The Hummingbird’s Daughter
By Luis Alberto Urrea
REVIEWED BY DANIEL OLIVAS
“On the cool October morning when Cayetana Chávez brought her baby to light,” begins Luis Alberto Urrea’s brilliant, panoramic novel, “it was the start of that season in Sinoloa when the humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.” In this harsh yet thriving landscape of Mexico, circa 1880, the poor, illiterate and unmarried Yaqui woman (known by her tribe as The Hummingbird) gave birth to Teresita with the help of the town’s healer, the curandera called Huila. Huila—one of Urrea’s most remarkable creations—is as cantankerous as she is powerful. So powerful in fact that she lives in a room behind the kitchen of the great hacienda owned by the wealthy Don Tomás Urrea. Don Tomás does not care much for religion but he knows that Huila is an asset and puts up with her magic as much as Huila puts up with her patrón’s habit of spreading his seed despite having a beautiful, attentive wife and several children who populate the hacienda.
Teresita eventually—and literally—wanders into Don Tomás’s life and is subsequently taken under Huila’s wing. Huila notices two things about this unusual girl: she resembles the Urrea family and she possesses the power to heal. Don Tomás ultimately owns up to paternity and is determined to make a lady out of this barefooted urchin. But as Teresita matures, her powers grow until all know that she is the curandera women should go to when they are about to give birth or when a child becomes ill. Then one day, when Teresita goes out to the fields, she is raped, beaten and eventually dies. The Yaquis, known as the People, mourn the passing of this sweet and potent girl in their own way: “Death was something the People understood. It’s not that they were happy Teresita had died. It’s that they were relieved that someone, anyone, had died. Their spell of dread was broken.” But on the third day, at the end of burial preparations, in the midst of five mourning women, Teresita awakes. The town is abuzz with news of this miracle. And Don Tomás is beside himself. How can this be? There must be a rational explanation for this phenomenon.
With her resurrection comes greater healing powers and, of course, fame. The People, as well as other native tribes, mestizos, and even Americans, make pilgrimages to the Urrea hacienda. The Catholic Church views this “saint” as a heretic, the vicious and corrupt government of Porfirio Díaz considers the girl a threat, and revolutionaries want to insinuate themselves into her sphere of influence for their own political cause. In this brew of conflicting beliefs and ethnic tensions, we are treated to a parade of earthy, bristling and sometimes comic personages all of whom are sparked by Teresita to confront their own doubts and fears about this and the next life. The climax brilliantly mirrors the immigrant’s experience of seeking safe passage to a foreign land while relying on loved ones as well as fate.
Urrea, who is the award-winning author of ten books—fiction, non-fiction and poetry—tells us in an author’s note that Teresa Urrea “was a real person”—his aunt. The Hummingbird’s Daughter is his fictionalization of family lore based on twenty years of intense research and interviews. The result resonates with such passion and beauty that it doesn’t matter whether Teresita’s legend is based more on a people’s wishful thinking than truth. The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a sumptuous, dazzling novel to which no review can do justice; one simply must read it.
Daniel is a writer living in Los Angeles. Visit his Web page at www.danielolivas.com.