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Urrea's saint, healer is down to earth

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 10:04 AM

"Queen of America," by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown, $25.99)

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 grandnephew, 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.

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.

Urrea 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.

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