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The Hummingbird's Daughter


On the cool october morning when Cayetana Chávez brought her baby to light, it was the start of that season in Sinaloa when the humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.

On the big Santana rancho, the People had never seen paved streets, streetlamps, a trolley, or a ship. Steps were an innovation that seemed an occult work, stairways were the wicked cousins of ladders, and greatly to be avoided. Even the streets of Ocoroni, trod on certain Sundays when the People formed a long parade and left the safety of the hacienda to attend Mass, were dirt, or cobbled, not paved. The People thought all great cities had pigs in the streets and great muddy rivers of mule piss attracting hysterical swarms of wasps, and that all places were built of dirt and straw. They called little Cayetana the Hummingbird, using the mother tongue to say it: Semalú.

On that October day, the fifteenth, the People had already begun readying for the Day of the Dead, only two weeks away. They were starting to prepare plates of the dead’s favorite snacks: deceased uncles, already half-forgotten, still got their favorite green tamales, which, due to the heat and the flies, would soon turn even greener. Small glasses held the dead’s preferred brands of tequila, or rum, or rompope: Tío Pancho liked beer, so a clay flagon of watery Guaymas brew fizzled itself flat before his graven image on a family altar. The ranch workers set aside candied sweet potatoes, cactus and guayaba sweets, mango jam, goat jerky, dribbly white cheeses, all food they themselves would like to eat, but they knew the restless spirits were famished, and no family could afford to assuage its own hunger and insult the dead. Jesús! Everybody knew that being dead could put you in a terrible mood.

The People were already setting out the dead’s favorite corn-husk cigarettes, and if they could not afford tobacco, they filled the cigarros with machuche, which would burn just as well and only make the smokers cough a little. Grandmother’s thimble, Grandfather’s old bullets, pictures of Father and Mother, a baby’s umbilical cord in a crocheted pouch. They saved up their centavos to buy loaves of ghost bread and sugar skulls with blue icing on their foreheads spelling out the names of the dead they wished to honor, though they could not read the skulls, and the confectioners often couldn’t read them either, an alphabet falling downstairs. Tomás Urrea, the master of the rancho, along with his hired cowboys, thought it was funny to note the grammatical atrocities committed by the candy skulls: Martía, Jorse, Octablio. The vaqueros laughed wickedly, though most of them couldn’t read, either. Still, they were not about to lead Don Tomás to think they were brutos, or worse—pendejos.

“A poem!” Tomás announced.

“Oh no,” said his best friend, Don Lauro Aguirre, the great Engineer, on one of his regular visits.

“There was a young man from Guamúchil,” Tomás recited, “whose name was Pinche Inútil!”

“And?” said Don Lauro.

“I haven’t worked it out yet.”

Tomás rode his wicked black stallion through the frosting of starlight that turned his ranch blue and pale gray, as if powdered sugar had blown off the sky and sifted over the mangos and mesquites. Most of the citizens of Sinaloa had never wandered more than 100 miles; he had traveled more than anyone else, 107 miles, an epic journey undertaken five days before, when he and his foreman, Segundo, had led a squad of armed outriders to Los Mochis, then to the Sea of Cortés beyond. All to collect Don Lauro Aguirre, arriving by ship from far Mazatlán, and with him, a shipment of goods for the ranch, which they contracted for safe delivery in a Conducta wagon train accompanied by cavalry.

In Los Mochis, Tomás had seen the legendary object called “the sea.”

“More green than blue,” he’d noted to his companions, already an expert on first sight. “The poets are wrong.”

“Pinches poets,” said Segundo, hating all versifiers and psalmists.

They had gone on to greet the Engineer at the docks. He fairly danced off the boat, so charged with delight was he to be once again in the rustic arms of his bon ami très enchanté! Under his arm, carefully wrapped in oilcloth, Aguirre clutched a leather-bound copy of Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. In Aguirre’s opinion, the Scotsman had written a classic! Don Lauro had a nagging suspicion that electricity, this occult force, and magnetism, certainly a force of spirit, could be used to locate, and even affect, the human soul. In his pocket, a greater wonder was hidden: a package of Adams’s Black Jack chewing gum — the indescribable flavor of licorice! Wait until Tomás tasted that!

