A family of four huddles in the center room of their concrete home in San Juan as the wind shrieks around them and rain hammers against the small skylight above. The father, a professor of literature desperate to distract his terrified wife and children, begins to recount stories of as many literary storms as he can remember. They wait out Hurricane Maria this way, in the dark, listening only to the raging storm outside and the tales of tempests in the works of Homer and Virgil and Shakespeare.
So begins Las Marías, the short story by Spanish faculty member Ernesto Guerra published this fall in Cápsulas del tiempo, a commemorative literary anthology for Hurricane Maria. Proceeds from the book, which includes stories from sixteen Puerto Rican writers, will go to relief efforts on the island. Though fiction, Ernesto’s story pulls directly from his parents’ experience with Hurricane Maria and the devastation that followed: power outages, unbearable heat, and a terrifying communication blackout with loved ones on the opposite end of the island. For Ernesto’s father, the condition of the hospitals posed the most immediate threat. Finally, Ernesto was able to get his parents on a relief flight to the mainland, where they lived with him and his siblings for three months.
When Ernesto’s publisher, SM, approached him about contributing to Cápsulas del tiempo, he turned to family and neighbors for first-hand accounts of the storm and its aftermath. The story that emerged, told from the perspective of a young boy living in San Juan, contains echoes of these lived experiences while exploring a number of themes that have always fascinated Ernesto. He wanted, for example, to tell the story of a young reader whose imagination flourishes through literature, and who discovers the incredible potential of knowledge that exists outside of the technology we rely on so heavily today. He was also interested in combining Greek and Taino myths of creation and destruction, and addressing Puerto Rico’s current socio-economic reality. He accomplishes all of this in a heart-wrenching story of a young boy’s first love and the storm that called it into question: both by the name of Maria.
Ernesto has written primarily for children and young adults. “I write for my daughters,” he says. As they grow older, so too does Ernesto’s audience. His first book, Tú, ellos y los otros, followed five monsters—each representing one of the five senses—as they descended upon a child’s house. In fact, he learned that story was too scary for young children when he read it to his daughter, and he dialed it back before publication. In 2016 he published Las palabras perdidas, winner of El Barco de Vapor Award for Children’s Literature. Now that his children are all grown, he says the novel in progress might be his last piece of adolescent literature. He will then look forward to his next project, a collection of short stories about the history of Puerto Rico. This will require many trips back to the island, where he will for the first time witness the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria for himself.