Stephan Sebastian Herrera

Light Before Sound


Stephan Sebastian Herrera is an Ecuadorian-American writer. His fiction has appeared in Latino Book Review and he was a finalist in the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can contact him at

“Show me what you remember,” said Mamita.

It’s hard to remember. I don’t remember much. I remember rock & roll. I remember a lot of other music too, but specifically rock & roll.

This doesn’t start with rock & roll. It starts with cumbia. The last time I was home, I asked Mamita to show me the steps. Growing up as a textbook introvert, a case study introvert, I had the tendency to dissolve into the nearest wall at the very mention of dancing. I had nothing against dancing. I remember dancing alone, in rare moments, a move or two, an impassioned twist of the hip or jerk of the shoulder. But now that I’m not so shy—only so much shyness is tolerated in adults—I’d like to be a good dancer. I think I’m all right. I have rhythm. People ask to dance with me (I’m still too shy to ask them) and sometimes even want to dance a second song.

The first person I ever danced with was a goth named Rita. A pale girl with weary eyes and a puckered face, like she’d bitten into a lemon. Rita came up to me where I stood beside my one or two friends just outside the dance floor. I must have been eleven or twelve, she was a year or two older. Rita peered at me from the corners of her eyes and said, without the slightest hint of enthusiasm, “Wanna dance with me?” I pretended I hadn’t heard the question and asked, “What’d you say?” delaying the inevitable, praying she’d laugh it off and say, “Nothing, never mind.” Instead she repeated herself very clearly: “Do you want to dance with me?” She wasn’t smiling. An affirmative push from behind, by a friend or an angel, sent me stumbling into that hostile terrain where I was half-blinded by the flashes of a strobe light and a trickling white disco ball. Rita placed my hands on either side of her waist, and she burned between them, burned through the lace of her black dress that matched her hair, her lips, her boots, and like that we danced, we danced like that, shifting our weight from side to side, making and avoiding eye contact, my hands on Rita’s waist, Rita’s hands tossed over my shoulders, nervously sweating together to music neither of us listened to, neither of us liked, both of us hated, in that horrible school, with their horrible school dances. And I’m only remembering this now, that first dance of my life with a gothic girl named Rita, for whom I regret not having any real response when she looked at me at an angle, from behind her black hair, which was not naturally black, and told me, “You’re a good dancer,” and instead of saying “Thank you, Rita with the weary but caring eyes, you’re a good dancer too,” I said simply, “Thanks,” but it was more like a “thx,” because I wanted so badly for the song to end so that I could disappear again behind the reach of those lights and punch my friend or my angel in the gut, and wipe the sweat off my face with my sleeve, or wipe my entire face off my face, but it never ended, that endless song, that endless first dance of two introverts—and, to me, this is rock & roll.

“You’re not paying attention,” Mamita said, shooing me away.

I apologized. Rita was gone. 


When I was growing up, Mamita threw a lot of parties. I remember how she sent me (with a push from behind) marching down the line of guests to shake hands and kiss cheeks like an undersized politician. Over the course of the night, the music rose in volume from its already tremendous height to underline the party’s satisfaction with the meal and to match the undulating effects of wine. Eleven, eleven thirty: that was about the time when dancing was no longer optional. Mamita’s real party began, and our introvert died a little in his shoes.


It was eleven thirty. Mamita was shuffling to bed in her pajamas when I asked her to show me how to dance. In the morning I would fly out of Phoenix for New York. She didn’t ask me why I wanted to learn cumbia now in my late twenties. Mamita responded by telling me we had to play some music if I wanted to learn how to dance.

I’d been listening to a lot of cumbia for the first time in my life since we were the only Ecuadorian family in the world that didn’t listen to it. Despite my parents’ indifference to the genre, it’s a proven fact that cumbia is good. One reason cumbia is good is that it’s sexy—and not in any desperate way. Cumbia is subtle and suggestive. Cumbia warms us to a steady simmer without burning a thing.

Mamita could give two shits about subtlety. She’s a costeña, a compact bullet from Esmeraldas, and she craved something more dire than cumbia.

“I’m a hardcore salsera,” were her exact words.


What is rock & roll?

It’s my first CD.


Music was something borrowed, not collected. That is, until my thirteenth birthday when Carmen gave me the Cure’s new eponymous album. The song that bit me was, of course, “The End of the World.” The instantaneous intrusion of Robert Smith’s voice on the first downbeat. The necessity of that voice. From “The End of the World,” I traveled backward through their discography—not on CDs (I never bought music because I never had money), but on Papi’s albums on tape.

