One of the exciting advantages of supporting up and coming artists and directors through the New York International Latino Film Festival (NYILFF) is that there’s a sense of community among audiences and those involved in creating the films. Often the directors, writers, producers, and actors are present to speak with viewers after a screening. This was the opportunity those of us who went to view Juan Meléndez-6446 were offered.
Based on the true story of Juan Meléndez, who was convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to death in Florida, this documentary is an important piece of Latino history. One of the central themes and questions explored in this film is, as a migrant farm worker from Puerto Rico, is Meléndez protected under the constitution of his native homeland or of the United States? Unfortunately, it isn't common knowledge that Puerto Rico has its own constitution, and as a result, it is not known that it specifically states the death penalty is unconstitutional.
Serving 17 years, 8 months, and one day incarcerated, Meléndez, who claimed his innocence since his arrest, shares his story on how he survived, learned to read and write in English, created friendships with attorneys, remains connected to his friends who remain incarcerated, and how he became an activist.
Juan Meléndez-6446 is an emotional movie of how incarceration can forge friendships and sever familial bonds. It shows audiences the Meléndez family remained hopeful and supported Juan during his 17 years of being in prison. We witness his homecoming to Puerto Rico after his release, the connections his attorney’s make with him, and the cases they try of men and women on death row. Meléndez even agrees to return to a prison cell to reenact his time of incarceration, which he shares was “not fun.” Ironically, it painfully reveals some of the most engaging parts of his unforgettable story.