“After Maria” focuses on the lives of three Puerto Rican women who were displaced by Hurricane Maria and face uncertain futures as their federal housing aid expires. (Capture/Netflix) (semisquare-x3)
“After Maria” focuses on the lives of three Puerto Rican women who were displaced by Hurricane Maria and face uncertain futures as their federal housing aid expires. (Capture/Netflix)

New York – After the premiere of the film “After Maria”, thousands of Puerto Ricans seem to endlessly spread their indignation and rage on social media. The criticism is clear and specific: the film does not represent the suffering that Puerto Ricans went through after the island was hit by two deadly hurricanes that scarred their lives forever.

Since it is a short film that showcases the experience of three women who lost their homes and received federal temporary housing assistance in New York City, the work of filmmaker Nadia Hallgren was labeled pejoratively, and, by press time, there were more than 27,060 were signing petitions asking Netflix to remove it from the platform.

The film - which briefly showcases the adversities faced by Glenda Martes, Kenia Ciuro and Sheila Molina, along with their families - was shot during their stay at a FEMA-subsidized hotel in The Bronx and starts in December 2017.

The film focuses on how these three women live with the uncertainty of forced displacement, without their belongings, in a different place with a language that is not their own.

Some scenes bring their efforts to find permanent housing and employment, while other scenes also highlight some comforts they enjoy during the process. There is a more than two-minute scene where Ciuro cooks tostones on an electric stove, while her daughter is on her cell phone and goes out to look for ice in the hotel corridor.

A wave of rejections

These marked contrasts between what those who stayed on the island suffered compared to those who left a few months after María unleashed a wave of angry remarks on Facebook.

Cristal Garamendi, a resident of San Juan, said in a post with over 3,000 shares that “María hit us and destroyed us... that is more than clear... ALL of us suffered and lived it... In my opinion, the documentary After María on Netflix is INFAMOUS!”

Katty Báez, a high school teacher, questioned why these families didn't swiftly settle down and cut dependence on government aid. “I think that for many people María was difficult, but why are they waiting to have everything provided? Why didn´t they look for an apartment quickly? That was temporary assistance and therefore, they had to look for work and a home,” she said.

Thousands of similar comments rapidly spread around social media. However, the issue should not be taken lightly or out of context says Nuyorican filmmaker Andrew Padilla.

In his opinion, what happened after Hurricane María are “completely multifaceted experiences, and you can't expect one story to crush another.”

Padilla went even further and added that beyond unleashing virtual anger, people must focus all that energy on telling “what's missing.”

“Many things have happened after María. No documentary could cover all the trauma. All the ways that our people were abandoned, and now they take advantage as we try to rebuild while we fight to remain. But we have to understand that there are many the ways in which our people were hurt by María, but above all, by colonialism. A film cannot represent everything,” he explained.

Manuel Avilés, professor of Media and Culture at Arizona State University, stressed that negative criticism must be analyzed from “several sides. And it is that as Puerto Ricans continue to bleed from the same wound, emotions emerge, and they are never satisfied,” he said.

“We, and I include myself as part of the diaspora, are very sensitive to the way these issues are handled. We are not satisfied with the way the hurricane was addressed by the state and federal government and the media,” he said.  

Avilés stressed that 37 minutes “are not enough to portray the complex universe of suffering, problems, loss of lives, forced migration,” caused by the natural disaster.

In addition, he mentioned that the emerging rhetoric about those who leave and those who remain unleashed by the constant movement of Puerto Ricans to the United States must not be left aside.

This, he added, “is provoking a worrying binarism that makes us see the one who left as a traitor when we really don't know the peculiarities of each story and individual.”

The trigger

 Marisol Lebrón, professor of Latin studies and author of 2Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico”, takes a step forward considering that the issue transcends #Yonomequito and frames serious situations of classism, racism, and misogyny. By presenting three women living on federal assistance, the people have become the trigger for our struggles as people.

“This is a deeper issue that has to do with rejecting and ridiculing poor and working-class people, like the so-called 'mantenidos' who are lazy and just need to recover. However, the deeper question is: why are Puerto Ricans expected to endure incredible violence and trauma, not receive help and then act as if nothing had happened to be seen as authentic and representative survivors of María,” she asked.

Her argument finds an echo in María Camila Montañéz, a graduate of the City University of New York's Spanish-language journalism program, who claims that the constant problem in Latin America and the Caribbean is classism.

“This is just a part of a complex endless story- migration and FEMA's ineptitude and negligence,” Montañez said on Twitter

Netflix’s refusal

In order to better understand the experiences of the three women in the film, El Nuevo Día unsuccessfully tried to interview them. Despite their willingness to tell their stories, Netflix did not authorize them to grant the interview.

Faced with a wave of criticism of the documentary, FEMA did talk about the help provided and the reality of more than 220 families who requested the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program (TSA), which disbursed $101 million just for hotel stays.

Daniel Llargues, a spokesman for the federal agency, said all families had access to a case manager who met with them regularly to follow their plans for permanent housing, costs, and needs.

“We didn't put anyone anywhere. It was all at the discretion of the survivor,” he said when asked why there were more than 130 accommodations in New York City, where the cost of rent is one of the highest in the United States.

The average monthly rent for a two-room apartment in New York City is $3,567, according to the real estate portal ABODO, and tenants are required to have a salary of 40 times the rent to be eligible.

Llargues said FEMA's priority was and is to address immediate needs after a disaster, such as providing a safe, healthy and suitable place.

The agency approved this aid on October 30, 2017, after Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares requested it. Hurricane María had hit the island on September 20.

The federal official added that every FEMA petition is the governor's petition and the aid was extended three times.

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