I remember loving someone when I was fourteen or fifteen, and we shuddered, naked, under the cloak of this music. Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me blasted on my RCA stereo when a song came on that interrupted or heightened our frantic and triumphant expressions of teenage truth, and it nearly destroyed me. It did a little bit. (Is falling in love being a little bit destroyed?) When we finished, I ejected the hissing tape and read the title: “Catch.” It’s the sweetest song I’ve ever heard. Sweet in every way I could ask a song to be sweet. I’m no longer in love with that person, though I love this memory, which sits modestly in the past behind other, more pressing memories. I may not be in love with them but I’m still sickeningly in love with “Catch.”


It’s Mamita high-fiving me when I turn off my cumbia playlist and shuffle play Celia Cruz on Spotify.


My sister. Carmen. She’s only three years older than me, though I don’t know if that means anything. We diverged from each other so drastically it’s hard to see the children we once were together. When I was in my pre- and early teens, I sank deeper into my introversion, which hardened into misanthropy and obstinacy. Carmen, on the other hand, strode gracefully through the gates of adolescence. But before she went to college, before we disappeared from each other’s gaze, or simply stopped looking back over our shoulders to see if the other was still there, we shared music. Specifically, rock & roll. More specifically, it was the rock & roll of the new millennium.

I don’t talk to Carmen very much. Not because I don’t love her, and not because we don’t get along. She lives in Arizona, I live in New York. It’s not that either. Distance matters, but there are greater distances than just physical ones.

We never figured out a language we could both speak.

A few months ago I pulled Carmen up in my contacts and typed out this text in an attempt to sound out a primary vocabulary: remember when you were in high school and I was in junior high and you’d drive us to Walmart to buy a new cd?

What did we talk about in the car? I don’t remember. Maybe I don’t remember because we didn’t talk. It was a thirty-minute drive. We must have played music. I know heading back home that’s what we did.

Carmen knew what she was looking for. I ran my fingers down the alphabet, wondering what I would buy if I had money. After Carmen found the CD, we parted ways. She went shopping for makeup. I browsed the mass market fiction.

We listened to bands that are hilarious to me now: Blink-182, the Used, Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance. But good shit too, I swear! (Although, let me be clear, MCR is still good shit.) Music that, if it came on now, wouldn’t make me cringe or dive to lower the volume: Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Gorillaz, the Killers, Weezer, the Strokes. (I never turn the volume down on the Strokes. The Strokes embodied the spirit of that era, and though I don’t listen to their new music, I want to think it stayed good. I still listen to the Strokes. I believe in the Strokes.)

That music still reminds me of Carmen. She must revisit those memories every once in a while, but I don’t think she realizes how often I do. I never sent that text.

Carmen started the car while I unwrapped the new album. She entrusted me with this task because we were both very particular with our things. I took my time peeling the security strip to prevent leaving adhesive residue on the case. (No metaphors here, please. Nothing more or less than the act of opening a brand new CD.) The plastic popped open to reveal the unmistakable album design on the disk. I plucked it from the case and turned it over to see how clear the sensitive side was, clearer than it would ever be again, only the warmth of my fingers clouding the points where I held it. I slipped it into the CD player, inside which a laser focused on the indentations encoded on the racing disk, a sensor reading reflections of light, light converting into electricity, electricity into rock & roll, rock & roll into memories of my older sister in the driver’s seat, armed with the volume. We waited. Forget rock & roll. Any human being who has ever listened to a new album knows these initial empty seconds are not empty at all. They are the great flash of light in the creation of sound.

The drive home was always too short. We waited in the driveway, singing the lyrics we knew—what we didn’t, we learned in the pages of the stapled paper booklet. We didn’t unbuckle our seatbelts, we didn’t leave the car, we didn’t do anything until the album said we could by ending.

Remember, Carmencita?



It’s my sister shutting herself in her room with her friends, the house phone, the good boombox, the good snacks.

It’s the girls crying out their private, untouchable joy from the other side of the door.


Post-punk, emo, alternative, indie rock—they came later. Before anything, it was punk rock and my punk rock primo.

Danilo showed up at our house one summer after he ran away. He didn’t run away in the traditional fashion. Rather than disappearing in the dead of night, leaving behind a final, denunciatory note to the world, he told his parents over dinner he couldn’t stand his life in Ecuador anymore, and informed them of his plans to move to the U.S. and live with friends who’d congregated in California. My tía Almita knew which friends he was talking about, and knew that if he followed them, within a month he would end up in jail or dead on a beach, his body sprawled under a foreign sun, and suddenly there wouldn’t be any friends in California. My tía called Papi pleading for us to take him in. “Send the guambra,” said Papi. My primo, who was a little older than Carmen, was a favorite in our family.

