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Sorting through the legends

She lived a century ago, half-Mexican, a faith healer, an activist for justice - with flaws.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown. 496 pp. $25.99

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Reviewed by Carolyn Kellogg

It is one thing to be a saint. It is another thing to be a young woman in America on the dawning edge of the 20th century with a father who is getting on your nerves.

Teresa, Teresita, the "Saint of Cabora," healer and revolutionary, is back in Luis Alberto Urrea's Queen of America. In 2005's The Hummingbird's Daughter, she came of age on her father's Mexican ranchos, where she learned from Huila, a native woman, the old ways of nature and medicine and God. In this novel, a follow-up that stands alone, Teresita and her father settle restlessly into U.S. border towns in diminished circumstances, driven out of Mexico and into a swiftly modernizing world.

Teresita was a real person, a faith healer and vocal supporter of the native peoples of Mexico against the rule of Porfirio Diaz. Her name became toxic to his regime, and even though she was banished from the country, she was said to be the target of assassination attempts. Urrea, a grand-nephew, has spent more than two decades sorting through the legends that surround her, then turning that material into a new legend of its own.

The story turns from the mythic - visions and healing, thousands of followers, vaqueros and mestizos - to the day-to-day. Teresita and her father, Tomas, find themselves in one cramped, dusty house after another, at loose ends. He drinks too much. She does healing. She prays in her combination of native religion and Christianity. Nineteen and lonely, she also longs for attention, and sulks. They bicker like a father and daughter from any era.

This is in the early 1890s, and on good days, they encounter America's wonders: its baseball, its ice cream, its flush toilets. They read the papers and remark on the changing world. They seem suspended, waiting for something. Could it be that they want a revolt in Mexico, long-brewing, fed by the violence of the authorities and a newspaper run by Tomas' old friend Lauro Aguirre? Aguirre coaxes them to come to El Paso, where Teresita agrees to write for him.

Teresita has a complicated relationship with the media. She is an essayist and reporter, but sometimes her words are twisted and inverted. Her political convictions fall into the background as news of her healing touch spreads throughout the Southwest. From her El Paso apartment she heals Mexicans of all origins, Chinese railroad workers, poor Americans, and charges nothing. Her ministrations wear her down, however, and soon her dynamic, ambitious father regains his footing and persuades her that they should move to a mountain retreat. He has plans to mill lumber there, to start again.

It is easy to like Tomas; despite his womanizing, bluster, and occasional drinking, he is large-hearted, maybe larger than life. Teresita is a tougher nut: By turns pious, playful, devoted, exhausted and resentful, she can be frustratingly real. As if her transcendent experiences mean nothing, she is sometimes blind and foolish. When she assents to a marriage almost as tragic as it is brief, it causes a permanent rift between father and daughter.

Teresita's gifts put her in the hands of people who see how they might profit from them. She becomes a one-woman traveling healing extravaganza.

The Saint had never seen such a place as San Diego. White buildings. Palm trees. Trolley cars. Bougainvillea and geraniums. Red buildings. Paved and cobbled streets in every direction. Horses, carriages, donkeys, sailors, children, dogs, wagons, flags, oleander, rose gardens, seagulls, pigeons, smoke, newspaper boys, gas lamps, musicians, ladies in great skirts with parasols, black faces, red faces, white faces, brown faces, yellow faces, hotels, tall buildings with sunset in their windows, red roof tiles, fountains, hobos sleeping on benches, strolling blue uniformed coppers with helmets swinging sticks, pepper trees, mosaics. Gray buildings with glass doors. She felt her heart hammering with excitement.

Eventually, Teresita makes it all the way to New York City. There, she tries to take control of her own destiny, balancing the pressures of her calling, an elite social life, and the difficult man she loves.

Urrea, who will talk about his book on Thursday night at the Free Library of Philadelphia, delights in the texture of things. Turn-of-the-century America, particularly New York, comes alive at his fingertips: He sees both the silk and the mud. In imagining the story of his great-aunt Teresita, Urrea might have chosen to make her a hero; that would have been easier. What we get is more complicated, more modern. She lived a century ago, half-Mexican, half-native, with the knowledge of traditional herbs and nature, the apparent ability to heal with her hands, and an abiding longing for justice, but she was flawed.

Hers is the story of what it means to have a gift, and how a talent can also be a burden.