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Notre Dame professor publishes debut novel on Hurricane Maria

| Wednesday, February 16, 2022

It has been almost five years since Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico, but its memory is far from gone.

This is especially true for Xavier Navarro Aquino, assistant professor of creative writing at Notre Dame and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS). In January, Aquino published his debut novel, “Velorio,” which chronicles the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 

The ILS, in partnership with the creative writing department and the Initiative on Race and Resilience, hosted a book launch last week celebrating the success of “Velorio.” The event featured a reading from “Velorio” by Aquino and a conversation with Marisel Moreno, associate professor of Spanish at Notre Dame.

“Velorio” follows a cast of characters on their journey to a supposed utopia called Memoria. They face both the natural disaster brought by the hurricane and human violence enacted during the hurricane response. 

The characters — among them fishmongers, university students, street peddlers and a grieving sister — “search for any semblance of hope in a dystopian setting during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria,” Aquino said in an email to The Observer.

Each of these characters “brings a different perspective and different ways of processing their grief,” Aquino said in the email.

Courtesy of Harper Collins
Xavier Navarro Aquino published “Velorio” through Harper Collins in early 2022.

Because “the story of Maria belongs to the larger community that experienced its effects,” Aquino said he knew he wanted to include multiple points of view to explore the collective memory of Maria for the people of Puerto Rico.

The name “Velorio” comes from the Spanish word for a funeral wake. Aquino referenced the famous painting, “El Velorio,” by Francisco Oller, which depicts a crowded house after a funeral.

“The novel centers on community gathering” like the painting, Aquino said.

Aquino himself was born and raised in Puerto Rico. At the launch, he spoke about his experience returning to his homeland after Hurricane Maria in 2017 before drafting “Velorio” in the fall of 2019. 

When asked about how he wove personal grief and the political ramifications of Hurricane Maria together in “Velorio,” Aquino said the two are inseparable.

“The colonial condition of Puerto Rico is always political, whether subtle or overt,” he said in an email. “Grief is a constant, even if it is not performed.”

Aquino said processing the aftermath of the hurricane “was and is a political act.”

“Our collective anger over what we lost and how we move forward are all things ‘Velorio’ brings into question,” he added.

Aquino said Notre Dame students might want to read the novel if they are intrigued by what it explores.

“My hope is that the novel carries topics that are large in scope — the dangers of climate change, the human condition, poetry, authoritarianism, trauma and grief, resilience,” Aquino said.

Aquino also advocated for an active reading process, including looking up the many references to Puerto Rican history and politics that he makes in the novel.

“A reader should not limit their experience because they may not know … about a certain history,” Aquino said. “I think that’s why we read. To expand empathy.”

“Velorio” can be purchased at the Notre Dame bookstore or online.

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