Stories of Singers



Mama couldn’t believe it. She was going around saying that I was worthless and ungrateful, that the only thing I knew how to do was sing all day in the bathroom reminding her of songs that set her thinking and made her sad. That’s why she was serious, like she was when you crossed her. I kept on sweeping the cement floor of the living room while the morning radio announcer invited me, Mabel Herrera, her very own daughter, to the afternoon amateur program. Afterwards she pressed her hands together and was looking at the memory of pink that was the faded color of the walls and the photos wrinkled by the dampness and stained by the starch she used to put them up in the days when Papa brought home the magazine Carteles and hadn’t headed off to Venezuela. She adored the first Sonora orchestra and she looked at a photo of it near the picture of the Heart of Jesus framed by flowers made of little pieces of paper. She ran the back of her hands over it in a useless attempt to unwrinkle it and went off toward the patio saying that in November she’d have to repaint the living room because it was no longer presentable. I felt her cross and re-cross the patio and throw a stone against the corrugated tin and wild cane of the fence, sprinkle water she’d gathered in a pot so that the dust raised by the October breeze wouldn’t get in the house. When she came in shaking the dust off her feet Beny was on the radio with Santa Isabel de las Lajas querida which she likes so much and says that Beny is in a class by himself he doesn’t need accompaniment to sing, although I think she heard Papa say that. I had a ton of garbage piled up to take out to the street and I pretended I wasn’t paying any attention sweeping where I’d already swept waiting for her sermon and something ran through me inside when Albertico the mechanic who lives next door signaled to me with his arms above his head like a boxer from the stoop of the store out front and exclaimed: all the way with the do re mi fa sol la Mah-beh. She continued listening to Beny and with a gesture as if embracing someone in the air she started dancing in the room separated from the living room by some curtains with green and yellow flowers on a purple background and from there she shouted—to me, of course, because it’s only the two of us in this house—if I knew where the Bristol Almanac was. Then she started crying.


My papa began as a drummer for don Dámaso in the bar Nueva Holanda. Just Friday and Saturday nights because the other days of the week he worked as a longshoreman at the terminal. Mama never went to see him and she used to harp on him that with so many decent jobs what a fine thing her husband had taken up. And she would say it and say it again to anybody and everybody. One night I snuck out to watch him after the evening movie at the Laurina. The Nueva Holanda had really tall windows that started at the ground and they used to leave the top half open. If you wanted to see it was a matter of climbing up on the cross-pieces that held up the bars covering the windows. And that’s what I did tucking my dress between my legs so that no one would come by and lift it up. At first I couldn’t make out anything but when they began to play a number by Lucho Bermúdez my eyes found a green-lit place and all the musicians’ faces looked green like Martians and I don’t know if it’s because I’m grown now but those porros always made me want to play with the breeze and I started to get scared when I saw Papa with a shirt that shined and his hands covered in lace that moved with his arms and in front of him he had a tall drum that he was beating with his palms and he’d flash them and he’d leave off with one arm to drum with his elbow and he looked so beautiful to me with such a new face looking off to the side that I felt I wanted to be with him and wait for him all night without sleeping I didn’t want him to ever go back to the terminal even though he wouldn’t bring us those kerchiefs that they gave away on the Japanese ships and that Mama raffled off for fifteen cents with the last two digits of the lottery from one to a hundred whatever number it was and I almost shouted when they grabbed me by the leg and it was the policeman I should get down from there and go home and on the way I didn’t forget about my papa and I was happy bursting to hum the porro and I was getting home and Mama was in the doorway looking down toward the end of the street and saying to me before I arrived what had happened to me and what had gotten into me and who was I to be out and about so late and as soon as I entered I slammed the door and she stayed silent glued to the middle of the living room I said I was only going to see Papa play and she said that bad things are the only things people learn and that I should go to sleep quick if I didn’t want a whipping. When it began to rain I was already asleep.


I had gone to the program a few times without Mama finding out she said that I should learn dressmaking and we’d buy a Singer on credit what with the sewing and washing she took in and the odd raffle we’d pull through and later she would send me to Bottet the carpenter from Curazao who has his shop in the neighborhood and have him make a little polished sign to put in the door:



