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Interview with Luis Alberto Urrea
book cover for The Hummingbird's Daughter
BY DANIEL OLIVAS

Luis Alberto Urrea’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry have received rave reviews with particular honors heaped upon The Devil’s Highway (Little, Brown), where he brilliantly chronicles the plight of twenty-six Mexican men who in 2001 crossed the border into an area of the Arizona desert known as the Devil's Highway; only twelve made it safely across. The book received wide acclaim and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

Now Urrea brings us a masterpiece of a novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Little, Brown), which is twenty years in the making. Urrea informs us the story is based on family history and that the young protagonist, Teresita, was his aunt. In robust, poetic language, Urrea’s novel brings us to the harsh yet thriving landscape of Mexico, circa 1880, where the corrupt government of Porfirio Díaz viciously rules the land. In the midst of brewing revolutionary sentiments, a poor, illiterate and unmarried Yaqui woman (known by her tribe as the “hummingbird”), gives birth to Teresita with the help of the town's curandera named Huila, a cantankerous, powerful and often wise healer who lives in a room in the great hacienda owned by the wealthy, womanizing Don Tomás Urrea. Teresita eventually invades Don Tomás's life through a series of unfortunate events and is subsequently taken under Huila's wing. Huila recognizes Teresita’s special abilities as much as she recognizes a family resemblance to Don Tomás who eventually admits to parenthood. The narrative follows the life of Teresita and her family as they confront what Urrea calls the “catastrophe of holiness.”

The novel has received the kind of reviews all authors dream of; TEV published its praises the week The Hummingbird’s Daughter was released. Despite a busy schedule of book readings and signings, Urrea kindly agreed to answer a few questions for TEV:

DANIEL OLIVAS: One of the things the rave reviews keep on mentioning is the fact that your novel is based on a real person—your aunt. Why did you decide to fictionalize her life rather than attempt outright biography?

LUIS ALBERTO URREA: The simplest answer is you can't footnote a dream. The book has taken many forms over the years of research. But fiction kept asserting itself. I think the magic of fiction is that in many ways it's more true than non-fiction. By that I mean that fiction can take you into truths of feeling and it lends itself better to the kind of trance that allows a reader to smell and taste the world I'm trying to evoke. Also, as a lifelong reader, I can say that I come from a generation where the great achievement was the novel. So, you know, I wanted to try to honor her with an attempt at a masterpiece. You never know if you've gotten there or not, but no guts, no glory.

OLIVAS: You mix many elements in The Hummingbird’s Daughter including both historical facts with what one might call magical realism. Some reviewers imply that you’ve created a new genre. Have you?

URREA: I find the magic realism aspects slightly amusing. If only because the things that can be considered "magical" in the text are pretty much the recorded historical facts. During the editing of the book, there were a couple of points where my editor was busy chopping out the real facts and leaving in all the made-up facts. So here was a case of truth being stranger than fiction and fiction trying to put mortar between the bricks of astonishment. As far as the "new genre" goes, I refer to Eudora Welty. She said that there is nothing new under the sun, the only thing we have to offer is point of view. So my text, which a reporter told me was baroque, is really an attempt to reproduce those fine semi-addled Mexican voices as they spin out tall tales to their children.

OLIVAS: This novel was twenty years in the making. To some, this might look like an obsession. How would you describe your two decades worth of research and writing about Teresita?

URREA: An obsession. Frankly, you could just as easily say I spent 40 years working on it. Here's the genesis of the text: First, I hear insane folk tales in Tijuana. Second, I live in Sinaloa for a couple of extended periods in my youth and hear more crazy stories. Third, I get a job as a bilingual TA in a Chicano Studies department and find out to my astonishment that she was an historical figure and I read a text about her which begins something—I don't know yet what it is. Fourth, I meet a curandero who reveres her and recognizes me immediately as one of her relatives. I start to think hmmm...this could be an interesting thing to pursue. Suddenly, in 1982, I go to Boston to teach at Harvard. You wouldn't think Harvard would open the door to the Yaqui spirits but that's where I found William Curry Holden's book, Teresita. I was shocked that there was a book about her. When I saw he had notes and a bibliography, I thought it would be fun to track those sources down. I began tracking sources for several years. In 1990, I moved to Boulder CO and started hanging out with Linda Hogan and Lorna Dee Cervantes. That's where the real writing began. You can say that I did my book studies between 1982 and 1995. In '95, I moved to Tucson to begin my field work and that's where The Hummingbird's Daughter came from. Here's what drove me: I was raised believing she was my aunt. She seems to be some sort of cousin when you work out the genealogical tangles. As I went deeper into her story, I went further into the family tree. I realized quickly that she not only represented my blood, but she represented all the indigenous branches of our family. I realized that her story had been short-changed by Mexican historians, not only because she was indigenous, but because she was a woman. When I started working with shamans, I suddenly got a sense of an afterlife where I came to believe she was currently quite active. And honestly, I woke up one morning and I was older than she was when she died. I started to feel a kind of responsibility to her. It was like growing up. She had been my elder and suddenly, she was a young'un and I felt like I should in some way protect her name.

