By: Karina N. González
Tito, Marta, Ana Maria, Cuso, and Evelyn are the names of the primary figures whose stories are highlighted in the remarkable documentary, Living Los Sures directed by Diego Echeverría. Living Los Sures was shot in South Williamsburg in 1983, a community in Brooklyn at the time home to tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans. Echeverría, a Chilean filmmaker raised in Puerto Rico, felt a connection with the Boricuas of Los Sures and decided to document the vibrant culture that captivated him and continues to captivate audiences today. Initially, the documentary received limited exposure when it was first released but has recently been revived and remastered by UnionDocs in collaboration with the New York Public Library. On July 26th, the documentary was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of the Indie 80s film series.
With his 16mm camera in tow, Echeverría went into Los Sures and encouraged the people of the community to share their stories, aspirations, and struggles as they fight to survive in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. Five individuals were chosen to provide their testimonies and experiences as residents of the community. The audience is first drawn into Tito’s family home, a young father who faced substantial financial pressures to provide for his children. He is shown in the film taking apart stolen car parts to eventually sell on the street. Later on, he is seen in a jumpsuit vowing to his spouse that he will never again step foot in jail. Marta, a single mother, is introduced alongside her five daughters. She lamented her inability to find work due to limited community resources and education. Each market trip was a challenge in deciding what items to purchase with the food stamps she received that month for her family of five. Despite these daunting challenges, she remained determined to improve her dire financial situation.
Ana María makes her opening appearance in the documentary dancing joyously to salsa at a house party. As her story unfolds, it becomes abundantly evident that spiritualism was her refuge from the stress and worry flooding her life. In another vignette, Echeverría shifts gears by capturing the struggles of working-class existence through a middle-aged father, Cuso. His addiction, which was revealed during the Q&A at the BAM screening, weighted the documentary with a harrowing reality repeated often in the lives of residents in Los Sures. Drug usage was a pressing concern for many members of the community, especially Evelyn. Echeverría provides a portrayal of hope to counterbalance harsh realities through Evelyn, a mother and community organizer who worked for the National Congress for Neighborhood Women. In one particularly memorable scene, she arrived at the doorstep of a family home that had just been engulfed in flames and fervently rallied the community to help the displaced family. It is precisely her grit that captures the fighting spirit found in Los Sures and many other working class communities. Evelyn’s story highlights the power of activism against injustices and advocacy for the vulnerable – a crucial, relevant message in 2015.
The community resilience and the visual imagery displayed over the course of the documentary is reminiscent of a poem titled Los Sures written by Martín Espada, which was written shortly after Living Los Sures was filmed. The first stanza echoes the frenetic and lively street scenes interspersed in the documentary (the full poem follows this review):The bright-color portrait of Jesus jumps on South 4th Street plaster where the subway train’s iron tremor startles like the hunger that wakes us, night in Los Sures shake your black hair down, and the night is a woman’s darkness.
The lyricism of Espada’s words imparts the mysteries of life’s many turns in Los Sures. Espada’s poem transmits culture through language whereas Living Los Sures transmits culture through imagery and testimonials. As the five testimonials are compared with one another, the viewer can identify shared themes of strength through adversity and the importance of family and community unity. However, the political factors that contributed to extreme poverty in Los Sures were not explored. Greater research and a more in-depth analysis of the issues discussed by the people of Los Sures would have provided the viewer greater insight into the human experience of life in this storied community. As the screen fades to black, an urgency to understand the myriad of forces intersecting the lives of Boricuas in the diaspora begins to build. For this reason, one needs to explore beyond the documentary, beyond the visual to grasp the underlying factors of poverty and drug addiction.
Fortunately, Echeverría stated during the Q&A that many of the individuals featured in the documentary went on to lead productive lives. Following the rediscovery of Living Los Sures, UnionDocs has been following the lives of the people in Living Los Sures as well as tracking the changes in South Williamsburg since its release. But as many more Puerto Ricans migrate to Florida, Pennsylvania and other parts of the U.S seeking economic sustenance, the struggles encountered by Tito, Marta, Ana Maria, Cuso, and Evelyn in 1983 are still real for many Boricuas embarking in the life altering journey in 2015.Los Sures by Martín Espada The bright-color portrait of Jesus jumps on South 4th Street plaster where the subway train’s iron tremor startles like the hunger that wakes us, night in Los Sures shake your black hair down, and the night is a woman’s darkness. Night is the only tenant left, night is the face at every window, where yellowish heat splashed soot on walls, spit a mouthful of glass onto South 4th Street sidewalk, night in Los Sures shake your black hair down, leaning on the ruined grain of brick. But the builders have a defiant blueprint, the hammer’s tap multiplies furious as the hands of plena drummers, the abandoned church will be a health center, the evacuated buildings on South 4th Street will shout with the voices of the living, night in Los Sures shake your black hair down, you are a dark woman rising, turning hips and heartbeat quick.
Read our interview with director Diego Echeverría and Christopher Allen here.
Karina N. González was born in the Bronx, NY and raised in New Jersey. She spent most of her summers with her grandmother in Vega Baja, PR, where she cultivated her love for Puerto Rican culture. Karina previously attended la Universidad de Puerto Rico-Recinto Mayagüez, and Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in Textile/Surface Design. Currently, Karina lives in Brooklyn, NY (although her second home is Aguadilla, PR) and is pursuing her graduate studies in Speech-Language Pathology at Brooklyn College.