Luis Alberto Urrea

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

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The Hummingbird’s Daughter Summary

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Set in northern Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, Luis Alberto Urrea’s historical novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005), follows the life of Teresa Urrea, known as Teresita. The daughter of a wealthy landowner and an impoverished Yaqui Indian, Teresita gains the love and reverence of the indigenous people of Mexico. Thanks to her miraculous ability to heal and her compassion for the poor, she becomes known as Santa Teresa, the Saint of Cabora. For inspiring the Indians to defy the oppressive Mexican government and defend their land, she is also called Mexico’s Joan of Arc.

The author, Luis Urrea, is Teresita’s great-nephew. He spent twenty years researching and writing this fictionalized account of his great aunt’s life. The Hummingbird’s Daughter blurs lines between history and reality using folktales and fact to explore themes of family love, sacrifice, faith, and revolution. For this use of magical realism, Urrea’s writing is compared to that of other Latino authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

Teresita is born in 1873 in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Her mother, Cayetana, is known as The Hummingbird. Teresita’s father is Don Tomás Urrea, a local wealthy ranch owner. Don Tomás is one of the whites, or “Yoris” as the Indians call them. Huila is Indian: one of “the People.” An elderly, respected, opinionated healer and midwife, called a curandera, the People believe that Huila not only has the ability to heal but can also command the spirits. Huila, who lives in the home of Don Tomás, delivers baby Teresita, noticing a red triangle on the infant’s forehead. Huila knows this is a sign of great power, for Huila was marked that way herself at birth.

Cayetana, only fourteen years old when she has Teresita, soon abandons the baby to the care of her sister, Tía. Don Tomás does not know that Teresita is his daughter. Tía is hostile and has no love for young Teresita. At this time, Mexico stands politically on the verge of revolution and change. When Don Tomás supports a radical political candidate, he fears retaliation from the Mexican president, Porfirio Díaz. To be safe, Don Tomás moves his household north to his ranch in Cabora, which is located in the state of Sonora on the border of the United States.

As soon as Don Tomás discovers that Teresita is his daughter, he takes the girl into his home. Sensing something special about Teresita, Don Tomás has his friend Lauro Aguierre, an engineer, teach her to read. Teresita also learns music and how to ride a horse as well as any man. Recognizing that Teresita is a dreamer, Huila becomes a mentor to Teresita, teaching her both the healing properties of plants and the power of the spirit.

In 1889, a ranch hand rapes and kills sixteen-year-old Teresita. She dreams that she died, but her death is real. Miraculously, Teresita returns to life at her own funeral service, surrounded by the family praying. Now, her ability to heal is even greater. She becomes a powerful curandera, dedicating herself to healing others. She comes to realize that this gift is both a blessing and a heavy load to bear. Pilgrims flock to the ranch at Cabora for her help. Teresita heals and performs various miracles. She can astral project or travel out of her body in the dream state. She smells like roses. Caring deeply for the poor, Teresita helps them regardless of their condition, doing everything from delivering babies, to picking lice out people’s hair. She is tireless in her care, earning their devotion. Teresita’s powers also earn her the suspicion of the established Catholic Church.

Teresita speaks out against the Mexican government, saying, “Everything the government does is morally wrong.” She urges the People not to surrender their land to the Mexican government, but to fight for it. This attracts the attention of Mexican revolutionaries, who come to visit her at Cabora. Her speeches also infuriate President Díaz, who has Teresita and Don Tomás imprisoned. Díaz realizes, however, that Teresita is so beloved by the Indian people that if he executes her and her father, they may rise up and revolt against him. Instead, Díaz exiles Teresita and Don Tomás to the United States.

Although The Hummingbird’s Daughter ends with Teresita’s exile, Urrea continues her story in a sequel, Queen of America.

Throughout The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Urrea uses rich sensory detail and poetic descriptions to portray the colorful panoply of life in Mexico before the revolution. Significantly, Urrea does not just describe the natural beauty of life, but also its ugliness. As Teresita says, “Miracles are bloody and sometimes come with mud sticking to them.”

The Hummingbird’s Daughter earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. A finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction book, The Devil’s Highway, Urrea was named to the Latino Literature Hall of Fame for his body of work.