The ship looked to Segundo like a fat bird with gray wings floating on the water after eating some fish. He was delighted with himself and pointed to the boat and told one of the buckaroos, “Fat bird. Ate some fish. Floating around.” He lit a little cigar and grinned, his gums and teeth clotted with shreds of tobacco.

Segundo had the face of an Aztec carving. He had Chinese eyes, and a sloping Mayan forehead. His nose was a great curving blade that hung down over his drooping bandido mustache. He thought he was handsome. But then, Aguirre also thought himself handsome, though he seemed to have inherited the penchant for fat cheeks that was supposed to be the curse of the Urrea clan. He tried to remember to suck in his cheeks, especially when he was being compared to his friend Tomás Urrea. Where had Tomás’s cheeks gone? In bright light, you could see his cheekbones casting shadows as if he were some Indian warrior. And those eyes! Urrea had a ferocious gleam in his eyes — a glare. Men found it unnerving, but women were apparently mesmerized. They were the only green eyes Aguirre had ever beheld.

“You have much work to do, you lazy bastard,” said Tomás.

The Urrea clan paid Aguirre handsomely to exercise his education for them in elaborate hydrological and construction plans. He had designed a network of vents to carry odors from the house’s revolutionary indoor toilet. He had even astounded them all by designing a system of pipes that carried water uphill.

With liquid on the mind, it was not long before they found the notorious El Farolito cantina. There, they ate raw shellfish still gasping under tides of lime juice and hot sauce and great crystals of salt that cracked between the teeth of the men. Naked women writhed to a tuba-and-drum combo. The men regarded this display with joy, though Aguirre made the effort to feel guilty about it. Lieutenant Emilio Enríquez, in charge of the Conducta wagon train, joined them at the table.

“Teniente!” Tomás shouted. “What do you hear?”

“Gentlemen,” said Enríquez, arranging his sword so he could sit. “Unrest in Mexico City.”

Aguirre had to admit to himself that this soldier, though an enforcer of the oppressors, was a dashing figure in his medallions and the bright brass fittings on his tunic.

“What troubles are these, sir?” he said, always ready to hear the government was being overthrown.

Enríquez twirled the ends of his upswept bigote and nodded to the barkeep, who landed a foaming beer before him.

“Protesters,” he sighed, “have dug up Santa Anna’s leg again.”

Everybody burst out laughing.

The old dictator’s leg had once been blown off by a cannonball and buried with full military honors in the capital.

“Every year, somebody digs it up and kicks it around,” Enríquez said.

Tomás raised his glass of beer.

“To Mexico,” he said.

“To Santa Anna’s leg!” Lieutenant Enríquez announced.

They all raised their glasses.

“The Canadians,” Enríquez said, as he poured himself a fresh glass of beer, “have launched a mounted police force. They control their Indians.”

“And bandits?” Tomás interjected.

Tomás Urrea’s own father had been waylaid by bandits on the road to Palo Cagado. The bandits, a scruffy lot said to have dropped out of the Durango hills, had been after silver. Tomás’s father, Don Juan Francisco, was well known for carrying casks of coin to cover the wages of the three hundred workers on his brother’s great million-acre hacienda south of Culiacán. When the outlaws discovered no silver, they stood Don Juan Francisco against an alamo tree and executed him with a volley of ninety-seven bullets. Tomás had been nine at the time. Yet his subsequent hatred of bandidos, as he grew up on the vast ranch, was so intense it transformed into a lifelong fascination. Some even said Tomás now wished he were a bandido.

“It goes without saying, caballeros. Bandits!” said Enríquez. “Besides, we have already started the rural police program here in Mexico to accost our own outlaws.”

“Gringos! They have copied us again,” Tomás announced.

“Los Rurales,” Enríquez continued. “The rural mounted police force.”

