Book Review


Sirena Selena

by Mayra Santos-Febres

(Picador USA / St. Martin 's Press, 2000)

When his grandmother dies, young Sirenito has no one to raise him but the Puerto Rican back streets. He's adopted by Valentina Frenes, a drag whore from San Juan, who teaches him to suck and to snort before she ODs on smack. He's taken in then by Martha Divine, a pre-operative transsexual, who knows she can raise the cash necessary to chop off her

organ - if only she turns Sirenito into "Sirenita." Divine sells

the young boy to the ritzy resorts as a transvestite entertainer.


If readers think at this point that author Mayra Santos-Febres has carved a funky little fusion of soap opera and grit, they'd be right - at least for the first 50 pages or so. In those opening chapters Santos-Febres captures the squalor of San Juan. She narrates prostitution and rape with details disturbingly blunt. She's not afraid to be graphic. Such details give 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.


                          November 2001




Too bad Santos-Febres bungles away our empathy after Chapter 14, where the whole novel in fact coughs, hiccups and dies. The grit and gore are through at that point; Sirena Selena unexpectedly shifts its attention to the glam and glitz of the burlesque world and its transvestite cabarets, where Sirenita is set to perform. The author force feeds us detail after detail of these drag cabarets. She tells of their lounge acts and décor, passes pages with teary-eyed speeches from queens in full tragedy mode, monologues so over the top they make RuPaul look like Jerry Falwell.  Our compassion and interest ebb.


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


Burying the horror of street life with a flamboyant gay romp renders Santos-Febres' second novel not the literary "Pixote" that it just might have been - but something all together tamer and feebler, wholly less memorable.


- Joshua Kors



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