Book Reviews

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown

The Hummingbird’s Daughter, winner of the 2006 Kiriyama Book Prize, is a sprawling, majestic story that embraces the heart and soul of Mexico’s rich, turbulent history. Set just before and after the twentieth century, it is a vibrant landscape, swollen and untamed, populated by rich, educated Dons, Mexican soldiers, valiant revolutionaries, dusty vaqueros, poor Yaqui and Mayo Indians, spiritual healers, and corrupt politicians. With generous detail and good humor, Luis Alberto Urrea gives us a chorus of characters that come together in one brilliant crescendo.

At the center of the story is Teresita, an uneducated, impoverished Indian girl born to a 14-year-old Yaqui mother who is called "The Hummingbird" by her tribe. Abandoned by her mother and raised by an abusive aunt, Teresita grows up on the ranch of wealthy Don Tomas Urrea in the Mexican state of Sinoloa. The little girl is soon taken under the wing of Huila, a midwife and healer, whose magical powers are both feared and admired by all, including Don Tomas, for whom she works. It soon becomes clear that the girl is gifted with the power to heal, a gift handed down by her grandmother. "‘Your grandmother was funny, and she had the gift come down from her own mother.’ ‘What gift?’ ‘The only gift there is, child. The birthing and working of the plants. That gift.’" Huila also knows that a greater destiny awaits Teresita. As the girl’s resemblance to the Urrea family grows evident, Don Tomas—a widely known philanderer—accepts his responsibility as her father, taking Teresita into his heart and home with hopes of turning her into a genteel young woman. But it is Huila, who teaches Teresita about plants and magic, watching her remarkable healing powers continue to increase and intensify as the heat emanates from the palms of her hands, and she learns to feel the life of plants, and "to dream a dream that is not a dream," and enter into them. Then at 16, Teresita is raped and brutally beaten, only to eventually die. But when she suddenly rises from the dead at her wake, her miraculous resurrection and powers reach new heights.  Thousands of pilgrims descend upon the ranch wanting to see the miracle healer, the living dead girl, each drawn to her with their own religious, political, and personal agendas in mind.

Within the wondrous storyline of Teresita’s mystical calling, Urrea effortlessly portrays the turmoil of the times. The Mexican government, led by President for Life, General Diaz, has "sent his troops forth to kill Indians and rebels as he sold away the nation for bags of European and Yanqui gold." Knowing Don Tomas opposed him, Diaz is now "closing his fist over the states around Sinaloa." Don Tomas is forced to uproot from one ranch to another, while Teresita’s healing powers will eventually see her as the people’s "Saint of Cabora," and a catalyst in changing the face of her country, even as she’s denounced by the Catholic Church, used by the revolutionaries for their own political gains, and ordered to be killed by Diaz and his government.

Based partly on his great aunt Teresa, who was also known as the "Saint of Cabora," Luis Alberto Urrea, whose book The Devil’s Highway was one of last year’s nonfiction finalists for the Kiriyama Book Prize, masterfully incorporates an extraordinary story with the more complicated issues that define a country and her people all to a dazzling effect. 

Reviewed by Gail Tsukiyama