The Hummingbird's Daughter (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
The Hummingbird’s Daughter is the result of twenty years’ research by award-winning author Luis Alberto Urrea, who became fascinated by a family folktale about his great-aunt Teresita, known as the Saint of Cabora. Urrea bases his novel on facts gleaned from travel, interviews, fieldwork, and a series of newspaper articles from the 1930’s which ran in such publications as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Daily Examiner.
According to Urrea’s research, Teresita was born Niña García Nona María Rebecca Chávez on October 15, 1873, near Ocoroni, Sinaloa, in Mexico. Her mother, Cayetana Chávez, was a desperately poor, fourteen-year-old Indian girl. Her father, Don Tomás Urrea, was a wealthy rancher. Cayetana eventually abandoned her young daughter to the care of Cayetana’s abusive sister, who beat the girl with a wooden spoon. Don Tomás would not find out until years later that Teresita was his daughter.
As the story opens, Don Tomás’s backing of the opposition candidate for governor of Sinaloa angers Mexico’s dictator, President Porfirio Díaz, who invalidates the election results. To avoid possible imprisonment or even death, Don Tomás leaves Sinaloa, uprooting his entire household and moving everyone to another ranch owned by his family farther north, at Cabora, in Sonora. The six-year-old Teresita rides a donkey during the migration, just as her real-life counterpart was said to do.
Once in Cabora, Don Tomás discovers that Teresita is his illegitimate daughter and takes her into his household. Because Teresita is obviously gifted, Don Tomás and his friend Lauro Aguirre teach her to read. (Most women at that time were illiterate.) She also becomes an excellent horsewoman and learns to play the guitar. However, when Teresita is a teenager, an obsessed ranch hand attacks her and leaves her for dead. As her body is being prepared for burial, she rises, as if from the dead, and thereafter has the miraculous ability to heal others. Teresita also reportedly has the ability to fly to distant places while in the dream stateattested to in real life by a half sister who supposedly accompanied her on at least one of these dream flights. She exudes the fragrance of roses. News of her miracles spreads far and wide, and thousands of pilgrims travel to the ranch to see her.
Besides healing the sick, Teresita also sends a political message: She urges her fellow Indians not to allow the Mexican government to run them off their lands. This message angers President Díaz, who orders her arrest. Both she and her father are captured and imprisoned. Because Díaz fears open revolt by the Indians if Teresita is executed, he instead exiles her to the United States. Here ends the novel, although Teresita apparently continued to heal the sick and write articles for Aguirre’s Texas newspaper urging Mexican independence until her untimely death at age thirty-three.
Urrea’s novel is much more than just bare fact. The author uses the historical information he gathered to form the framework for a beautiful and lyrical story of a young girl’s coming-of-age and self-discovery during the politically unstable period in Mexican history preceding the revolution of 1910. Urrea fleshes out the characters, the period, the locations, and the trials and tribulations of daily life. He vividly depicts a time and place that is probably unfamiliar to his American readers. Several reviewers noted the work’s beautiful lyricism, particularly in the first half of the novel, as in this passage describing the journey from Sinaloa to Sonora:And in the trunks of the oldest trees, among the stones in the creek beds, buried in the soil, lying among the chips of stone kicked aside by the horses, the arrowheads of long-forgotten hunters, arrowheads misshot on a hot morning, arrowheads that passed through the breast of a raiding Guasave, gone to dust now like the bowman and scattered, arrowheads that brought down deer that fed wives and children and all of them gone, into the dirt, blowing into the eyes and raising tears that tumbled down the cheeks of Teresita.
Passages such as this one reveals Urrea’s background as a poet, as well as the extent of his research. The narrative abounds with descriptions of scenery and plant life: “Desert marigold. Threadleaf groundsel. Paleface flower. Texas silverleaf. Sage....
(The entire section is 1806 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 8 (April 15, 2005): 450.
Library Journal 130, no. 9 (May 15, 2005): 109.
Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2005, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (July 3, 2005): 9.
The New Yorker 81, no. 19 (July 4, 2005): 81.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 16 (April 18, 2005): 44.