OLIVAS: The characters are so well drawn. I feel like I know Teresita, Huila, Don Tomás Urrea and the others. How much of these characters are based on your research and how much came from your imagination?

URREA: That's a big reason why it's a novel. You know many facts about these characters, you intuit and synthesize other things. Don Tomás, we know from the record, was a lover and a man of reason. We know that he ultimately sacrificed everything for Teresita. Beyond that, Tomás as a character is a synthesis of all my wildest Urrea cousins in Sinaloa. The character of Segundo is entirely invented—there was no Segundo. There were several cowboys who did various chores that Segundo does in the book, but I needed a foil and a focus for all that male energy. But, perhaps the most important character in the book—Huila—offered me a very interesting problem. If you read the documents, Huila clearly transformed Teresita. However, as is the case in many racist societies, the indigenous woman is erased. To historians in Mexico, Huila was known by her Yori name Maria Sonora. And that's it. The record ends. There is no description of her, not a single quote remaining of hers, there is no knowledge of what her teachings or beliefs were. She has vanished. The Hummingbird's Daughter is, as much as anything, an archeological dig to get to the ruins of Huila. I started with the word Huila, which means skinny woman. One of my teachers was my cousin Esperanza. She was trained in the medicine ways by her grandmother, a very powerful Mayo medicine woman. Her name was Maclovia Borbon Moroyoqui. Maclovia was cranky, outrageous, semi-obscene and quite holy. Since she shared traditions and tribal affiliations with Huila, when I learned the Way of Maclovia, I discovered the Way of Huila. For example, the man's scrotum Huila carries in her medicine pouch was something Maclovia was rumored to have acquired.

OLIVAS: Some readers of a certain mindset might say that the spiritual elements of the novel help make it a wonderful read but it’s all just fantasy. Response?

URREA: Forgive me for being terse, but it is not fantasy.

OLIVAS: Terseness forgiven. Without giving away the ending, it seems that a sequel is quite possible. Any plans?

URREA: Yes. It wasn't my original intent, but I've already signed a contract with Little Brown. So I'm stuck....Her life broke evenly, if not neatly between the Mexican and the American. So her American story is full of incident and tumult. The difference being that it's a turn of the century Industrial American tumult. It's tentatively called The Queen of America. Hope it doesn't take 20 years to write....

OLIVAS: You’ve created many relationships in the novel but my favorite is the one between Don Tomás and his dauthter, Teresita. Don Tomás is so often exasperated by Teresita’s bull-headedness and individuality but, at the same time, he’s quite proud of her. Is that based on your relationships with your children?

URREA: It is largely inspired by my parents relationship to me, quite frankly. My mother was a New Yorker with a bohemian flair, but deeply conservative views. My father was a Mexican military man and cop with a poet's soul. Neither of them approved of my barefoot love-bead wearing long-haired ways. Yet, they secretly thrilled to my idiotic shenanigans. Far from being the athlete and army captain my father wanted, and even farther from being the crew-cut Ivy League lawyer my mother wanted, I was this post-beatnik art kid. Then, even worse, I became a missionary. What are ya gonna do with a kid like that? Being a dad, however, gave me a whole new perspective. After all, this book is older than all my kids. It's older than my marriage. All the stuff about Teresita as a baby and a toddler ... well, that's my daughter, Rosario Teresa. I find myself in a curious spiritual loop here: the baby is named after the character and then affects the way the character's life is narrated.

OLIVAS: Did your editor at Little, Brown have much to do with the structure of the novel or the development of the characters? What was your working relationship like?

URREA: Wow, Geoff Shandler is the best editor you could possibly have. I feel like he and I are a throwback to some of the great author/editor teams of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Shandler can find the heart of what I'm trying to say. And though he can seem savage with the red pencil, he always gets to the core of what I'm trying to uncover. Think of a movie director like Sam Peckinpah. The Wild Bunch is one of my five favorite movies of all time. Anyone can see, however, that it is as much a triumph of editing as it is of direction. Both The Devil's Highway and The Hummingbird's Daughter bear the stamp of Shandler. If he left Little Brown, I would do everything in my power to follow.

OLIVAS: Okay, since I live in Los Angeles, I have to ask: who do you see playing Teresita, Don Tomás and Huila in the movie?

URREA: I couldn't even guess who could play Teresita. Do you have any hints? Jimmy Smits looks a little bit like some of my nephews and he's very tall like Don Tomás. I think among "my people" Javier Bardem is greatly on the wish list and you know, I look at him and I think put some big whiskers on that guy and he is a great Tomás. He has that certain rakish quality. As for Huila, that would be a very, very special and sacred role for anybody to play. In my heart, she's unplayable. But that's not really true since I gave her all the best lines! It's too bad Lily Tomlin isn't Mexican because I think she could convey the wry power of that woman. I'd like to see that....Somebody in the Chicano community who is connected to the Teresita story in a lot of ways and who could play a very funky Huila is Denise Chavez. But how 'bout this for a wild suggestion: put a gray wig on her and let the goddess Lila Downs play Huila!

Last update: November 24, 2008

    
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