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My Cousin the Saint

Luis Urrea spent 20 years spinning a masterpiece of magical realism from his own family history.



Luis Urrea's aunt, known to the family as La Flaca--the skinny woman--had one bad ojo, wore glittery cat-eye frames, and could curse a blue streak. She told Urrea and his brothers many family folktales. One concerned a distant relative, a Yaqui Indian woman named Teresita, who was widely believed to be a saint. Urrea, who teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, adopts a scratchy growl to mimic La Flaca: "You sons of bitches," she'd bark between puffs on her ever-present Pall Mall. "You know you've got a Yaqui aunt? She can fly, goddammit! She can heal the goddamn sick and raise the dead!"

Teresita's corpse, La Flaca claimed, rested on a crystal throne in a Sonoran cave, guarded by two warriors who'd kill anyone who dared come near. Her clothes rotted and were replaced periodically, but her body remained uncorrupted. Enchanted, Urrea and his brothers made a pact that someday they'd find Teresita's remains. Decades later, after discovering that there was truth behind the wild tales, Urrea embarked on an epic journey in search of her story. The result is his most recent novel, some 20 years in the making. Other books, including another work of historical fiction, have been written about Teresita, also known as Saint Teresa of Cabora, but Urrea is the first of her relatives to tackle her story.

The Hummingbird's Daughter is an account of Teresita's first 19 years, from her undignified birth to a poor Yaqui girl in 1873 to her "first death," from which she is said to have risen with the ability to perform miracles, to her banishment to the U.S. by Mexican dictator Porfirio D'az in 1892. (She was considered a heretic by the Catholic church and had amassed a huge following of indigenous peoples, who flocked to her family's ranch to be healed.) The book is as faithful to history as it is steeped in magic--as Urrea points out, there was no separating the two for Teresita or her followers.

The novel starts on a ranch populated by Indians, mestizos, rough-hewn caballeros, and the family of the wealthy white landowner, Don Tomas Urrea, who is also Teresita's father. Tomas is based on the real-life cousin of Luis Urrea's great-grandfather. (Which means, as Urrea discovered, Teresita is a cousin, not an aunt.) A kind and progressive man in spite of his infamous appetite for women besides his wife, Tomas takes Teresita in and, with help from his good friend Lauro Aguirre (a historical figure and one of Teresita's first biographers), gives her a formal education. Meanwhile the local curandera, Huila (based on a real medicine woman named Maria Sonora), mentors her in herbal healing and harnessing the power of dreams. Of Huila, Urrea writes, "Her shadow could reach all the way across the ranch when she walked, and children rushed to cool their bare feet in the darkness of her passing. Daily, the People were amazed that this holy woman with her yellow shawl and double-barreled shotgun, and her petrified balls of a buckaroo in her mysterious apron, was merely a servant to Tom‡s and Dona Loreto."

In his quest to understand Teresita, Urrea studied with curanderas and medicine men himself. "The experience was way outside of my usual daily grind," he says. It affected him deeply. "UIC seems like the dream to me," he continues. "That world seems more real to me than this cement world that I'm in here."

Urrea has written ten books, many of them about the world at its realest. The Devil's Highway, his well-received nonfiction account of a deadly border crossing, was released this week in paperback and a movie version starts shooting next month. In 1999 he won an American Book Award for Nobody's Son, his memoir of childhood in a cultural and physical borderland. Born to a Mexican father and an American mother from New York, Urrea lived in extreme poverty in Tijuana until, sick with tuberculosis at age four, he moved with his family to a barrio in San Diego. In fourth grade he was chased by a man with a switchblade, an incident that precipitated his family's move to what he calls "white world"--the community of Clairemont, where a teacher who took an interest in him turned him on to poetry.

At Clairemont High (where Cameron Crowe researched Fast Times at Ridgemont High) Urrea says he was a dreamy kid, into drama. At the University of California at San Diego he started out as a theater major and ended up with a degree in writing. In 1979, after a few loose and lean years, he got a teaching job at Mesa College through a Chicano studies professor named Cesar Gonzalez. Gonzalez asked him if he knew he was related to Saint Teresa of Cabora. Urrea by then had filed the story of Teresita away as "an amusing family legend," but Gonzalez showed him an article about her, the first hard evidence he had seen.

A few years later, teaching at Harvard, Urrea found a book about Teresita in a used-book store on Beacon Street. In the cover image, she markedly resembled his female relatives: pointy nose, a bit of a unibrow, slightly droopy left eye. He devoured the book and its sources, then moved on to those texts' sources. "Everywhere I could I would go in an archive and see if I could find stuff about her," he says.

Urrea's relatives provided material too. In the mid-80s his brother Alberto tape-recorded an account by a 101-year-old healer of one of Teresita's miracles. In 1999, well into his work on the book, Urrea was approached at a family gathering by a cousin he'd never met, Elba Urrea, who was dying of cancer. She'd heard about his research and wanted to give him a crate of documents she claimed to have shown no one since 1969. At that point Urrea had himself dug up numerous accounts of Teresita's miracles in newspaper archives all over Mexico and the U.S. One Mexican reporter wrote that the saint had caused his bald head to grow hair. He'd shown the new fuzz to Tomas, who at that point still refused to believe that his daughter held the powers attributed to her by the thousands of pilgrims overtaking his ranch.

As Urrea read more and more about the miracles performed by the Saint of Cabora, he had trouble reconciling her story with what he knew of how the world worked. Several years into his research and unsure how to proceed, he asked his friend Linda Hogan, a Native American writer, for advice. "My Western mind cannot get around all of the healing and spirituality and spirits and all that stuff," he told her.

