The Problem with ‘After María’

The documentary After María has set teeth on edge in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community of Central Florida, many of whom say it’s not a fair depiction of the evacuees who fled the island after the September 2017 storm.

The 37-minute film follows three families who left the island for New York after months of little government response and aid, winding up in a hotel waiting for housing extensions from FEMA and other aid. It’s a very narrow view and thin portrayal of the post-María ordeal, since most evacuees did not live in hotels, plus more than 40 percent of evacuees came to Florida, not New York.

But the film, which some now want banned from Netflix, is not an inaccurate portrayal of what happened to many evacuees impacted by Hurricane María. In fact, some of the drama in the film also played out in Central Florida, which had its share of Hurricane María hotel occupants.

In short, and as is now well known:  There was a lack of affordable housing and the evacuees counted with few material resources. They also suffered trauma, anxiety, adult and child depression. Some children were bullied in school. Many had a lack of English proficiency and, not to be overlooked, they got the government runaround – both here in the states and there in Puerto Rico. 

That’s what happened. And the more time and distance between the event and today the more information and credible data are published about the impact and consequences of the hurricane on the Puerto Rican people, which were significant, including between 3,000 and 6,000 fatalities, depending on the study.

There is no quarrel about the golpe or choque to the Puerto Rican psyche and population, which means the discord is about … something else. Here’s my theory: There’s a movement in Puerto Rico called Yo No Me Quito, which roughly translated means I Won’t Leave. The people who fled out of sheer necessity – no electricity for nearly a year, no running water, no roofs over their heads, no help from the Puerto Rican government, no help from FEMA – are considered traitors, for they deprived Puerto Rico of much-needed manpower, taxable income, students for its schools and more at a time when Puerto Rico needed it most.

The thinking is migrants should have stuck it out, as presumably the critics did, for the sake of Puerto Rico, even if it meant subsisting under the most primitive conditions.

People expected the documentary to be about those who stayed here,” wrote one of 174 commenters in El Nuevo Día, which published a front-page story about the documentary, titled “Massive Rejection of Documentary ‘After María.'”  Find the article here.

Others are embarrassed by the portrait of families waiting on help from FEMA to extend their hotel stays. According to this view, they are dependent, on their knees, asking for handouts. That is not the self image many Puerto Ricans have of themselves, even though it’s true that barely 40 percent of the island’s working-age population is employed and another 42 percent receive food stamps.

“They live trying to figure out how to get more out of the government,” wrote another commenter. “We have an enormous number of citizens who don’t contribute to the country.”

So part of the brouhaha – the comments section is the best part of any article in El Nuevo Día and Facebook is chockablock with opinions – is about a population in denial of facts. It’s worth noting that the hurricane unmasked the flimsy living conditions of the poor on the island for the entire world to see. Puerto Rico did not know it was poor until then. Not really.

Finally, the love-hate of the diaspora also figures prominently in the debate. The film takes place in New York City, which for most of the 20th century was the Grand Central Station of the Puerto Rican migration. Puerto Ricans on the island have longstanding biases against the Big Apple diaspora, feeling that they don’t represent Puerto Ricans.

They are too urban, code word for street. They don’t speak Spanish or speak it poorly. They don’t know anything about Puerto Rico. They are too vulgar. Sad to say, Puerto Ricans in Orlando, the current headquarters of the Puerto Rican migration to the states, have some of these biases as well.

So there’s a big element of embarrassment that the Netflix documentary, which truth be told is rather thin on research, context and narrative, paints a not- too-flattering picture of Puerto Ricans that’s streaming around the globe.

Not to worry. The Puerto Rican government and its post-María debacle that continues to this day coupled with the federal government’s equal incompetence have already taken care of that.

˜˜María Padilla, Editor

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