115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

La Vida Loca: The Power of Transvestite Geographic (Loca)lities in Santos-Febres Sirena Selena 

Grant Palmer, University of California, Riverside

Mayra Santos-Febres’ novel Sirena Selena examines how the power of drag performance operates differently between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Santos-Febres examines the shifting contextualization that geographic localities place upon performances of gender, race, class, and identity in these two Caribbean Islands through Sirena’s drag identity. 

Proposal: 

Mayra Santos-Febres’ novel Sirena Selena offers a nuanced cultural and geographic iteration to the performative act of gender through the queered body of Sirena Selena, a young Puerto Rican drag queen with an alluring sexuality exemplified by a seductive singing voice and carnivalesque stage presence. As theorized by Judith Butler in her foundational work Gender Trouble, Santos-Febres’ novel understands gender through the complex interactions of sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, social class, and identity. By situating her text in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Santos-Febres considers the specific way that the transvestism of drag, a cultural performance specific to the regional and historic celebration of Carnival, allows the lower-class Sirena Selena to produce desire in those who hear her beautiful and alluring boleros. The important difference between the two islands, a difference that both Sirena and her mentor Martha both discover in their own ways, is that the public exposure of queered gender and sexuality in Puerto Rico contrasts with the private location of these same qualities in the Dominican Republic. The liminal space that Sirena creates for herself, both through her drag appearance and her hypnotizing voice, allows for her to resist the objectifying gaze of both men and women, a resistance which Bhabha discusses as “mechanisms which threaten . . . domination” (Easthope 145). Sirena ultimately seduces, sodomizes, and robs a rich Dominican named Hugo, a powerful figure in the tourist-based economy of the area, inheriting his position of power from his father’s sugar cane plantation. The transition from a sugar-plantation economy to that of hotel-tourism is integral to the understanding of the socioeconomic inequality of the Dominican Republic, as the poor and working class citizens of the island are exploited by both. A marked rise in the interest of Carnival as a whole in Puerto Rico comes directly from the influx of tourism, which celebrates the queered bodies and social norms that Sirena exemplifies. Sirena’s ability to dominate Hugo presents Sirena’s queered body as a site of resistance to exploitation. It is the liminal location of Sirena’s queer body performance and voice which allows her to both obscure the gaze forced upon her and manipulate her listeners through the hypnotizing vocalization of her boleros.