street of San Juan, and with her shrewd eye for business sees his potential. As it turns out, a beautiful voice isn't Leocadio's only appeal. Even as a small boy he drove men mad with passion, and the ambitious Martha soon turns the alluring adolescent into a celebrated transvestite performer known as Sirena Selena (referred to throughout the book in the feminine).

Because Sirena is only fifteen and U.S. labor laws prohibit minors from working, Martha takes her "daughter" to the Dominican Republic, where s/he auditions at a posh luxury hotel, and one of the hotel's investors, Hugo Graubel, falls for her. Bored with his wife, family, business, and luxurious life-style, Graubel becomes obsessed with Sirena. To give himself time to seduce her, he contrives to keep the hotel from contracting her until she entertains at one of his private parties. Solange, Graubel's wife, recognizes his insistence on including a transvestite singer in the evening's amusements for what it is: an indication of his homosexual proclivities. Grasping the threat Sirena poses to her marriage and hence, her social position, Solange struggles frantically to gain the upper hand. But Sirena's singing is so powerful that eventually it seduces even Solange, ripping away her facade and exposing her profound solitude. At the party, Sirena does in fact captivate the guests and afterwards winds up in Graubel's bed, forcing Solange to admit defeat and leave the island. But in the end, no one can really possess Sirena. She is, otherworldly, a siren who seduces and disappears.

Sirena Selena is no La Cage aux Folles, where loving transvestites work and live together pretty much the same as anyone else. Puerto Rican author Mayra Santos-Febres explores the darker side of drag culture, including the exploitation, cruelty, and drug abuse that characterize life in the shadows.

After his grandmother's death, Leocadio works the streets, sharing corners with drag queens, doing drags, and sleeping under bridges. When he is brutally sodomized by a client, Valentina, a kindly fellow transvestite prostitute, comes to his aid. Fiercely protective, Valentina refuses to let him go back to work, so for a while he helps her support her heroin habit by collecting cans or robbing tourists. Eventually, though, Sirena is back turning tricks.

In spite of Santos-Febres's focus on transvestites, she provides a broad view of the lower strata of Caribbean society. Those of her characters who take to the streets are driven by desperation--extreme poverty, loneliness, or addiction. For the most part, the author portrays the poor as far more tolerant than the upper classes. Leocadio's grandmother, for example, a maid who cleans house for the rich, refuses to condemn gays and lesbians, arguing that "decency comes in all colors and all flavors." Even the hardnosed Sirena is capable of expressing sympathy for Solange, whose material wealth cannot make up for her husband's indifference. Yet, Sirena is no mythical "whore with the heart of gold." She harbors profound resentments--against the mother who abandoned her and the people who exploit her.

Santos-Febres has written a sensitive, insightful book, devoid of the caricatures that often plague books on transvestitism. Sirena is a complex and enigmatic character. Through her, the author explores not only the effects of poverty and prejudice on a segment of Puerto Rico's underclass, but also the intricacies of human nature.

Critic, novelist, and short story writer, Barbara Mujica is a professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:618
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