Review of THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER by Luis Alberto Urrea.
This novel was recommended to me by a ferocious reader of Canadian Indigenous heritage. She knows that I am very interested in indigenous cultures and history and that I love Mexico, so this book was a shoo-in for being appreciated.
And she was right, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the 500 page novel brimming with Mexican history. The story starts in 1898 and tells the development of a young girl, Teresita, during the first 20 years of her life: a girl born to a Indio farm girl but fathered by the master of the hacienda, the wealthy rancher Don Tomas Urrea, who reluctantly accepts her parentage. Tomas is a real Don Juan and has many affairs and some extra children, his latest mistress one young and beautiful, but loving Gabriela, the reason his wife finally sets him straight when he starts living openly with Gaby on the country hacienda, after which the demanding wife is banned by Tomas from the ranch, to live on their property in the city with their young children.
Teresita is destined to follow in the footsteps of the local healer, the sage Huila, who is an elder in the community and also functions as the midwife for the village and surroundings in the state of Sinaloa. Huila rescued Teresita from her abusive aunt, where she landed after her very young mother was sent away.
Early in the story the main characters are moving away to another of Tomas’ properties, in Cabora, after word has been received that the Urrea hacienda in the country is demolished by raiding bands: some sort of massacre occurred. The company arrives after a long and arduous trek through the desert, and then rebuild the house and other needed housing for staff and the stables, with the help of a number of local Indio labourors and vaqueros (cowboys) hired by Tomas to do the work.
In the meantime, Tomas, without fear and with great curiosity, is seeking out the bands that razed his property and killed three of his staff. He finds the indigenous Yaqui band and after hearing the reason for their action against the Urrea ranch, makes peace with the Yaquis. They were upset with the diminishing lands they can call theirs and were very hungry while such riches were right around the corner, destined for an absent owner. Tomas and the Yaquis form a pact of peaceful coexistence, with mutual favours when called for.
Over a period of roughly twenty years Teresita grows from a half-wild rejected child into the revered spiritual and physical healer and leader of the People called La Santa de Cabora.
Admired and loved by the believers, she is hated by the government and its deputies, and feared for her influence. She is then targeted as the cause of the insurrection of the Indiginous tribes of the area and persecuted by the Rurales (federal Mexican police/army), and ultimately, expelled from Mexico as a suspected revolutionary instigator of uprisings by the indigenous populations. The army stops short of executing her, for fear that she will turn into a martyr, with even more power from beyond the grave.
This story is taking place in a historical context of the brutal regime of General Porfirio Diaz towards the end of the 19th century when the revolution is brewing and the Indigenous Mexicans (defined as those who have not mixed with the descendants of the Spanish colonizers and who still maintained their own indigenous languages and culrural practices). The Indigenous tribes had started to fight for their beliefs and for keeping possession of their lands.
The book ends when Teresita is expelled to Arizona together with her father Don Tomas Urrea, in a scene describing the last stand-off between Yaquis and Mayos against the army, just short of the Arizona border at a time where the Mexican revolution is already in progress. This history of Mexico that the author Urrea spent two years researching, is embedded in a riveting tale of the Saint of Cabora, as the indigenous Mexicans, the People, still called her. The author, born from a Mexican parent and an American parent was under the impression that Teresita was a relative and in that spirit started his research.
Much of the Mexican culture is described, as well as many Native rituals and beliefs, that provides a fascinating look at Mexico as it still exists. The Mexican culture is a mixed culture, with the strongest influences from the old Indigenous spiritual beliefs, then the Roman Catholic doctrines and beliefs, and also with some minor influences of old Spanish-European culture, although other than in its language and the imported RC religion, that influence is not so obvious in everyday life, in my view. Most people are obviously of Indigenous mixed heritage.
As a traveller to Mexico I am staying away as far as I can from the gringo resorts, preferring to live in the heart of a small town among the Mexican locals.I recognized many of the mannerisms of the Mexicans and the regional foods, corn being one of the most important. The book transported me to my favourite places in Jalisco and I wished I could linger there forever.
You might think that this was historic and now the indigenous peoples are safer. Sure, it appeared to be the practice in the past in newly occupied territories to remove the local Indians, or more appropriately called Indigenous populations, from their lands, with tricks or with violence. The purpose of businesses and governments working together was to make money, or as they say “develop the country”. You’d think that this can’t be any more the case in this day and age. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.
A few weeks back I saw the documentary Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth by Frauke Sandig and Erik Black at the Okanagan College, filmed in the independent state of Chiapas, a territory in the south of Mexico, where we know from the media that the so-called “rebels” were keeping the Mexican government on its toes.
That seems to me a miscasting of the situation. From the documentary that breaks one’s heart, we see that, yes, the speakers are local, Indigenous people. Although cast by the Mexican government as rebels, they really are victims, objecting to being thrown off their lands, and to having their homes and lands polluted by mines.
To clear the areas for the mines, huge landmasses were bulldozed and the remaining landscape is now bare, vulnerable to erosion, where once special stands of sacred trees stood and pre-Columbian, ancient Maya buildings had been preserved in the jungle, until that day the machines came.
