Will the Real Bushwick Please Stand Up: Interview with Flaco Navaja, star of “East WillyB”

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flaconavajaBronx native Flaco Navaja has been engaging audiences with his many artistic talents for well over a decade. As an actor, he has appeared in film, theater, and the acclaimed web series, East WillyB, which touches on the displacement of longtime residents in Bushwick, Brooklyn. As a poet, Flaco has performed nationally and internationally, most notably in 2003 when he toured with the Tony Award winning Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam. He also appeared on Def Poetry Jam’s HBO show four times. Finally, as a singer, Flaco has been a lead vocalist for Yerbabuena – a “Boricua roots” band – since 2001, and currently gigs with his group known as The Razor Blades.

In East WillyB, Flaco plays a Puerto Rican bar owner in Bushwick struggling to stay in business in the midst of a changing neighborhood, all while trying to win back his fiancé. The show’s name is actually “a play on the fact that realtors were using [the name] ‘East Williamsburg’ to advertise real estate in Bushwick.”

We spoke with Flaco on his feelings about gentrification and how the show addresses the subject.

“[The] progress [of gentrification] alienates people that have struggled to maintain the personality of a community for years. There’s nothing wrong with having a nice café and a nice restaurant [but] I just would love to see it be owned by someone from the community, or someone that caters to the community.

As for East WillyB, Flaco is satisfied with the honest and humorous approach the series took to a serious issue like gentrification.

“It wasn’t so aggressive that it turned people off, it was still a comedy, and it gave a cool perspective of all different types of characters that you’ll find in a changing neighborhood like Bushwick, Brooklyn,” states Flaco. And the show offered him the opportunity to work with “some very talented Latino performers and writers.”

More recently, he has been singing with his salsa dura outfit, ‘Flaco Navaja & the Razor Blades,’ which performs a lot at Camaradas in El Barrio, another gentrifying, historic Puerto Rican community.

“Camaradas is very important and it’s a testament of the strength of the community, and the strength of its owner, Orlando Plaza,” says Flaco. “The fact that it’s survived nine years in a very difficult economy and in a gentrifying neighborhood is super special. Not only because it’s a Puerto Rican-owned restaurant, but because it provides a platform for artists, from that community and also different communities, to have a place to just perform their work, for their own people and for others.”

You can follow Flaco and his work via Twitter: @Flaconavaja.

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Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture.