The Hummingbird's Daughter

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1806

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...

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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. Desert calico. Purple mat.” Food figures prominently; many meals are described in full, such as the following: “[Don Tomás] ate chorizo and eggs, calabaza and papaya, a bowl of arroz cooked in tomato sauce with red onions sprinkled over it, coffee and boiled milk, and three sweet rolls.” To enhance the ambiance, Urrea throws in a mix of Spanish words and phrases: Don Tomás calls the men such uncomplimentary names as pinches cabrones and pendejos. There are exclamations of Por Dios! and lamentations such as Qué barbaridad! When a swarm of bees descends on a local cantina, the people cry Muchas abejas! When Don Tomás flirts with a local girl, he utters piropos, or compliments to flatter her. Because these expressions flow naturally through the text, they should not impede the non-Spanish-speaking reader’s comprehension.

The story’s setting at the end of the nineteenth century allows an interesting blend of the traditional ways of the native population and the scientific innovations of the invading Europeans. Throughout the book, Don Tomás shares with Teresita protagonist status. He represents the modern, scientific, educated white male, and Urrea seems to identify most with him. Huila, a servant in Don Tomás’s house and the ranch’s curandera or midwife, represents the native population, whose members call themselves the People. Teresitahalf Indian, half whitebecomes the medium between the two worlds. In matters of faith, the People seem to embrace Catholicism more fanatically than do the Spanish, who introduced it.

Through Teresita’s eyes, the simple, traditional lifestyle of the Indians is contrasted with the more modern lifestyle of the wealthy whites. As a little girl, she is amazed by the grandeur of Don Tomás’s house; she gingerly climbs the stepssomething she has never seen beforeleading up to the front door, then she tries the porcelain doorknob that allows her to enter into the equally amazing interior: the floors of polished wood (not dirt), the beautiful furnishings, a library full of books that only the educated white men (Don Tomás and Aguirre) can read, the grandfather clock, which she thinks is a tree with a heartbeat. This unauthorized first venture, like Alice’s into Wonderland, is what leads her aunt to beat her. Nevertheless, Teresita is eventually welcomed into the house permanently once her father realizes that she is his daughter.

Teresita, who adopted the name because she admired the Catholic Saint Teresa, blossoms into a beautiful young woman, sympathetic, kind, and with a unique sensibility which is the result of her dual upbringing. Don Tomás allows her to continue her apprenticeship with Huila as a curandera at the same time that he indoctrinates her in the ways of the Europeans. What Teresita learns about plants and other natural cures is combined with a peculiar dose of Catholicism as practiced by Huila and the rest of the native population, who still offer up a glass of tequila or a bolillo to God as their ancestors had done for their native gods. As with Saint Teresa, Teresita wishes to “ease suffering.” Hence, even before her miraculous arising from the dead, she has entered onto the pathway of her life’s work.

To the People, Teresita’s gifts are no more miraculous than the wonders that Don Tomás has already introduced. With his friend Aguirre, they have developed the indoor flush toilet and plumbing, a primitive refrigeration system, and other miracles of modern science; it is an age of miracles, and the People are willing to believe. Not only do the People look to Teresita to heal their physical ailments but their emotional ones as well. Many see Teresita as a prophet, urging the People to stand strong against the invading Spanishalthough she maintained a strict pacifism throughout her life.

The narrative is an intriguing mix of horrific tragedy and Magical Realism. The brutality of the era figures constantly in the background, where whites slaughter Indians and Indians slaughter whites. There are mutilations, tortures, kidnappings. The People are starving, working under grueling conditions for their white masters, yet there is hope.

Urrea plays up the idea that amid the worst brutalities, mercy and understanding can still prevail, and both Teresita and Don Tomás do their parts. For example, when Don Tomás learns that Indians have burned down the ranch at Cabora just before their arrival, that they have brutally murdered some of the servants and have stolen livestock and women, rather than seek revenge he seeks peace. He forms a pact with them: He will protect them from starvation and the Mexican government, and they, in turn, will protect the people of the ranch from other Indian invaders. Teresita, too, offers up her own brand of mercy through her power to healand her refusal to do harm, even to her enemies. After an incident involving her half brother, Buenaventura, when his teasing leads to her putting him into a catatonic fit, she vows never to harm another soul.

To counter the novel’s weighty subject matter, Urrea introduces a fair amount of humor as well. One of the best examples is the juxtaposition of a scene in which Don Tomás calmly deals with a swarm of bees at a local cantinadrugging them with marijuana smoke and capturing them in a portable hive on the back of one of his wagonswith a scene in which his angry wife, Loreto, arrives at the ranch, furious over Tomás’s philandering. A huge and heated argument ensues, which ends with their son Juan Francisco taking off in one buggy, Loreto following in another, stranding the poor priest who had accompanied them and leading to the priest’s hijacking the bee wagon to follow after them. Ironically, this is also the moment Don Tomás learns that Teresita is his daughter.

The book’s title derives from a nickname for Teresita’s mother. Cayetana was known as the hummingbird. The hummingbird was believed by the People to be a messenger of God. As with other messengers of God, Teresita is persecuted and driven from her home. The initial move of Don Tomás from Sinaloa to Sonora foreshadows their last and final move, from Mexico to the United States. Yet Teresita’s persecution only serves to enhance her image as a martyr and a saint. Tragedy continued to plague Teresita, however, in the United States. Perhaps Urrea is saving that for another novel.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

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.

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