Photo credit: HarperCollins via https://www.harpercollins.com/products/velorio-xavier-navarro-aquino?variant=39307346509858
“We loved because there is no greater love than that for your home.”
—Xavier Navarro Aquino, Velorio (HarperVia, 2022)
Xavier Navarro Aquino’s debut novel, Velorio, is set in Puerto Rico in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane María as an ensemble of characters grapple with grief, memory, power, and love of their home.
Velorio’s central conflict revolves around Memoria, a utopia that promises protection and “Energy” (fuel) in exchange for loyalty to the cacique, Urayoán. Ura believes he was selected by God to replace the old government. Here emerges the first major theme of the novel: the effects of colonialism. “I am conquered twice, by Spanish and American empires,” says Urayoán. This concept is often discussed in Puerto Rican literature by writers like Raquel Salas Rivera. Ura describes the commodification of nature in Puerto Rico, a culturally violent byproduct of colonialism. The greed and corruption of the colonial government, evidenced by a failing power grid riddled with “[a] rot like bone corruption, punctured so deep inside it spreads,” results in the suffering of Ura’s fellow Puerto Ricans. And yet, it is this corruption that empowers Ura to create his utopia. As young activist Moriviví observes, although he redirects aid toward Memoria, “Urayoán started looking more… like a solution rather than a problem.” Ura believes age perpetuates old ideas, so he doesn’t admit elders into Memoria. However, as the community grows, Ura bends to the will of his young soldiers and resorts to the same tactics he once criticized: ignoring, using, and, ultimately, killing his people. Age, then, is not the culprit; it is Ura’s desire for legacy that motivates him as it did the colonizers. Cheo, an old fisherman and poet, observes this, writing “...leaders old and new create the same old new pains.” Other characters realize this, but not all want to leave Memoria, a hesitancy borne of a love of home.
In his last poem, Cheo writes about those who “leave, because they must.” Yet even when corruption and other factors encourage leaving, Puerto Ricans stay. Bayfish and Banto, two friends who knew Ura pre-María, talk about this before the hurricane strikes: “...this place is limiting, Banto…people [leave] Puerto Rico and [make] something bigger of their lives across the sea,” says Bayfish. Banto responds: “I don’t care…I want to live, hurt, and rot here in this soil.” Camila, who loses her sister to María, clings to her rotting corpse, desperate to keep whatever is left of her alive. She is her home. Ura’s decision to take Cami’s sister away reveals a core ideal of Memoria: to write a new history, centering his people’s identity around himself. For example, when food runs low, Cheo and Bayfish bring back fish for the children of Memoria. Ura’s jealousy of his citizens’ appreciation for this act leads him to cast Cheo to sea with a paddle and a net, claiming that he will return with enough fish for everyone. And in the face of this impossible promise, his citizens rejoice. They choose to believe their cacique, participating in nightly rituals honoring him. Perhaps they do this for lack of alternatives, but I think they (and others who stay in Puerto Rico in spite of the hardships) fear detachment and a loss of history. Before María, Banto stays around Ura even when he hurts and humiliates him, saying “Better him than some stranger.” The known is home. Home is history. And what is a person without history?
The characters in Velorio identify themselves through their relationships, but also through language and nature. Chapters narrated by Urayoán are written in present tense, so his words sound like prophecy as he seems to predict events that occur later. Bayfish and Moriviví struggle to find the right words at emotional moments, their strength lying instead in confrontation, especially to defend their friends. Their more pensive and poetic counterparts are Damaris and Cheo, who journal their observations and experiences. Cheo especially is intentional in his poeticism, making lists that culminate in a final portrait of his life as he drifts into the Atlantic. Considering that the inciting incident is natural, it’s fitting that the elements appear as important symbols throughout Velorio. Uprooted trees sprouting at odd angles reflect the resilience of those fighting to survive and reclaim their sense of home. Ura embodies the passion and anger of fire, which ultimately consumes Memoria, both metaphorically and literally. And constant references to water elicit not only hurricane María, but also signals rebirth: rivers returning to their natural flow, the ocean’s changed waves, a new perspective for Cheo, who finds his final home in the salt and waves.
Velorio explores the corrupting nature of power, the value of poetry, and the ebbs and flows of grief. But what I most connected with was its love for Puerto Rico. These characters are uniquely Puerto Rican, from their slang to their experiences living on the island. And while Memoria ends with blood and fear, Puerto Ricans may identify with Ura’s thirst for change. While reading, I recalled the lush landscapes I call home, the images of them shredded and drowned. Although I didn’t experience María, my family has shared about the unnatural sounds of water making rubble of homes, the frustration of losing access to basic needs, the “after she hit effect” that Moriví describes. Like Damaris in the book, Navarro Aquino documents the lives lived and lost due to Hurricane María with the tenderness of a poet, no doubt in part because of his Puerto Rican identity. Velorio, then, is a sort of time capsule, a way for me to understand what my people dealt with and still deal with in spite of my separation from the island. “I guess that’s what [poetry]’s for,” says Cheo, “to carry and keep no matter how distant we drift out to sea.”
If you enjoy(ed) Velorio’s dystopian setting and themes of power, I recommend William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.
Thanks to HarperVia for the review copy!