Luis Alberto Urrea

In The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea tells the story of his great aunt Teresa, known as St. Teresa, the “Mexican Joan of Arc.”   

Urrea chronicles the life of Teresa from the time of her birth as the illegitimate child of a young girl named “Hummingbird” and a wealthy Mexican rancher, Don Tomás Urrea. Abandoned by her mother, Teresa is initially raised by an abusive aunt and later taken under the wing of Huila, a respected medicine woman and healer.   

Teresa becomes Huila’s apprentice, developing healing powers and visions that eventually exceed those of her teacher. Her reputation spreads rapidly among the indigenous population, the poor, and the outcasts, all of whom flock to her side seeking blessings and healing. Her teachings of equality and justice threaten both the government and the church, eventually inspiring the Mexican revolution. Perceived as a danger to the establishment, she is captured and sent into exile in North America.   

This is a powerful story, powerfully told. Urrea has the skill of a master storyteller who underscores the irony and humor and cruelty found in life, describing all with unflinching honesty. He does not shy from describing the horrors, the filth, the stench, and the unimaginable brutalities human beings are capable of inflicting on each other in their pursuit of power. He also illustrates the sensitivity, generosity, and tenderness of people struggling to survive in a harsh political and natural environment. Peppered throughout the narrative are instances of magical realism—strange, inexplicable happenings; dream journeys; mysterious healings made with the touch of a hand; a girl who comes back to life just as preparations are being made for her funeral.    

Urrea skillfully immerses us in a different time, a different place. He breathes life into a panoramic landscape by flooding our senses with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells of humans, animals, and foliage populating the environment. His characters are well-rounded, recognizable human beings. Teresa is a compassionate, courageous, lively, vulnerable, and loving young girl, capable of enjoying life with gusto and of embracing all people regardless of—or maybe because of—their foibles, failings, and suffering. Tomás, her father, is a religious skeptic with a generosity of spirit and an ability to love unconditionally. And Huila is the no-nonsense crotchety old wise woman who recognizes Teresa’s true potential and teaches her to cultivate it.   

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a masterpiece, vast in scope with vivid characters and a story line that grips the reader from the first page to the last.   

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review