Danilo was totally unrecognizable. As a boy he wore baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts and a baseball cap over his brown, middle-parted hair. When my parents came home from the airport, a skinny, sharp-faced stranger trailed behind like a shadow. He was dressed in tight black clothes, a studded belt wrapped around a narrow waist, and swollen skateboarding shoes. Underneath a black beanie were two thick locks of black hair falling over his right cheek and down the nape of his neck.

It was late. In those days I slept on the couch. It seemed impossible for me to fall asleep in my own bed, and once I’d comfortably relocated to the living room and finally made a little home for myself, my insomnia at last caught up with me. Out of the crack of one eye, I watched this figure pass by with his head cast down. He had a guitar case in one hand, a skateboard in the other, and a small backpack slung over his shoulder, nothing more.

Mamita asked if he was hungry. He said he was tired. He kissed them goodnight and vanished into the bedroom Mamita had arranged for him. The room was actually mine; my parents had asked if he could stay there until we figured out another arrangement. It was a polite gesture because obviously I had no say in such matters. Ordinarily I would have taken it as an opportunity to complain, but since I wasn’t sleeping there, and because it was Danilo, I said, “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

My parents stood in the kitchen and spoke in delicate whispers about their sobrino. Mamita made a plate of food. She covered it with another plate and left it in the fridge for him to find.

In the morning the food was still there (I checked to see if I’d missed Danilo in the middle of the night). My bedroom door was slightly ajar. I listened for any movement inside before entering. The only sign of him was his belongings. I unzipped the top of his guitar case and saw the mirror shine of tuning pegs. Across the head of the electric guitar, I read the word “Squier.”

I found Danilo sitting on the steps of our porch. The sides of his head were buzzed, his mohawk lay flat and damp from the shower. I sat next to him and he hugged me. He started laughing. I must have looked unrecognizable to him too. I was probably seven or eight the last time Danilo had seen me. I was still small, in my pre-teens, but I wasn’t a little kid anymore, according to me. I’d grown out my wavy hair and I spoke in a deeper, more serious tone than was natural because I was one of the only boys in my grade whose voice hadn’t yet cracked. I hugged him back and started laughing too.

The house was still asleep; it was hardly seven in the morning. I sat on my bed and watched Danilo style his hair. With unbelievable focus and dexterity, Danilo applied a concoction of gel and hairspray to construct his mohawk, erecting liberty spike after liberty spike. Danilo often slouched, and he dragged his gaze from where it rested only when he had to. But when he caught a glimpse of his mohawk, he held his chin high and his entire presence grew, giving him a sudden grand and kingly air. He smiled at his work and then at me through the mirror. I nodded in approval and wonder.

Danilo let me use his MP3 player the entire time he stayed with us. This was before iPods and I’d never seen anything so small. I didn’t understand his instructions. We didn’t have the Internet. We had a family computer that broke after one year. The technology was too advanced for me, so I just pressed play, allowing it to guide me through Danilo’s tastes. I heard a lot of hardcore punk, some reggae, ska, and—

“Who’s this?”

“The Clash.”

—and the Clash.

I heard violent, thrashing songs that made little sense to me and which I liked. (Once, Danilo showed me the music video for “Liar” by Rollins Band and asked why I was laughing. I said it was ridiculous. He considered it for a moment, and in the end he agreed, it was ridiculous.) I’d never heard punk before, but it suited me right away. It sounded like the natural child to the rock & roll of the 60s and 70s I’d grown up on. Something my parents didn’t like—which was a positive sign—something I could call my own. Rock & roll to rock & roll.

Danilo and I were the only unemployed members of the household, so during the day I took him to the parking lots and plazas where I skateboarded with my one or two friends (new friends). I was comfortable on a skateboard but completely talentless when it came to doing tricks, and skateparks terrified me. Nevertheless I told Danilo I was a street skater.

“Yo también,” he said. He couldn’t do any tricks either.

Skateboarding with my friends as a kid is the closest I’ve come to belonging to a motorcycle gang. We kicked and coasted around town with Danilo, defying the banalities of summer, emboldened by the knowledge that people—teachers, cops, business owners, churchgoers, pedestrians, parents, popular, rich kids—hated us because we were skaters. And before Danilo, I’d never been able to skate with music—my Walkman skipped if I moved around too much. Now, I raced along on my board, the breakneck tempo of punk rock racing along with my racing heart, thinking, who would say anything to us with Danilo, studded and spiked, at our side?