For those who drink coffee: Chiapas is also the area of the coffee culture, its coffee is dark and its taste lush, like the jungle it grows in). Whenever I get the chance, I buy it. The coffee culture might very well be in danger too.
The results of this literal upheaval of the earth and the local environment are that its residents are getting ill, the water is polluted, the crops affected, and they do not know why their lives and their peaceful way of living deserves so little respect from their government.
Chiapas has one of the largest indigenous populations of Mexico, with twelve recognized ethnicities, what we in Canada would call First Nations. In 1994 a Zapatista uprising took place that succeeded to get more rights for the indigenous population.
The documentary reminded me of Canadian film maker James Cameron’s award winning movie Avatar made in 2009 that grossed him 2-plus billion in revenues. His material and the idea for the movie seem to have been copied from what is actually happening in the Chiapas and Guatemala jungles. It so happened that when I was travelling to Guadalajara I first saw Avatar in Spanish on the bus’ TV–apparently a bootlegged version, as the movie was still running at that time in the theatres in 2010.
After having seen the documentary–curious–I checked the Internet and to my surprise, found an article that stated the Mexican government had last year made an announcement that the moratorium on mine development in the Chiapas area is ending. It appears that Canada is one of the largest gold producers involved in Mexico, if not the largest, and I am ashamed by my nation’s ruthless push for economic exploitation while disregarding Indigenous people’s rights and ruining sensitive environments.
The following are excerpts from a post by Herman Bellinghausen from the blog about mining, http://www.chiapassolidarity.wordpress.com/2012/07/08 originally in Spanish, translated into English by the international Chiapas Zappatista translation service.
The “Mining Truce” in Chiapas is at the Point of Ending.
Chiapas, July 5, 2012
Everything indicates that the truce granted by the out-going Chiapas government for mining exploitation is about to end. In this state the federal government has delivered 97 concessions to a group of transnationals, the majority of them Canadian, for periods of up to 50 years, frequently bypassing environmental standards.
This will occur with the Titan of the Andes Mine, in the coastal municipality of Acacoyagua.
According to a source consulted, who asked for anonymity, “to authorize work of that magnitude in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, one of the states with the country’s greatest biodiversity, is a flagrant violation of nature and of all the conservation treaties about biodiversity signed by Mexico.”
…….work of this magnitude would impact directly on the mangrove ecosystems in La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve………
….”.Two mines are already operating, “while others are still in the exploration or construction stages”. They are looking for gold and silver, but also extract barite, titanium, magnetite and copper. It is important to remember that extraction was suspended following the 2009 murder of Mariano Abarca, opponent of mining in Chicomuselo and a member of Rema.
One of the principal companies is Blackfire Exploration Ltd, with headquarters in Alberta, Canada, whose slogan is “Aggressively Exploring and Developing Chiapas.” It has acquired 27,412 hectares through subsidiaries or intermediaries. It has opened a barite mine in Chicomuselo and this year plans to open two more in the Sierra. In its turn, Linear Gold Corp shows it has exploration rights on 198,416 hectares and operates a gold mine through two intermediaries in Ixuatán, in the northern part of the state. Among its other projects is a gold mine in Motozintla.
…..there are four other companies that, although they have not yet started operations, have concessions for exploration and in certain cases exploitation in 31 municipalities, the majority in the Sierra.
They are the Canadian companies Radius Gold Corp (103,210 hectares), Fronteer Development Group (208,392), New Gold Inc (246,249) and the Chilean copper company Codelco (12,831), which in 2009 “was the mining company that registered the greatest increase in the production of copper,” according to the Mining Directory of Chile.
Of the 97 total concessions, 37 expire in 2050, and four more in 2054 in Escuintla, Pijijiapan and Solusuchiapa, “where the majority of mining concessions are until 2057”.
17 permits expire in 2056 in Amatenango del Valle, Coapilla, Copainalá, Motozintla, Pichucalco, Rayón, Siltepec, Tapachula and Villa Comaltitlán. Of them, nine belong to Linear Gold with a total of 120,744 hectares.
The permits for 11 mines would terminate in 2057, after 50 years in Ocozocoautla, Chicomuselo, Angel Albino Corzo, Venustiano Carranza, Villa Flores, Motozintla, Escuintla and Mazapa de Madero.
For its part, the Canadian Radius Gold/Geo-metals of the North is the owner of 103,210 hectares, with six projects in Ocozocoautla, Chicomuselo, Angel Albino Corzo, Venustiano Carranza and Villa Flores.
(Originally published in Spanish by La Jornada, July 6, 2012…..
So far the quote from the blog.
When all this work is completed, by 2057, when I will be passed on, and my daughter might be a grandmother at age 72, I am pretty sure that no more Mayas will be living in their home territory in Chiapas, and that the number of “rebels” will have increased.
If the indigenous peoples of Chiapas have not been part of the plan and were not offered relocation to similar territory, with a fair change to maintain their way of living as they please, this might just be the point where another civil war is brewing, purely out of self defence. What else could locals do?
It seems that history in Mexico might repeat itself, no thanks to the Canadian businesses and the international mining industry.
My question is: did you ever stop to think where your gold product is from, that beautiful gold ring, those great ear rings?
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