Fresh Meat: Luis Alberto Urrea’s Queen of America

Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
We’ve been fans of Luis Alberto Urrea’s since before he allowed us to launch this site with his excellent contemporary crime story “The National City Reparation Society” from Akashic Books’ anthology San Diego Noir.

If you’ve only read that, you may not know about his historic novels about Teresita Urrea, a distant relative of his. Teresita is the subject of his earlier novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and we return to her unusual life and struggle for security, for love, and for a personal identity in Queen of America. This daughter of a Yaqui Indian woman and a wealthy Mexican rancher, Don Tomás, has been proclaimed a saint.

Teresita died and came back to life, mystified herself by the healing powers that accompanied her mortal return. The new saint became renowned, sought out by the desperate, despised by Mexico’s dictator.  A standard-bearer for the poor and needy, she is targeted by the government of her homeland and must escape. 

Two riders came from the darksome sea, black against the morning light, and they tore into the first Mexican village.  They demanded, as they would demand in towns north, the same information: “Have you seen the Saint of Cabora?”

And at every dust-choked ville, in each forlorn rancho with nothing but skeletons mouthing the dry water tanks, in every charred Indian settlement, they were pointed norther. That was all the People knew—she was there, far away, north. Gone.  The People had come to fear unknown men seeking news of the Saint. Unknown men with great rifles and grim faces. Unknown men with questions. Such men had killed hundreds of the People and brought in hordes of slavers and soldiers to imprision others and drag them to their doom…

The riders didn’t know much—they were incurious men, for all their interrogations—but they did know their masters feared her return.

Though she still has a girl’s heart and the dreams of any young woman of her upbringing, she has been running further from those hopes (and leading those around her) since the bloody Tomóchic Rebellion of 1892.

She crouched against the wall of her train car, feral with shame and grief, skinny, silent, unwilling to eat or to turn her face inward from the window that rattled and banged against her forehead for hundreds of hungry miles.  She hid her bruises from everyone.  She had been bruised before.  They had tried to break her before.  She was not broken.  This was the worst part of her life.  But she would find a way through it.  She hid her thoughts.

Mr. Rosencrans had begun to think of her as a caged fox. Her other companions watched her surreptitiously, secretly afraid that she had gone insane.  Mr. Rosencrans’s sone Jamie dared to sit beside her and take her hand. She did not speak to him, nor did she turn her face to him, but she allowed her fingers to be tugged, her fingernails to be polished by the pads of his thumbs.  When she drew up her knees and placed her feet on the cracked leather seat, puling herself into a tighter ball, he left her in peace.

The officials of the United States are not sure they want the headaches of this resident saint either, but she and the group with her, including her father, dig into the wild borderlands of Arizona. That’s how we get the wonderful travelogues of the Old West, of its welcome and hardships, of its incredible landscapes, of its odd customs and people as foreigners might have seen them. This, from her letter home to another girl at the Rancho Cabora in Sonora:

We have been in Arizona two years now, and it feels like ten. I have a friend here named Juanita.  Do not be jealous! She is older, not quite like Huila.  Perhaps like a mother. She has taught me to sew and to bake. I never knew how hard it was to make a pie of apples. I had never heard of a quilt and am surprised that a blanket made of old shirts and dresses is at once so difficult and so dear to the Americanos.  You would be surprised, though, how sacred it feels to lie beneath the stories that each panel seems to whisper. One day I will make you a quilt.

Eventually, pursuit by the Mexican government’s assassins and an endless flow of pilgrims drives her further across America. This girl, forced to worldy wisdom as well as divinty, will eventually experience not only the Wild West, but fin-de-siecle San Francisco, New York, and St. Louis, meeting the wealthy, the ambitious, and other refugees remaking themselves in the New World’s gilded age.  It’s not only a beautifully-told story about its time and places, but about the different views of a saint, from even inside the girl whose human-sized life and ambitions are derailed by a destiny that burdens as much as it elevates.

Clare Toohey is Clare2e here and also blogs at Women of Mystery. She recently had a short, surreal crime story appear in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She often finds realism magical.

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