Then school started. Carmen introduced Danilo to her friends, and pretty soon, when I got home, the house was empty and I was alone. It didn’t make sense. They were preppy, Danilo was punk. And even though my Spanish was bad, I’d never heard Carmen even try. Her friends made faces when they heard Spanish. But they loved Danilo. They loved Danilo because everyone loved Danilo. It’s easy to love someone who loves like a dog. I loved like a cat, and loving like a dog is better than loving like a cat. People think it’s the other way around, but it’s not. His love was simple and reliable and steady. My love was fearful, self-centered, temperamental. Love forever threatened by better love. It would be a long time before I learned to love differently.

(Have I learned to love differently?)

Danilo left after three months. They were the best months of my childhood even though (or maybe because) I didn’t understand anything. When I got older, I learned that before he came to live with us, Danilo had fallen into the local drug scene. He’d gotten thin. He would disappear into the shadows of Quito’s nightlife and reappear days later “with one foot on the other side,” according to my tía Almita.

After he moved back to Ecuador, Danilo spent some time on the coast where there was lots of sun. He traveled around Europe and met a Parisian student of photography who learned Spanish just to have conversations with him. (I can see them sitting across from each other, passing her digital camera back and forth, trying to capture those hidden parts of a new lover.) He didn’t use anything hard. Instead he drank and smoked more. He studied microbiology in Quito and grew his own strain of weed on my abuelita’s terrace that overlooked Calle Guanguiltagua. (Danilo told my abuelita he was growing special flowers; my abuelita in turn didn’t tell anyone that her nieto was a second-rate botanist.) His natural brown hair came down to his shoulders, and he practiced traditional, somber Andes classics on the guitar and charango. Years later, while I was studying literature, Papi, who’d flown to Ecuador for my abuelita’s funeral, came back with a note from Danilo. Our contact in the interim had been limited to likes on Facebook. Neither of us posted very much, so there wasn’t much to see or say. After a couple years I deactivated my account. Life carried on.

I’ve looked everywhere for Danilo’s note. I know it’s somewhere, in some box, in some book, somewhere. I remember parts of it. He’d written, in adolescent handwriting, that some people in life, even if they don’t mean to, lead you away from the things you love, or from the feeling of love itself. Sometimes it’s not other people, but things, like heroin or a comfortable life. And sometimes it’s neither things, nor other people, but you. He explained that before he came to live with us he’d lost himself. He’d stopped skateboarding. He’d stopped playing guitar. He wrote, in English, “I misplace myself.”

That first day with Danilo started with just the two of us. It ended the same.

He asked me why I slept on the couch. I told him I had trouble falling asleep. He said he could fall asleep anywhere, any time of day, but that he dreamt too much, it didn’t feel like he was ever really sleeping. I reached behind the couch and showed him the acoustic guitar Mamita had bought for me. He handed it back and told me to play something for him. All I could play was an open D chord. He said okay then. I played the chord, but my third finger muted the E string at the last moment. I winced.

He asked if I had an electric guitar.

“No,” I answered.

He told me to wait there, and he went into our room. I practiced making my one chord sound full and clear. He was the first person to hear me play anything, not that there was much to hear. I wanted another chance. To preserve the end.

Danilo returned holding the Squier Stratocaster I’d seen that morning by the neck, and he placed it in my hands, my first electric guitar, dark and heavy and gleaming. 


It’s open caskets of wires and cables, buzzy headphones, telephones, flip phones, blank CDs and empty CD cases.

It’s albums full of ghosts.


When I could actually play the guitar, Papi would say, “Toca ‘Working Class Hero.’” The word “fuck” appears twice in that song. The first time I performed it was in front of my parents and their friends. Mamita’s eyes widened in horror. By the time she called me into her bedroom later that night, I had prepared my defense. Censoring the lyrics for the sake of making them more palatable, I explained to her in a jumble of disjointed sentences, would jeopardize not only the song’s integrity but possibly our own. Mamita’s an artist—it’s her great weakness. “Bueno,” she ceded, not without pain. I held a straight face, even though I was mostly bullshitting—not completely, but mostly. I just liked hitting the strings while singing the word “fuck” to a bunch of my parents’ friends with impunity.