and working and working with her daughter Mabel Herrera dressmaker how was she going to let me go around singing she already bore the disappointment of my papa who went off with his music and sometimes sent us letters with some money hidden among the sheets of paper and newspaper clippings announcing the orchestra that he was playing with but without thinking the songs came to my lips and I wasn’t aware of it until girl turn off the radio what a calamity a singer for a daughter and it hurt me that she suffered and I wanted to believe her about the dressmaking and help her saying that I would make some outfits so beautiful that the president’s wife would come so that I could take her measurements and Mama would take out the little box of china that Papa brought from a ship and offer her black coffee while a big car with a driver and two motorcycles for an escort with sirens waited for her and afterwards she says when can she come back to try on the organdy and satin dress for the dance of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus with the low neckline she forgets her white glove and Mama goes out to the store for a quarter kilo of salt now that the whole neighborhood is looking out the door to see the car leave and they watch her amazed and sure of her importance she forgets about her husband and with a resigned tone says in the store that God rewards those who work and the president’s wife is crazy happy with my dressmaking and even happier when she goes to the dance with her husband and is as radiant as those who bathe with Palmolive soap the soap of beauty queens and they ask her if she had a lot of trouble bringing the dress over from the United States and of course not like coffee from Brazil it’s pure Colombian and the next day they call her on the phone to ask her again about the dress because she’s an important woman and like Elsa from the three o’clock soap opera on Radio Fuentes she answers the questions with a smile and keeps in her heart the secret of happiness but the driver like all taxi drivers is a gossip and reveals my name



and the high-class people begin to come in cars and helicopters and there aren’t enough china cups and they don’t fit in the living room and I take measurements bust-waist hips-shoulders and work day and night and I tell the president’s wife to get us one of those little houses that they give you from the Institute of Credit but you have to finish building them yourself for me and my mama and also my papa she can get him a job playing drums in the police band night and day and day and night working away on the machine working away using up my saliva to moisten threads to thread needles and once a lady comes who urrrrrgently wants a dress for a party on the ship of a king who came for a visit and I tell her that it’s impossible that there’s no time and I’m not going to be able to do a good job and she’s a lady about fifty years old and her hair is silver and she’s straight-backed she’s made up with big eyes and she looks at me and it burns her up that I can’t help her then she takes a really big pair of golden scissors out of her purse and with a slash she cuts off one of my hands and with a slash she cuts off the other and blood stains her long white dress and I manage to say you old hag and I go to the bathroom to sing.


Dear Mabe believe me I miss you a lot at the beginning things were hairy and I was getting really pissed that’s why I didn’t write to you so you and your mama wouldn’t worry here they don’t like Colombians they’re on you about your identification papers all the time the letter from don Dámaso for the nightclub I delivered it and in the end I started as a night waiter it’s not what I wanted but something is better than nothing and I listen to the orchestras that feature good singers.

Here it’s busy and very big, you get lost during the day and I hardly do anything sometimes they call me to help load trucks and if not I go to the movies with Aquiles a kid from Barranquilla who lives in the same house and works at night at a newspaper with him we start reminiscing drinking canned beer and he laughs when I tell him that your mama fought with me and dumped me for wanting to be a musician but sometimes I kind of get worried Mabe like I might be messing up and I went off the deep end with the drumming and she’s suffering and I’m going to make a song now for her that’ll be popular so that she feels I didn’t forget her and loading cargo none of that anymore because there’s only one Joseraquel Mercado. Aquiles tells me take it easy and if he says it think about it Mabe because he’s a kid with some learning and he tells it how it is they fired him from his job for writing that a senator stole the money they gave for an aqueduct and he came here so they wouldn’t kill him he says that it’s the same thing here and in the end they rob you of your life and maybe that’s true Mabe there in the darkness of the bar with my music I feel I’m inventing another life.

Be good sweetie and share this cash with your mama. Regards to the gang.



Afterwards there at the radio station they told me to come that people were always asking about me but my mama wanted me to collect the raffle money:

01 Albertico Tirado (paid)


03 Alejo the bicycle guy (owes)

04 Rosita Periñán (owes)


06 La negra Bernal (owes)

07 Rosalío Martelo (owes)


09 Jose Viñals (paid)


11 Catalina Julio (paid)


13 El Tunda (paid)

14 María Luna (owes)

15 Señora Angela Leyva (paid)

16 Atenor Jugada (owes)



19 Alvaro Cárdenas (paid)


21 Marcela Cazador (paid)


23 Alicia Padilla (paid)


25 Moncha Mercado (paid)



28 Santiago Mutis (owes)

and almost no one wanted to buy because the whole neighborhood already had china but it wasn’t easy to leave her with her blank sheet and feel her disappointment closing windows the door to the street as if week after week a mourning without death poked itself into the house and the name the memory the music the cards the absence of Papa turning into an insult that the poor woman endured from the store to the house from the house to deliver the clothes she washed and ironed without singing and suddenly I came out with it and I dared to say to her that she should leave all that behind all that lackingness but not even then and the only thing to console her was a song that annoyed her and an anger welled up in me and me singing what else could I do I didn’t do it to be bad or to bother her.


First letter of Mabel Herrera to her dear papa abroad.

