Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Queen of America," by Luis Alberto Urrea

"She could not remember when she had last put her feet in free running water. She had not pulled a fruit off a tree or ridden a horse or prayed in a sacred spot. Were there sacred spots in New York? Wouldn't people just laugh at her if they found her talking to trees?Collecting seeds from plants with her old apron? Where was her apron? Huila's apron. Where was it?"

In the street, where a lazy, ne'er-do-well, drink-soppin', money-burning gringo dandy cowboy left it, that's where.

This clash between Yaqui mysticism and Anglo rationality is at the heart of Luis Alberto Urrea's "Queen of America."

The book is sequel to "The Hummingbird's Daughter," which this reviewer has not read, but would appear to have covered the true-to-life Saint Teresa of Cabora's days in Mexico, where she became the object of mass pilgrimages and inspiration for an ill-fated rebellion in Tomochic.

Having stoked the ire of The Porfiriato, a belle epoque Mexican dictatorship, Teresa, her father Tomas, and a loose tribe of characters Mexican, Indian and "yanqui" that follow the saint, take refuge north of the border.

A native naif, "Teresita" is still healing legions of believers in both the Mexican-American community and beyond. As the family moves from rural Arizona to El Paso, and back to Arizona, Teresa and her father, Don Tomas, struggle with their relationship.

Once a wealthy "hacendado" with cattle and an indigenous labor force, he resents Teresita's notoriety (importance?) for the exile and danger to which it has subjected him.

Don Tomas, his friends and acolytes such as Segundo and Don Lauro Aguirre, are men out to pasture with little to move them but liquor and a tepid revolutionary movement in their homeland. They are rendered here in buffa style, over-the-top, silly Mexican machos.

Teresa, pure of spirit, and held to a higher standard of conduct than your usual Indian girl, looks for a love to fill the hole her father's retreat as left in her life.

It doesn't work out too well, although we are treated to neither background or flashback for an explaining of why Guadalupe did what he did or what happened to him.

Urrea's a skilled writer, so it wasn't lack of it that may leave you dissatisfied. He's going in for whimsy, timelessness, and magic, but it can come off as unstructured and leave a reader feeling like they're floating in a bubble, directionless, things just happening to characters without us knowing why.

Yes, life is like that, but literature less so, because try as the latter might to reflect the former, they are inherently different.

When Teresita's bumpkin husband dubs her "Queen of America," he doesn't mean it nicely. He means that the commercialization of her life and powers - encouraged by him - have divested the saint of what Jack Kerouac would have called her "fellaheen" self, her spirit origin, her attachment to the earth beneath Manhattan's concrete, the buried Manahatta she ignores.

This process of deracination is promoted by more clownish characters, pin-striped American businessmen dealing in exploitation, thuggery, and bad manners.

They lodge Teresita in San Francisco and then St. Louis where she meets Geronimo and sees the World's Fair. Next is New York where she becomes an exotic to the Vanderbilts and others. Signposts of the time and places are served up to she and to us.

Because of how deeply engrained it is in the national psyche, it is unlikely Mexican literature will cease to remind itself, Mexicans, and those of us in el norte, about the ironic burden of coexistence with these "pinche" gringos; to need them yet loathe them, to eat their carrot, but feel their stick, etc. etc. etc.
And that familiar meme is a strong part of the message here: the identity-robbing realities of modernity, which are thrown into relief by a simple border crossing (northward).

Teresita goes home to complete a kind of universal circle and close a book that is a long road show, that loses in dramatic tension what it gains in ambient flavor.

This is an exile's journey through the late nineteenth century United States, with all that seeing it through a Mexican Indian's eyes might signify, a carnival show rolling before our eyes, some things related, foreseen or foreshadowed, others fragmented in the way scenes from a sojourn can be fragmented.