Papi always requested songs for me to learn. He played a song for me called “La Maza” by Silvio Rodríguez, but it was too difficult. He introduced me to Atahualpa Yupanqui and Mercedes Sosa and Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara and all the left-wing folk singers of Latin America.

“Le cortaron las manos de Víctor Jara,” Papi said, his voice pinched by an old sadness. “Le cortaron sus manos.”

“Who did?”

“Los capitalistas.”

Papi told me how the junta in Chile had chopped off Víctor’s fingers and hands because that was the cruelest thing you could do to a guitarist, the strokes of whose fingers threatened too much life in their march of death. For a long time I imagined the blade coming down on those hands every time I picked up my guitar.

Later, after I read an article somewhere which stated that Víctor Jara’s hands had been beaten and broken and not severed, as Papi had claimed, I began to wonder if, though there wasn’t any doubt the artist had been tortured and murdered by soldiers of the new military dictatorship, the whole business of his hands had not been steeped in the romantic obfuscation of legend, tragic but ultimately untrue, and a poet’s death was just a death and there was no poetry to be found in it.

I asked Papi if he was sure it all happened the way he said.

“Yes. I’m sure,” he answered. I said nothing. And again he insisted: “Of course I’m sure.”

Papi cleaned his round, wire-framed lenses on his t-shirt, and walked outside to smoke.


It’s sitting on the asphalt at the top of our street, smoking the first cigarette of my life.


“¿Donde vas?” Papi asked.

“For a walk,” I said, shutting the door.

Moments earlier, I’d stood on a chair and reached for the shoebox hidden behind a stack of jeans on a shelf in my closet. The box originally held my track spikes. Now it held the paraphernalia of my boyhood delinquency: warm bottles of Miller High Life, some Vegas call-girl cards, a sad amount of cash, a very gold and very dead beetle, and the cigarette I’d stolen from Papi, among other things. He was the most detached and least sentimental smoker. He paid almost no attention to brands or flavors. No consistency, no preferences.

I walked up the steep road along our house. It was evening, the air cool, the street empty. I found a spot at the top of the hill where there weren’t many houses, and from which I could keep an eye on our driveway and look out for Mamita’s car bringing her home from work. I cradled the flame flailing at the end of a match. I dipped the cigarette and watched, cross-eyed, as the white paper blackened into smoke. I was prepared to start coughing like they did in movies when the protagonist smoked their first cigarette, but I didn’t have to. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

I smoked the whole thing, sitting on the road, looking down at my house, puffing more confidently like the protagonist later on in the movie. It was a very enjoyable first cigarette because it was sufficiently dramatic.

(Thinking back on it, it must have been a menthol, there’s no way a regular cigarette would have been so easy to smoke. It explains why the pack was full.

I guess Papi had some preferences.)

When I came back to the house I did what Papi did when he didn’t want Mamita to know he’d been smoking: I washed my hands and face with soap, and as an extra precaution changed my t-shirt. It didn’t work for Papi but maybe it’d work for me.


It’s someone I loved (a new someone) pirating music for me because I never learned how. I looked over their shoulder as they dumped an artist’s entire discography into my iTunes with a tap of their finger. In a flash it was there, all simply and overwhelmingly there, albums lost in their songs, drowned in their tracks.


         “¿Tienes hambre, mijito?”

         “No, Mamita.”

         “No quieres arrocito y carne?”

         “No, I’m okay. Thank you.”

         “¿Con huevito y aguacate? Puedo hacerte una ensaladita.”

         “No, really, I’m not hungry.”

         “Rapidito lo hago.”

         “No, no.”

         “¿Quieres algo de tomar?”

         “No, I’m okay, I have water.”

         “Te hago un tecito.”

         “I’m okay, Mamita. Thank you.”

         “Toma un tecito.”


         “Toma un teciiiito.”

         “Fine. Will you have some?”


         “Okay. I’ll make it.”


It’s Mamita sleeping on the couch in her uniform for one of the two jobs she worked, one of the three jobs she worked, which never included the work of being Mamita.


Show me what you remember.

I remember simple technologies that have disappeared into stories I’ve kept for myself. That menthol cigarette is a little piece of technology that had one use. It served its purpose that evening on the road, and now, like that evening, it’s gone, obsolete. I think of other technologies that mattered so much when they had a purpose, and I wonder if they’re sitting in a landfill alongside the butt of my very first cigarette. I wonder what happened to my shoebox full of silly hedonism. I wonder what happened to all those tapes of the Cure.

Where’s my Walkman?