January 6, 1976

Dear papa:

I don’t know, the new year came and I was at a dance at the Cárdenas’ house, now they moved to Piñango street, as soon as the horns blew and the hugging started I couldn’t fight off the desire to cry and I went off running home to wish Mama a happy new year, she was also crying and with the lights out when she opened the door and I hugged her and I realized that her crying wasn’t the same as mine nor like other people’s but something sad that was eating everything and then I didn’t go out again not even after they came to look for me and I felt that I hadn’t answered your letters at all that I had all of them in the wardrobe tied up with a green ribbon and I stayed in the living room reading them again and thinking thinking thinking how to tell you because we’ve never talked you never knew I used to slip away to watch you play and for me it was the most beautiful thing about you thinking about the class that was required at Octaviana del C. Vives the school I never went back to after you left the lesson about how to write a business letter, to a loved one, someone you don’t know, dear, remembered, respected, never forgotten or just esteemed sir, condolence, congratulations, complaint, or those telling of destiny’s abuses to the newspaper Advice Columnist but none of them were useful for what I wanted to tell you and not sound conceited and stuck-up and when it comes down to it no one knew about this little bit of affection that one tended to day after day so as not to wither away.

Here in the neighborhood they ask about you, almost always me because sadness always leaps across mama’s face, Albertico Tirado’s helper, Jugada, says that he’s fed up with fixing cars and now he thinks he’s an actor, they gave him a part in the movie that an Italian is making and he changed everything even the way he walks but his family is happy because he doesn’t go to dances with grease on his mustache and deal with carburetors and differentials anymore and when he has money he’ll send for you and you’ll go partners in an orchestra to put music to the bunch of songs he’s got stored up. I’d better continue tomorrow because I’m getting sleepy and I’m starting to ramble.

Like I was telling you I got sleepy thinking that people don’t talk that now that I wanted to write you I didn’t have a clue and by the time we realize it we’re nowhere letting silence beat down and confuse us.

Here I help mama with the raffles and delivering the clothes sometimes I go in the afternoons to the amateur singer program I don’t know if you can pick it up from there on the radio, it’s at three in the afternoon. I think I might just wind up being a singer. I asked mama if she wanted to say something to you but she said she doesn’t know you, you know that already.

Now taking leave of you, the one who loves you and thinks of you so much.

your daughter



In the end she told me to do whatever I wanted to do and that I shouldn’t count on her for anything the only really true thing about the radio soap operas is the suffering because pleasure and fame no way and I should go away soon wherever I wanted the only thing left for her was to die and nobody could say a thing because she had fulfilled her responsibility of telling me telling me telling me telling me telling me until her jaw was sore that work is what God commanded and not the shamelessness of going around acting like a wandering star and she had no hopes of killing her hunger with my self-importance and the rest of it I didn’t understand and I never made the effort of paying attention because I had no answer for her nothing that she’d understand and that would help her abandon her stubbornness her self-destruction and abandoning herself while everything the raffles washing clothes buying on credit at the store living damn it was becoming more difficult. Sometimes I talked with Jugada, Albertico Tirado’s helper, who would go at night and buy pop and he’d sit on the stoop and tell me about the movie and he’d ask about papa who wrote less and less and was surely looking for an orchestra where he could devote himself to his music.

I always think that in those days when she didn’t want to talk anymore and didn’t listen to the songs on the radio I could feel what was going to happen and that no one could do anything that’s why the night they gave me the amateur of the year prize and made me sing four times in a row tú me acostumbraste and from the street corner I saw a whole bunch of people in front of the house right away I knew that mama had finally cut her veins and I began to cry with this sad desire that still comes to me when I’m singing at the Portobelo by the sea and the night paints itself a milky white way off there and it makes me angry and sad and it’s the same tears as that day.


Roberto Burgos Cantor

Roberto Burgos Cantor was born in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, in 1948. He moved to Bogotá in 1966 to study law and political science at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, graduating in 1971. He was the author of seven short story collections and seven novels. In addition to his vocation as a writer, he worked as an attorney, holding an impressive variety of positions in public service. For many years Burgos Cantor wrote a regular opinion column for major Colombian newspapers. At the time of his death in 2018, he was director of the creative writing program at the Universidad Central in Bogotá, and had recently been awarded Colombia’s National Novel Prize.

Joel Streicker

Joel Streicker’s translations of Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Pilar Quintana, and other Latin American writers have been featured in numerous journals, including A Public Space and McSweeney’s. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Great Lakes ReviewThe Opiate, and Kestrel. Streicker’s forthcoming story in the next issue of Blood Orange Review is also the winner of that journal’s inaugural fiction contest. He has published poetry in Spanish, including the volume El amor en los tiempos de Belisario, as well as in English.

Copyright (c) Editorial Oveja Negra, 1981. English translation copyright (c) Joel Streicker, 2019.