Queen of America, A Saint Losing her Sainthood?
A review of Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2011
Luis Alberto Urrea describes Queen of America, his second book about the famous Mexican curandera Teresa Urrea (his Yaqui Indian great aunt) as a kind of science fiction story. Teresa, or Teresita as she is called, takes a train from the mystical deserts of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, to bustling turn of the century American cities, where she is surrounded by the magic of street cars, electric lights, baseball and ice cream sundaes. In Queen of America, the sequel to 2005’s Hummingbird’s Daughter, Teresita becomes a woman with flesh and blood desires. In her travels from San Francisco to New York City, she falls in love and bears two children, wins a beauty contest, and makes money by performing her healing for privileged white audiences. In the process, Urrea seems to be suggesting that perhaps Teresita lost the magic she possessed as a teenager in Sonora, where she healed “the People”– the indigenous Yaqui, Mayo and Apache– as well as the dispossessed peasants of the Mexican countryside. Or perhaps she became bored with the whole “saint routine,” as Urrea describes her healing practice in the United States.
In this vivid and richly descriptive novel, Urrea presents Teresita, “La Santa de Cabora,” as a complex, conflicted woman who in the modern magic of the city loses the Indian magic of the desert. In the end, after winning a beauty pageant, she chooses to leave New York City and return to her family in Clifton, Arizona. Urrea describes this decision in the following passage where Teresita casts off the oppressive garments of a New York beauty queen and relaxes into comfortable Indian dress:
“The dress fell like heavy crepe to the floor and she stepped out of it and let it lie. It formed a small battlement––looked like a one-women prison. She undid her under-things and set herself free and dropped a loose nightdress over her head and slipped her feet into sheepskin moccasins and twirled her hair into a braid (455).”
In Queen of America, Luis Urrea is especially good at contextualizing the time period and making the male characters come to life: Tomás Urrea, Tereista’s prideful and funny hacendado father, Guadalupe Rodriguez-her dark and insane first husband, and the hard drinking John Van Order, her interpreter and father of her two children. Urrea has fun with these characters, as well as some minor ones like Tomás’s lazy but faithful sidekick Segundo. Queen of America is an engaging continuation of the story of the famous curandera and folk saint Teresita Urrea, but it is also a lively description of turn of the century America.