Hogan laughed and told him, "Honey, the Western mind is a fever. It will pass."

"One of my favorite quotes of all time," Urrea says. "And in some ways she was right."

Urrea decided to go to Arizona and talk to Yaqui people living there. Within days, he'd met cousins he didn't know he had. "I got accidentally, immediately, right to the source of what I was trying to write about," he says. His cousin Esperanza Urrea was the great-granddaughter of a curandera, Maclovia Borbon Moroyoqui. He gave her a rough draft of a chapter in which he describes Teresita feeling the life force of plants for the first time, a sensation like cold fog against her palms. "Esperanza called me and said, 'Ay, cabron! How did you know this?'" Urrea says. He told her he'd made it up, and she summoned him to her house.

Esperanza led him to a creosote bush--a good place for a novice to start, she said. "Brutal plant," she told him. "They have a brutal force." She showed him how to rub his hands together and hold them above the stinky bush, over and over until he felt it. She'd command him: "Don't talk! Feel!" She went on to teach Urrea "actual women's stuff, from the actual tradition," information to which men aren't usually privy. When Huila teaches Teresita to feel the creosote's life force in The Hummingbird's Daughter, Urrea says, "that's kind of a transcription of Esperanza and me."

Urrea says Esperanza and several other healers he met felt he'd been guided to them for a reason. "You should join us," they told him. He wasn't sure how to feel about that. He'd worked with Baptist missionaries years before at Tijuana garbage dumps (the subject of his 1996 book By the Lake of Sleeping Children), and when they heard what he was up to, some sent him e-mails suggesting he was in league with Satan. Friends have shown up at readings to challenge him. "One guy told me he was in spiritual opposition to what I was doing. People are scared, you know. And I always tell them I don't think it's wicked, what she tried to teach."

But things did get uncanny, even creepy, during his research. "Weird spiritual upheavals," he says. "I learned to expect almost anything." At one point, relatives arranged for him to study in Cuernavaca with some healers, a mother and daughter. A Lakota Sioux medicine man he'd talked to told Urrea he was concerned--who knew what kind of medicine these women practiced?--and said he would send a Sioux warrior spirit to protect Urrea. "At the time I still thought [the healers] were still speaking metaphorically. But if they tell you something, they mean it."

When he arrived at the house where the curanderas lived, he'd never spoken to either of them before. The older woman "let out a cry of terror. She got goose bumps all over her arms, and she called for her daughter," Urrea says. "And her daughter ran in and she let out a cry and she got goose bumps and sat down on the couch, and her hands were shaking. I said, What is happening? And they said, You have an Indian standing behind you; he has his hand on you, he's got his hair pulled back, he's huge. And I looked, like an idiot. There was nothing there. They started yelling, 'Es un Sowks!' And I realized that they'd never seen or heard the word Sioux, but they were trying to say the word. I thought, how likely could this be that it's a coincidence that they would know that somebody had sent a spirit and that it was Oglala Lakota? That kind of stuff happened a lot--I mean a lot. It was a whole other world. One of my friendly running jokes with my editor is that I need to write a book about writing the book because the experiences were so extreme."

Urrea's intimacy with his subject matter paid off: much of the book's power comes from his richly detailed descriptions of what his characters see and eat and smell. Describing their journey from Sinaloa to Sonora, he writes, "In iron pans balanced on flat rocks by the tall fires, the cooks melted lard, boiled water. For supper they ate caldo de ajo--garlic soup: all their stale bread that hadn't gone to the pigs or the goats floated in beef broth, salted and peppered, the garlic cloves soft in the broth like little fish." But Urrea chose to leave out most specifics of the healing knowledge he'd acquired on the urging of his teachers, who told him it was sacred information. "Certain rituals in the book are right on, some of them are invented, and some of them are not quite reported so that people don't steal them," he says. "It really struck me that the sacred words and names for things were important to the people who needed them, not to us."

Urrea says the curanderas, who are typically guarded about their practice, opened up to him because of his connection to Teresita. "Over and over again, people said, 'Oh, you're hers. You're her son.' People told me I'd been called to do her work." When he argued that he felt called to be a writer, one of the curanderas in Cuernavaca touched him by saying, "Well then, you are called to do this through literature. Literature is healing." During the same visit, another curandera told him that she worked with Teresita frequently. "She's very busy, you know," she told him. She said that Teresita's job in heaven is to counsel the souls of people who die violently or in anger, or who find no one else to greet them when they arrive.

"I thought, wow, this is so weird," Urrea says. "And if it's all just made up, it's such a cool story."

When Urrea began working on The Hummingbird's Daughter, he "really wanted to tell the history to my own family, and it didn't even occur to me that, of course, there are more direct links to her on the planet right now." Recently he's made contact with some of Teresita's great-granddaughters, one of whom introduced herself at a reading he gave in Phoenix. "At the time I was kind of scared," he says, "but she really loved the book." Another family reunion is in the works, at which he hopes to collect more material. Teresita's exile in the U.S., which isn't covered in The Hummingbird's Daughter, is apparently no less dramatic than her early years, and Urrea is already working on a sequel.

Bookslut Reading Series with Luis Alberto Urrea, Lisa Selin Davis, Kirby Gann, and Ander Monson

When: Wed 9/28, 7:30 PM

Where: Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark

Info: 312-850-4277 or

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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