“To the Rurales,” Tomás said.

They raised their glasses.

“To the bandits,” said Segundo.

“And the Apaches,” Enríquez said, “who keep me employed.”

They drank the hot brew and pissed out the back door and tossed coins to the women to keep them dancing. Tomás suddenly grabbed a guitar and launched into a ballad about a boy who loved his schoolteacher but was too shy to tell her. Instead, he wrote her a love note every day and tucked it in a tree. One day, while he was placing his latest testimonial in the tree, it was hit by lightning, and not only did this poor boy die, but the tree with its enclosed epistles of love burned to the ground. The teacher ran to the tree in time to behold this disaster. The ballad ended with the melancholy schoolteacher, lonely and unloved, brushing the ashes of the boy’s unread notes from her hair before turning out her lamp and sleeping alone for yet another night. The naked dancers covered themselves and wept.

Early the next morning, the men left the thunderously hungover barkeep and dancers behind and began their long ride inland, to where the hills started to rise and the iguanas were longer than the rattlesnakes. They began to forget the color of the sea.


Cayetana greeted that dawn with a concoction made with coffee beans and burned corn kernels. As the light poured out of the eastern sea and splashed into windows from coast to coast, Mexicans rose and went to their million kitchens and cooking fires to pour their first rations of coffee. A tidal wave of coffee rushed west across the land, rising and falling from kitchen to fire ring to cave to ramada. Some drank coffee from thick glasses. Some sipped it from colorful gourds, rough clay pots that dissolved as they drank, cones of banana leaf. Café negro. Café with canela. Café with goat’s milk. Café with a golden-brown cone of piloncillo melting in it like a pyramid engulfed by a black flood. Tropical café with a dollop of sugarcane rum coiling in it like a hot snake. Bitter mountaintop café that thickened the blood. In Sinaloa, café with boiled milk, its burned milk skin floating on top in a pale membrane that looked like the flesh of a peeled blister. The heavy-eyed stared into the round mirrors of their cups and regarded their own dark reflections. And Cayetana Chávez, too, lifted a cup, her coffee reboiled from yesterday’s grounds and grits, sweet with spoons of sugarcane syrup, and lightened by thin blue milk stolen with a few quick squeezes from one of the patrón’s cows.

On that long westward morning, all Mexicans still dreamed the same dream. They dreamed of being Mexican. There was no greater mystery.

Only rich men, soldiers, and a few Indians had wandered far enough from home to learn the terrible truth: Mexico was too big. It had too many colors. It was noisier than anyone could have imagined, and the voice of the Atlantic was different from the voice of the Pacific. One was shrill, worried, and demanding. The other was boisterous, easy to rile into a frenzy. The rich men, soldiers, and Indians were the few who knew that the east was a swoon of green, a thick-aired smell of ripe fruit and flowers and dead pigs and salt and sweat and mud, while the west was a riot of purple. Pyramids rose between llanos of dust and among turgid jungles. Snakes as long as country roads swam tame beside canoes. Volcanoes wore hats of snow. Cactus forests grew taller than trees. Shamans ate mushrooms and flew. In the south, some tribes still went nearly naked, their women wearing red flowers in their hair and blue skirts, and their breasts hanging free. Men outside the great Mexico City ate tacos made of live winged ants that flew away if the men did not chew quickly enough.

So what were they? Every Mexican was a diluted Indian, invaded by milk like the coffee in Cayetana’s cup. Afraid, after the Conquest and the Inquisition, of their own brown wrappers, they colored their faces with powder, covered their skins in perfumes and European silks and American habits. Yet for all their beaver hats and their lace veils, the fine citizens of the great cities knew they had nothing that would ever match the ancient feathers of the quetzal. No cacique stood atop any temple clad in jaguar skins. Crinolines, waistcoats. Operas, High Mass, café au lait in demitasse cups in sidewalk patisseries. They attempted to choke the gods with New York pantaloons, Parisian petticoats. But still the banished spirits whispered from corners and basements. In Mexico City, the great and fallen Tenochtitlán, among streets and buildings constructed with the stones of the Pyramid of the Sun, gentlemen walked with their heads slightly tilted, cocked as if listening to this puzzling murmur of wraiths.

They still spoke a thousand languages — Spanish, too, to be sure, but also a thicket of songs and grammars. Mexico — the sound of wind in the ruins. Mexico—the waves rushing the shore. Mexico — the sand dunes, the snowfields, the steam of sleeping Popocatépetl. Mexico — across marijuana fields, tomato plants, avocado trees, the agave in the village of Tequila.

Mexico. . . .

All around them, in the small woods, in the caves, in the precipitous canyons of copper country, in the swamps and at the crossroads, the harsh Old Ones gathered. Tlaloc, the rain god, lips parched because the Mexicans no longer tortured children to feed him sweet drafts of their tears. The Flayed One, Xipe Totec, shivering cold because priests no longer skinned sacrifices alive and danced in their flesh to bring forth the harvest. Tonántzin, goddess of Tepeyac, chased from her summit by the very Mother of God, the Virgen de Guadalupe. The awesome and ferocious warrior god, Hummingbird on the Left, Huitzilopochtli. Even the Mexicans’ friend, Chac Mool, was lonely. Big eared and waiting to carry their hopes and dreams in his bowl as he transited to the land of the gods from the earth, he lay on his back watching forever in vain for the feathered priests to return. Other Old Ones hid behind statues in the cathedrals that the Spaniards had built with the stones of their shattered temples. The smell of sacrificial blood and copal seeped out from between the stones to mix with incense and candles. Death is alive, they whispered. Death lives inside life, as bones dance within the body. Yesterday is within today. Yesterday never dies.

Mexico. Mexico.


The pain in her belly kicked Cayetana Chávez over. She dropped her cup. She felt a cascade of fluids move down her bowels as the child awoke. Her belly!

It clenched. It jumped. It clenched.

At first, she thought it was the cherries. She had never eaten them before. If she had known they would give her a case of chorro . . .

“Ay,” she said, “Dios.”

She thought she was going to have to rush to the bushes.

They had come for her the day before. The Chávez girls were known by everybody. Although Santana Ranch was divided into two great lobes of territory — crops to the south and cattle to the north — there were only fifty workers’ households, and with the children and grandparents added up, it made for fewer than 150 workers. Everybody knew better than to bother Cayetana’s older sister, Tía. Good Christ: the People would rather move a rattlesnake out of their babies’ cribs with a stick than go to Tía’s door. So when they came from the northern end of the rancho with news that one of the Chávez sisters’ cousins had killed himself, they’d asked for La Semalú.

Ay, Dios. Cayetana was only fourteen, and she had already learned that life was basically a long series of troubles. So she had wrapped her rebozo around her head and put on her flat huaraches and begun her slow waddle through the darkness before the sun rose.

She wondered, as she walked, why the People called her Hummingbird. Was it because she was small? Well, they were all small. Everyone knew semalús were holy birds, carrying prayers to God. She also knew she had a bad reputation, so calling her Semalú was probably some kind of joke. They loved to make jokes. Cayetana spit: she did not think anything was funny. Especially now. Her poor cousin. He had shot himself in the head. Her mother and father were dead, shot down in an army raid in Tehueco lands. Her aunt and uncle had been hanged in a grove of mango trees by soldiers that mistook them for fleeing Yaquis near El Júpare. The men were strung up with their pants around their ankles. Both men and women hung naked as fruit. Some of the Mexicans had collected scalps. She sighed. Aside from her sister, she was alone in the world. She put her hands on her belly as she walked along the north road. It was three miles to the cattle operation. The baby kicked.

Not yet, not yet.

She didn’t mind being called a hummingbird.

Hours later, she pushed through the shaky gate of her cousin’s jacal. He was still lying on his back in the dirt. Someone had placed a bandana over his face. His huaraches were splayed. His toes were gray. The blood on the ground had turned black. He didn’t stink yet, but the big flies had been running all over him, pausing to rub their hands. A rusty pistola lay in the dirt a few inches from his hand.

The neighbors had already raided her cousin’s shack and taken all his food. Cayetana traded the pistola to a man who agreed to dig a hole. He dug it beside a maguey plant beside the fence, and they rolled the body into it. They shoved the dirt over him and then covered the grave with rocks so the dogs wouldn’t dig it up.

Inside the shack, Cayetana found a chair and a bed frame made of wood and ropes. There was a machete under the bed. A pregnant girl from distant Escuinapa was there, waiting. Cayetana didn’t know her, but she let her move in, since the girl was afraid that she would lose her infant to coyotes if she had it outside. Cayetana accepted the girl’s blessing, then swung the machete a few times. She liked the big blade. She started to walk home.

The sun was already setting. She didn’t like that. The dark frightened her. That road was also scary. It wound between black cottonwoods and gray willows. Crickets, frogs, night birds, bats, coyotes, and ranch dogs — their sounds accompanied her through the dark. When she had to pee — and since the child had sprouted inside her, she had to pee all the time — she squatted in the middle of the road and held the machete above her head, ready to kill any demon or bandit that dared leap out at her. An owl hooted in a tree behind her, and that made her hurry.

She came around a bend and saw a small campfire off to the side of the road. It was on the south side. That was a good omen—north was the direction of death. Or was it west? But south was all right.

A man stood by the fire, holding a wooden bowl. He was chewing, and he watched her approach. A horse looked over his shoulder, more interested in the bowl than in her. Her stomach growled and her mouth watered. She hadn’t eaten in a day. She should have hidden in the bushes, but he had already seen her.

“Buenas noches,” she called.


“It’s dark.”

He looked up as if noticing the darkness for the first time.

“It is,” he agreed. Then: “Don’t hit me with that machete.”

“I won’t.”


“This is for bandidos.”


“Son cabrones,” she explained. “And I’ll kill the first one that tries anything.”

“Excellent,” he said.

“And ghosts.”

He put food in his mouth.

“I don’t think you can kill a ghost,” he said.

“We’ll see about that,” she said, flashing her blade.

The small fire crackled.

“What are you eating?” she asked.


“Cherries? What are cherries?”

He held one up. In the faint fire glow, it looked like a small heart full of blood.

“They come from trees,” he said.

“Son malos?” she asked. “They look wicked.”

He laughed.

“They are very wicked,” he said.

“I am going home,” she said.

“So am I.”

“Is this your horse?”

“It is, but I like to walk.”

“You must have good shoes.”

“I have good feet.”

He spit out a seed and popped another cherry in his mouth. She watched his cheeks swell as his jaw worked. Spit. Eat another cherry.

“Are they sweet?” she asked.


He spit a seed.

He heard her belly growl.

“You will bring a child to light soon,” he said.


“A girl.”

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“A girl.”

He handed her the bowl.

“Eat,” he said.

The cherry juice in Cayetana’s mouth was dark and red, like nothing she had ever tasted.

She spit out the seed.

“I have to go now,” she said, “it is late.”

“Adios,” he said.

Cayetana replied in the mother tongue: “Lios emak weye.” God go with you. She walked into the night. Funny man. But one thing she knew from experience — all men were funny.

She’d gotten a restless night’s sleep with the bellyache she blamed on the stranger’s fruit. Now the morning brought increased tumult inside her. Cayetana thought she could make it to the row of outhouses that Tomás had built between the workers’ village and the great house where the masters slept. But the child within her had decided it was time to come forth, announcing the news about halfway to the outhouses when the pain dropped Cayetana to her knees and the strange water broke from her and fell into the dust.

Excerpted from The Hummingbird's Daughter © Copyright 2012 by Luis Alberto Urrea. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown. All rights reserved.

The Hummingbird's Daughter
by by Luis Alberto Urrea

  • paperback: 499 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316154520
  • ISBN-13: 9780316154529