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May 6

The Mysterious Siren Behind Mexico City’s Junk Collectors

The woman’s recorded voice has been heard all over South America, and maybe even farther.

La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City

La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, where La Llorona is likely to be heard. (Photo: Keizers/CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are many reasons to fall in love with Mexico City, but among the most understandable are its sounds. Linger on a park bench long enough for the ocean swell of the traffic to blend into the background, and a second layer reveals itself. The gas sellers calling up to the apartments. The scratched Big Band-era songs of the helado trucks. The organ grinders outside the national monuments, twirling their ancient machines for change.

Into this clutter every so often, particularly in the La Condesa area, perhaps the most city’s fashionable and bohemian (read: “hipster”) neighborhood, arrives the haunting voice of a wailing woman. Her calls echo through the narrow streets and swirl in the zocalos, full of despair and obsession like the Latin legion of La Llorona. But rather than asking passersby if they’ve seen her lost children, this voice is asking for your junk. This is what she sounds like:

Follow the calls to its source and you’ll find a rusty speaker bolted to the top of a flatbed truck. Depending on what hour of the day you happen upon it, the truck will either be empty, chock full of so much junk it seems it’ll tip over, or in between. Peak through the refuse and you’ll find mattresses, washing machines, stoves, microwaves, loose metal, and other detritus. To the non-Spanish speakers out there, these items, after all, are what the woman on the recording is asking for. 

“I heard the voice for years,” says Wendel Equisuvequis, who grew up in the suburbs of Mexico City. When he was 14 years old, Equisuvequis heard the recording from inside of his home and ran out to meet the trunk. “My dad bought some new sports wheels for his car, so I assumed he didn’t want the other ones.” He let the junkers into the house to take the rims, netting a sweet 450 pesos in return. But it didn’t end well. “Little did I know my dad was planning to sell the car with the original wheels and use the sports one for the new car,” he says. “He was pissed!”

After the trucks pick up the rims, or whatever else they’re looking for, they return to warehouses and garages where they unload the materials, which are resold or have the copper stripped. The business is legit, but has a reputation for being tough guys to deal with, particularly for anyone trying to muscle into their territory. “Urban legend is that it is a super-powerful cartel controls most of them,” says Equisuvequis. “I don’t mean breaking the law, but they act with almost unquestionable power. They are a gremio, which is like a union on steroids.”

But where does the wailing call come from? Turns out, the recording is not the voice of an older woman at all, but from a young girl.

According to 2013 broadcast from ForoTV, the speaker is Marymar Torreón, since given the awesome moniker of voz del fierro viejo, or, “the voice of old iron.” It was recorded 11 years ago by her father, Marco Antonio Torreón, who drives one of the trunks for a living. One day, Torreón realized how tired he was getting not only from walking—back then, he was using a wheelbarrow to collect scrap instead of a truck—but also from yelling at the top of his lungs. So, he bought a cheap tape recorder and gave his daughter a script.

Mexico City. (Photo: Kasper Christensen/CC BY-SA 2.0)

“He started recording me from about 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. until I got it right,” Marymar remembers in the broadcast. “My tongue would get tied, I would say one word instead of the other.” Which accounts for the drowsy, droning quality of the recording. After a brief editing session, they began to use it to save Torreón’s throat. But how did it get from that to, as the ForoTV broadcast puts it, “a classic sound of the streets?”

“I passed it out to some colleagues that asked for the recording,” he says. “And they passed around to others, and the others to more people, and there you go.” 

The tapes spread in the most viral, old school sense. Soon copies began popping up at swap meets, sold for around 200 pesos or less. In fact, the recording is no longer claimed solely by Mexico City, or even the country itself. Marymar’s voice can be heard through much of Latin America and, if a YouTube commenter is to be believed, even in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But not everyone’s pleased with the droning call. If you’re in Mexico City when a truck rolls by, it’s not uncommon to see a curious smile morph into an annoying scowl the closer it gets. “I would ask my colleagues to put the volume a little bit down,” pleads Marco at the end of the news broadcast. “That is the reason why some people doesn’t like the recording. Sometimes, they put it too loud.”

Of course, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, not as long as there are kids out there ready to part with their parents’ seeming junk for a few extra pesos. But if it’s bothering you, take comfort that the wail will soon pass, and more will rise from the city’s ever-changing soundscape.