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Book Review: Luis Alberto Urrea's The Hummingbird's Daughter

By Sergio Troncoso

The Hummingbird's Daughter (Little, Brown and Company: New York), by Luis Alberto Urrea, is a long, entertaining novel about pre-revolutionary Mexico and the Saint of Cabora, Teresita Urrea.  Urrea, the writer, mixes magical realism, liberation theology, Mexican rancho politics and mores, and the machinations of the Porfiriato to concoct a story that has the sense of truth of a family legend, at once historical and apocryphal, but always enjoyable in the telling.

Tómas Urrea, master of a rancho in Sinaloa, begets child after child, some with his wife Loreto, and others with whatever young girl strikes his fancy.  One tryst with Cayetana (a.k.a. 'the Hummingbird') yields a somewhat mysterious girl, Teresita, who possesses a red triangle on her forehead, a sign of curandera power.  Huila, midwife and healer, and one of the few women Tómas respects and even fears on his ranch, eventually takes the young Teresita under her wing.

Meanwhile, Teresita is trying to understand her powers: how and why she sees the vibrations or penumbras of people, and how her hands become hot on command.  At one point in the novel, Teresita takes her friends, including Gabriela who also becomes Tómas's young lover, on dream-trips to cities and coastlines in the middle of the night.  Over time, Teresita's healing powers and reputation grow to the point where thousands of pilgrims surround the ranch and seek her help and protection.  Only Teresita's presence and touch will relieve the back-breaking poverty and misery of la gente decente of northern Mexico.

Tómas Urrea's arrogant machismo steers him into trouble not only with his wife, whom he banishes from his ranch so he can be with Gabriela, but also with the dictator of Mexico.  Tómas backs a Sinaloan candidate not favored by Porfirio Diaz, and so Tómas and his entire rancho must flee north, to Sonora, on a wagon train through the merciless desert.  Teresita and her miracles embolden the poor and dispossessed to organize and fight their oppressors, raise the ire of the conservative Catholic church, and provoke the Porfiriato and its henchmen to chase Tómas and his mobile rancho until they reach the United States.

The Hummingbird's Daughter, although a thick book, is actually a quick read.  Page after page is full of sparse, crisp dialogue, which keeps the plot moving quickly and often effortlessly forward.  Urrea, the writer, did not italicize the Spanish in the book, which is a good way for the English reader to enter a border world where Spanish and English have melded into this third language.

Toward the end of the novel, Teresita, the Saint of Cabora, does become preachy and abstract, and her liberation theology, a political and religious philosophy of the 1960s, seems strangely placed in pre-revolutionary Mexico.  Yet that should not detract the reader from enjoying this well-written novel, and thinking about the serious questions of faith, politics, and social justice it provokes.


This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on October 30, 2005.