I remember people. People who showed and shared rock & roll with me. Versions of people and versions of myself that still blow air into the mouths of VCRs and wait impatiently to use the landline. Wherever they are, they live their lives in a way that seems simple to us now, but never was. The technologies have been switched out and replaced with newer ones. The problems of living have been switched out and replaced by the exact same ones.


It’s memory, confused with images and scenes stolen from home videos and photos developed at Walgreens.

It’s Kodak, disposable cameras, disposable contexts.


A friend (new? old?) asked why I write about my relationships like they don’t exist anymore, how I’m able to store them in boxes full of old cables and junk. I replied that sometimes I looked through these boxes to remember their contents with fondness, real fondness, which was why I kept them, but that for the most part, for most of the day, I forgot what was inside.

My new or old friend seemed hurt when I said that, and walked away.


It’s VCRs, VHS, head cleaners, cleaning my head of the past.


I don’t like tea, and I don’t need honey, but on my last night home with Mamita, before flying back to New York, we drank tea with lots of honey.

For Mamita, music was an excuse to dance. “Forget the steps,” she said, “just listen.” She was light on her feet and her hands moved in rhythmic circles at her sides. Our slippers made soft, pattering sounds on the kitchen tiles as Mamita had me mimic her movements. She encouraged me even when we both knew I wasn’t doing it right, the sort of gesture that didn’t bother me now as it would have when I was a kid. With every song that played came the anticipation of the next, so that in the middle of finding one artist she had me look for another, until the searches became more obscure, the echoes of the songs more faint, and her pursuit of them therefore more urgent, and soon she was sitting at the counter, absorbed in the unboxing of her own recollections, meanwhile I put a pot of water on the stove, appreciative but privately relieved to know the dancing, at least for now, had come to a natural end.

Mamita had her head propped up on one arm. She wore a pink bathrobe with roses on it, and her curly hair was tied back into a loose bun. She played a song for me on her Samsung. A fourth song, a fifth. Songs she loved as a girl. Almost all of them sweet and mournful ballads. She was not playing music for me, but for herself, and at some point I had the notion that I was not sitting across from Mamita, but someone I’d heard about, someone blurry, and when I write girl, I am writing the word Mamita used, she said girl, not niña, but girl, a translation of herself, the idea of someone that could have existed, that could have been her, a girl I could never see in my head. I don’t know her, and I am filled with shame. Late at night, we are endless translations of ourselves, the hopeless resurrection of our own lost voices, and of each other’s.

She told me to watch the video in her hands. Instead I watched her hands, and remembered a line in a song whose name I forget. Mama, I’m getting older. That’s the line in English. Another translation. When I heard it I decided it was either the first or last line of a book I’ll write about Mamita. The book will be a text elucidating everything I want to say about her hands. The same hands that held rain and sunlight before they held me. The same that held a Samsung, playing a video on YouTube called “Jose Jose - El Triste en vivo 1970.”

On that night, March 15, 1970, the stormy intro of “El Triste” washed over José José’s bowed head along with a flurry of roses thrown from the audience. Mamita beat him to the first lyric, against the delicate plucking of a harp, though she soon followed his lead, as did the fifty or so musicians behind him. He commanded, boldy and beautifully, as if in that moment he knew that in only two decades, by his forties, he would lose his oceanic voice—the one that crashed against the walls of the theater that night of II Festival de la Canción Latina—lose it to alcoholism, to fate, to the cold shoulder of history, so that he must sing for all of Mexico, for all music, sing for José José.

That night he came in third place.

Fifty years later I watched Mamita sing “El Triste” into her hands.

Mamita, I’m getting older. I see your hands around mine when I write. Please don’t wait until she dies, I tell myself, only to myself because I never tell people how often I’m telling myself please don’t wait until they die.

A few months later, the day I write these last pages, José José is dead.

Like everyone else in the world, upon hearing the news I become desperate for his voice. I wake Alexa. She plays “El Triste” in my room, and I open the window so that José José has somewhere to go. His voice on the windowsill has a different quality, and the tristeza I hear in the song is of a different nature. It’s an unreachable message, a train pulling someone away from me as they speak, as they cry out from a soundless dream. Artists sing differently when they’re dead—that’s all. I’m glad that on the night Mamita and I listened to José José, the three of us were breathing.

I’m done writing this story. I have no more room for these boxes.

I’ll call Mamita and tell her José José won that night in El Teatro Ferrocarrilero.

I’ll call Carmen and tell her those CDs were our conversations.

I’ll go out, see a friend.

I will.

After this song, I tell myself, after this song.


© The Acentos Review 2020