GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. When Teresa Urrea was just a teenager living in Mexico, she was already being hailed as a saint.
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: (Reading) In a Sonoran town near the coast, the Teresistas had gone mad with love. They had begun by praying in their small Catholic church, crying out for Teresita to return. Someone had a bottle of her bathwater still smelling of roses. And when it splashed among them, they flung themselves into the aisles. They cried out in Hebrew and the forgotten tongues of angels. Pictures of Teresita appeared from under blouses and from mochilas as if they were a visitation from heaven, as if she herself were in the pictures somehow.
RAZ: That's Luis Alberto Urrea reading from his new novel. It's called "Queen of America." The book picks up where his last novel, "The Hummingbird's Daughter," left off. The year is 1893 and Teresa Urrea has been driven out of Mexico by the government into a new rapidly modernizing America. The story is fiction, but Teresa Urrea was very real. In fact, she's author Luis Alberto Urrea's second cousin. And Luis Alberto Urrea joins me now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to the program.
URREA: Thank you so much.
RAZ: Your new book is a sequel. Though it stands alone, it's a sequel to your most recent novel called "The Hummingbird's Daughter." Talk about the original inspiration for these books.
URREA: The original inspiration happened in Tijuana. I was born in Tijuana, raised back and forth between the U.S. and TJ, as we called it. And I had all these power aunts, these kind of semi-frightening women who would tell us these outrageous stories. And one of the stories was about the aunt, you know, you have a Yaqui aunt who could heal the sick and could raise the dead and she could fly. She can fly? So, you know, this aunt, I thought, was sort of a family myth until I discovered her in history books.
RAZ: Throughout your childhood, you would always hear about this woman Teresita. She was this great healer.
RAZ: What could she do?
URREA: She actually was, in the first part of her life, studying to be a traditional midwife and herbalist with a medicine woman in Sonora. And she had a terrible near-death experience at about 16. And when she came out of it, her body actually began to exude the scent of roses, which is a great old kind of Catholic saint affliction. And once that began, she developed the troubling ability to touch heal. This began this incredible siege of followers and believers in indigenous tribes that erupted into warfare and fire and madness.
RAZ: Luis, your book starts with Teresita fleeing Mexico with her father, Tomas. Explain why they are on the run.
URREA: When she became the Saint of Cabora and the tribes in the north of Mexico began realizing her powers or believing in her powers - I guess I'll leave it up to you to decide - they flocked to her. And the Mexican government was already involved in a very savage war with the Apache Nation, and they had begun a genocidal extermination of the Yaqui people. And when she got her powers and began to preach a kind of liberation in self-worth and self-determination, the Mexican government panicked, and they were going to be executed.
And Porfirio Diaz realized that if they executed her, indigenous warfare would erupt. So Mexico decided, well, gosh, we can eliminate a whole class, probably, by just shipping those folks north. And once she got to the United States, her influence did not diminish but began to grow. And I think Diaz and his regime repented and began sending assassins into the United States.
RAZ: On both sides of the border, admirers came to see her, all kinds of people. When they finally met her, what did they ask for?
URREA: The majority of them wanted some sort of healing. But I have many accounts of people who simply would come to be with her. There's a great story about a man who was on his deathbed and his sons brought him. And she spent time with him holding hands and laughing, and then she said, I'm done. And the sons started this outcry that she's a false healer. Our father's dying. She should have cured him. And he stopped them and he said: No. I'm dying. But the reason I came here was to go in peace. And now, I can die because she's assured everything's all right. So she was part psychologist, part midwife, part healer. I often tell audiences out here on tour that "Queen of America" is in some ways my Lady Gaga book, right, because she came here and became a pop star. And I don't think she was ready for American stardom, which was just revving up along with the Industrial Revolution.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Luis Alberto Urrea about his new novel. It's called "Queen of America." In the book, Teresa heals people all the time, of course, but when she cures one little boy - his name is Jaime in the book - it changes the course of the rest of her life. What happened?
URREA: Yes, it really does. Some Americans stepped in. They were well-off, and they had a son who was suffering from what I suspect was spinal meningitis. But she actually healed this little boy. And so astonished this family - they were from the San Francisco area - that they had a friend whose daughter was ill and they asked her, please come with us to San Jose, and so she went. And once she went to this San Jose world that she could not have imagined, that was when Teresita finally and almost fully left the embrace of her people. When she left Mexico, she was torn from her tribe. And then she went to San Jose, and she was slowly overcome by the Anglo world.
RAZ: And towards the end of her life, she was surrounded by people who didn't really know the kind of impact she had on thousands of people, right?
URREA: They knew she had influence and power, but they didn't particularly care to believe it. And she had made a vow to her god that she would not profit from her gift, or curse. I don't know that being a saint is a gift to anybody, right? It's a curse. And this consortium formed, of great capitalists, and they sat her down and they drew up a contract. So she'd given herself to this consortium that began making money hand over fist.
RAZ: They were collecting money from people who were seeking her out almost like a carnival side show.
URREA: It was a bit of a Barnum show, yeah. I mean, they were charging people to come in and get a healing, selling her image and getting her endorsement, getting her face in clinics for a fee so that the Mexican people would go to those clinics and - because she gave the endorsement.
RAZ: Luis, do you think that this woman, Teresa Urrea, ever regretted coming to America?
URREA: I think she regretted all of it, honestly. I mean, you know, she didn't ask for this to happen. This stuff came upon her like an avalanche. And her friends were killed, massacres happened in her name. And in her later life when she got to this far extreme of power and fame and misery and loneliness and realized what she really wanted was just to be a person and just to be a woman, just to be a mother, just to return to her home. And she tried with all her might to stop the machine and go back and live a normal life, which I'm happy to say she was able to do for a period anyway.
RAZ: That's Luis Alberto Urrea. He's the author of the new novel "Queen of America." Luis, thank you so much.
URREA: Thank you.
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