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Mexican-American poet Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest novel puts a magical spin onhis own family history
Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea’s bestselling novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is the story of a young girl whose mystical healing abilities propel her to sainthood in the midst of a volatile civil war. The powerful story is made even more magical by the fact that it’s a fictionalized account of Urrea’s own great-aunt, Teresita Urrea.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter follows Teresita’s journey through late 19th-century Mexico following a prophetic dream, one that seems to have blessed her with the power to heal. While it may seem like a miracle, her newfound power — coupled with her headstrong personality — poses challenges to a family struggling to endure a roiling social and political landscape.
While the novel contains some truly fantastic elements — like the titular talking hummingbird — Urrea spent 20 years researching Teresita’s true story, from her childhood in rural Mexico to her legacy as “the Mexican Joan of Arc.”
His latest novel, Queen of America, continues Teresita’s tale. The novel begins after the violent Tomochic Rebellion, a bloody battle that Teresita and her family attempt to flee, seeking refuge in Arizona. Their journey is complicated by Teresita’s reputation; from the Mexican citizens who seek her guidance and the immigrants she encounters in her travels to the European royalty and rich American magnates who appear in the cities she visits, the novel paints a portrait of a beloved saint and the cultures that influenced her life.
“I think history makes less sense than myth or folklore —which is why legends and ghost stories outlast reports. These speak to the deep self. The soul. We don’t live in a place, we live in a story.”
The book represents Urrea’s passions for beautiful prose, Mexican history, family legacy and magical thinking. It’s not the first time he’s written about his homeland’s complex past; his 2004 non-fiction account of an Arizona border crossing, The Devil’s Highway, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and he’s authored two additional non-fiction explorations of immigration, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border and By The Lake of Sleeping Children.
Recently, Urrea spoke with online journal The Nervous Breakdown about his writing and discussed the way he marries mysticism and history:
“I think history makes less sense than myth or folklore —which is why legends and ghost stories outlast reports,” he says. “These speak to the deep self. The soul. We don’t live in a place, we live in a story.”
It’s easy to see how Urrea’s sense of place is deeply connected to the way he constructs his stories.
“Ursula Le Guin once told me that we writers are the raw nerve of the universe,” he continues, “that we’re paid to go out and feel it all and bring back a report for the numb citizens in the hive. I’m just doing a honeybee-dance to tell the other worker-bees where the pollen’s at.”
Urrea is also the author of the novels In Search of Snow and Into the Beautiful North, as well as the poetry collections The Fever of Being, Ghost Sickness and Vatos, and a collection of stories, Six Kinds of Sky. He’s authored two memoirs — Wandering Time: Western Notebooks and Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life— as well as a graphic novel, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush.