By Graciela Limon
Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1995
ISBN # 1-55885-091-0
217 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2009

A young monk, Father Benita Lara is called to a convent in the area of Mexico City in 1583. An old woman, “Hummingbird” (Huitzitzilin) is asking for a confessor. In the first confession-interview, the young monk, also a fairly serious scholar, discovers she tells of the events of the coming of Cortes and the Spanish in an manner quite different from much of what he read and studied in Spain. He sets out not only to confess her, but to write down her account of the changes in her country since the arrival of the Spanish. This literary device allows author Graciela Limon to present a history of the “Conquest” from the point of view of the local native people, and to enrich our view of this critical encounter of Europe with America.

Further, there is a magnificent relationship which springs up between Huitzitzilin and the priest. He begins to see the story from her perspective with great sympathy, but that very fact brings danger to both his personal faith and puts him in danger of The Inquisition were this sympathy were to become known to Spanish religious authorities. There is an especially fascinating description of the burning at the stake of her own estranged husband.

“Then Tetla began to dissolve! His flesh became liquid; it dripped unevenly running off his body in globs. I saw his body quiver but yet no sound came from his mouth. What had once been Tetla became smaller, shorter, reduced first to the shortness of a stalk of maize, then the size of those dwarfs who entertained Moctezuma, then smaller still to the size of a low chair, until there remained only a head that soon became obscured by swirling ash and thick gray smoke.”

The monk is deeply moved and finally shouts for her to stop telling him this. He had been trained to see the Mexican natives as totally “other,” and Huitzitzilin’s descriptions humanize her people. He says:

“It’s the inexplicable way in which she tells her sins, a way that is not marked by repentance, but rather as if her actions had been mere happenstance.”

Even more challenging to his traditional views of religion is her way of “confessing” her sins which seems with no sense of regret.

“She expresses herself in a way that makes me begin to wonder if what she has done is sinful or not.”

The book is set in 1582. Father Benito, the Franciscan priest is only 27. Huitzitzilin is 82, and was about 20 when the Cortes destroyed Mexico City. She was a servant to Montezuma’s wife and thus witnessed it all close up.

The pattern of their daily meetings are that she tells him much about her culture, most of which he hasn’t read in his schooling in Spain, and each day she tells him, and shocks him, with some new “sin.” He keeps a careful account of her version of this history, presumably to record it in Spain. However, it was left to Graciela Limon to create it for us.

The priest is deeply troubled by both her attitude toward sin and her ancient native religion, and what she is telling him of the “true” version of the Conquest itself. The troubled Father Benito is in dialogue with his own confessor, Fr. Anselmo Cano, who is cautioning him about what is happening to him and about the dangers of some of what he has heard and what his is thinking were The Inquisition to hear of it.

This is the fourth book by Graciela Limon which I have read and I continue to be deeply impressed with her writing. She gets inside the culture she writes about and makes it live for the reader in a deeply felt manner.

I highly recommend the novel to all.

Bob Corbett


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