After she hit.
It’s been five years since Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico.
The grief, trauma, and political ramifications of this seismic event in the island’s history are skillfully rendered in Xavier Navarro Aquino’s new novel, Velorio.
It’s a powerful debut for Navarro Aquino, a professor of creative writing at the University of Notre Dame and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Latino Studies. He has a dual appointment with the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience.
On Wednesday, the Institute for Latino Studies, in partnership with the Creative Writing Program, hosted a book launch and reading on the second floor of Decio Hall. A conversation with Professor Marisel Moreno of Romance Languages followed, as did questions from a live audience of about sixty faculty, students, and community members. The event was also livestreamed via Zoom.
"Velorio" translates to funeral wake, a vigil for the dead. Many of the novel’s characters labor under a sense of personal and collective bereavement. The varied cast includes fish mongers, university students, street peddlers, an aspiring poet, a grieving teenage sister, and others trying to put together their lives after Hurricane Maria.
Meanwhile, from the mountains of central Puerto Rico, a shadowy leader promises a utopia to replace the “old government” — a new community called Memoria.
With his army of “reds” — orphaned children and teens playing the part of henchmen — self-anointed prophet Urayoán spreads the word to a population fed up with the corruption and ineptitude of their political leaders.
As a native of Puerto Rico, Navarro Aquino’s first-hand experiences on the island imbues his novel with intimate knowledge. His dive into the aftermath of Hurricane Maria through the eyes of a variety of local characters places readers directly in the mindset of survivors.
One way the novel presents Hurricane Maria is as “a sort of genesis, that instead of life, you're given death,” the author explains in a recent interview. The memory of Maria will never fully fade from the collective psyche. Instead, “everything moving forward for Puerto Rico will be marked by that natural disaster, hence a genesis.” As such, the island that both Navarro Aquino and his characters once called home is much changed compared to what it it is now.
One character, the teenage Camila, arrives in Memoria carrying the decaying body of her older sister Marisol, who was killed by a mudslide. The novel begins and ends by telling their story, a sustaining motif for how survivors must carry on the memory of their loved ones. The official death toll was around 3,000 people, though there continues to be controversy surrounding the count, with some arguing there were actually thousands more.
Undoubtedly, the novel serves as a political indictment of the ruling class of Puerto Rico and the United States, which has exercised control over the island since the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The novel positions the government’s response to Hurricane Maria as the latest example of colonialism dating back to the coming of Christopher Columbus five hundred years ago. It struggles with this inheritance and the way forward, particularly around the idea of nationhood and the use of public land for private gain.
Characters wait an eternity for basic food items and clean water at local Walmarts and grocery stores. Others survey seemingly endless lines at local gas stations they know will run out of fuel before their turn.
Barbs fly at “la Junta”, the fiscal control board set up during the Obama administration to address the billions of dollars in pension liabilities and other debt owed by Puerto Rico to outside lenders. Whitefish, a Montana-based firm awarded a lucrative contract to rebuild the electrical grid despite limited experience, is alluded to as an example of malfeasance.
“We got to mind that it was the fault of our leaders,” Moriviví, a university student, says in the novel. “As they yelled en el Capitolio and fed us the usual spin every four years, we wanted them to fall. How they tried concealing years of waste and corruption by paving roads with new asphalt during election years…We felt strong in adopting no colors; no red, blue, or green. We loved because there is no greater love than that for your home.”
The author explains that “home [his emphasis] means accepting nostalgia as a bias." And "trying to understand reality or new realities” is paramount throughout his novel and the struggles his characters face.
They “seek a home that no longer exists and can never be reclaimed.” However, this desire for what has been lost is not a wasted effort. Navarro Aquino views the attempted act of recreation by his characters as “part of an imperative to reconcile and move forward.”
At the reading Wednesday, Navarro Aquino told the audience how he returned to Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit. At the time, he was a PhD student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but his mother and brother were living in his childhood home on the island.
With a empty canister for water and some loaves of bread, he boarded one of the few flights to Puerto Rico that wasn't canceled amid the widespread damage to critical infrastructure, including a barely functioning airport. He was devastated to see how his once lush, tropical hometown had been devastated.
"Seeing all the landscape we grew up loving — the Caribbean is a very vibrant place — that was all gone," he told the audience.
For about ten days, he did what he could to help his family reconstruct, taking a hiatus from his doctoral program.
However, he needed time before writing the novel that has since been acclaimed by critics at The New York Times, NPR, and elsewhere.
"I didn't want to write about the hurricane immediately after. There were a lot of artists who founds words and language to do that, but I wasn't in that space," Navarro Aquino said.
The inspiration for the two sisters at the heart of Velorio, Camila and Marisol, came from reading a newspaper account of a family of elderly sisters who, unfortunately, lost one of their own in a mudslide. He began writing the book in 2019 as part of a residency program in New Hampshire, abandoning another project he had been working on for some time.
"I was very surprised that the story fell out of me as it did."
Books such as Lord of the Flies, As I Lay Dying, and The Tempest informed his approach.
"I wanted to write a book that was of collective experience." He sees the six characters who speak in the novel as protagonists in their own right.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect attendance and comments made during the live reading and discussion. Watch the video of the reading on Youtube.