Living Los Sures: Keeping the Stories of South Williamsburg Alive

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Today, South Williamsburg remains to be one of Brooklyn’s less-talked about communities, a neighborhood which continues to have a rich history of Boricua culture dating back to the 1920s. Yet, time and the harsh realities of gentrification have eaten away at the community, forcing residents – due skyrocketing housing prices – to move out of the neighborhood. Nonetheless, South Williamsburg is a community full of Puerto Ricans and other Latina/os, who affectionately call their home “Los Sures”.

Like many communities there are many stories that collectively form a rich tapestry of the place they live, a collection of vivid accounts of the past and present; individuals who have lived during the ups and downs of their ever changing home place. Los Sures may have changed drastically over the years, but having the roots of its history told through the oral histories of its people has kept the community’s memory alive. In fact, Diego Echeverría in his documentary film, Los Sures, has done just that by capturing raw footage of the daily lives of those who lived in South Williamsburg during the 1980s. But while the film was certainly popular during its time, it gradually became forgotten until young director, Christopher Allen from UnionDocs saw the inspiring film and decided to expand on its idea by going onto, documenting new stories of present-day Los Sures. The “Living Los Sures” project was thus born.

To explain more about the Living Los Sures project, La Respuesta had the chance to speak with both Diego Echeverría and Christopher Allen about their life, work, and engagement with the Los Sures community in an exclusive interview. Here is what they had to say:

GJM: Did you grow up on the island of Puerto Rico or in the United States?

DE: I was born in Chile and my family moved to Puerto Rico when I turned nine-years-old. Both my parents were professors at the University of Puerto Rico and most of my childhood was spent in the island where my own sense of identity was shaped by the early experiences I had growing up there. Although for periods I moved to live and study in other places, Puerto Rico was always my home and I have felt this for much of my life.

I came to New York in 1971 to complete a Masters Degree in Film at Columbia University. I then decided to stay in the city and began directing and producing current affairs documentaries for WNET, NBC and for CBS News. Many of them explored a wide array of issues that Puerto Ricans and Latinos in general were facing at that time, such as the plight of Vietnam Veterans, discrimination in civil rights, in housing, in education, in health services, in immigration, etc. Also in those early years I produced several documentaries on Puerto Rico’s political situation vis-a-vis the US and about the deepening economic and social consequences it had for its people. For much of the time I worked as a television staff producer I also did television reporting on current affairs stories of national and international relevance, beyond the scope of Latinos.

GJM: Why did you feel it was important to make a documentary film about the Latino community living in Los Sures during the 1980s?

DE: At the beginning of 1983 I had become a freelance producer/ director for television programs and began thinking of a long format documentary that could explore the many problems that Puerto Ricans were facing in their neighborhoods and that I had witnessed while doing other television programs. I wanted to avoid a top down reporting story. Instead I wanted the stories told by people that could bring a voice from within, with little interference by a reporter or director, showing the difficult circumstances to forge a future and yet showing the strength and resilience I had seen in countless occasions. I wanted the story told by people living within a few blocks and sharing a strong sense of identity. I explored several neighborhoods in the city until it became very clear that Los Sures in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn was an ideal place to do it… and, indeed, it surpassed all my expectations once I began meeting its people.

With a small team we began the process of researching and writing a proposal. We soon found the necessary support and funding in a unique group of people who had created and developed the Documentary TV Lab at WNET. Under the leadership of David Loxton they were committed to showcase in PBS a few documentaries every year and they were important force to bring about the work of many filmmakers of that period.

GJM: How would you describe your personal connection with the Puerto Rican community living in Los Sures? 

DE: At the beginning of summer of 1983 with Fernando Moreno who was the Associate Producer, we began “hanging out” day-in and day-out, from early morning to late evening. Meeting people in the streets, establishing relations with leaders and community organizations, explaining the project and engaging the necessary support, all this was key to learn about the stories people wanted to tell us and for them to give their trust – to us and the project. Then we also knew we could only select a few people and they needed to be different from one another, each a different story to tell.

People gave us their trust, they allowed us to come into their homes, to learn about their very intimate world, one by one…. it is an act of generosity that is difficult to explain. So came Tito and his wife and his friends; and then came Marta and her children; and then Cuso and his wife and his son; [and] then Ana Maria and her family; and then Evelyn and her children and her mother; then the whole neighborhood giving its support.

A personal connection that was created that year, that was intense in that period of time while we made the film and that has meant so much over so many years, until today.

Directors Christopher Allen and Diego Echevarria. Photo: Ellen Tolmie

Directors Christopher Allen and Diego Echevarria. Photo: Ellen Tolmie

GJM: What was some of the feedback you received after making the “Los Sures” film?

DE: We had a screening of Los Sures in the neighborhood as soon as the film was completed. It was wonderful to see the reaction of those who had participated, for some there were expressions of surprise at seeing themselves so publicly exposed, for all of them there was a feeling that the film was true to their story and to much of what went on in the neighborhood. At the same time, a few people in some community organizations felt the film could have carried a more optimistic message about the positive efforts they were trying to build and to bring about the necessary changes to improve the neighborhood. While this view is understanding, the film would had been more about issues, problems and solutions. as I had done before while reporting, and less about the very personal lives of people and all the world they reveal, as we felt we needed to do.

Los Sures was first shown at the New York Film Festival in 1984 and was received with mostly positive reviews by the press and film magazines, although it is important to say at that time documentaries got a more limited exposure than today. The film was shown nationally on PBS the following winter and it had a successful distribution in colleges and libraries around the country for several years afterwards.

GJM: How have you helped Christopher Allen with the “Living Los Sures” project at UnionDocs?

DE: One of the greatest joys one can have as a documentary filmmaker is to have a younger generation take a project such as this one I made thirty years ago and revive it today in so many different ways, particularly using Los Sures to inspire and develop a new project such as Living Los Sures.

Yes, both projects are now linked and create a bridge in time in the history of the neighborhood. But at the same time each one is its own. Living Los Sures is a magnificent multimedia documentary that addresses Los Sures today with all the complexity of an area that has gone through many changes; it links and acknowledges its past, it uses Los Sures to reflect about that time in history, but is mostly about the present. It is the work of Christopher Allen and a team of documentarians at UnionDocs with many components developed over three years. It is their vision. Aside from learning about updates of the project, I am not part of its creative process, nor did I expect to be.

Here is an excerpt from the documentary film, “Los Sures” from 1984

GJM: Have you always lived in the community of South Williamsburg? How do you identify yourself with the community?

CA: I moved to the South Side in 2002. I lived in Los Sures until last year when the rent on the apartment my wife and I were in was raised. It no longer made sense to stay. UnionDocs has a lease on our building in Williamsburg through 2021, so that is good.

GJM: How do feel about directing a project about the Puerto Rican people of Los Sures, while not being Boricua yourself?

CA: Documentary makers very often find themselves in this position. They have curiosity to learn about other people’s lives. Even if you make a film about your own family, the act of picking up the camera can make you an outsider. There are benefits to this as a storyteller, but it is definitely important to remember that how much you don’t know.

Living Los Sures creates a space for many people to share stories. There are over 50 artists who have worked with over 150 individuals from the community to make the films and projects that are part of Living Los Sures happen. The principle focus is on the longstanding Latino community, but we are trying to represent many sides of the neighborhood.

GJM: Can you explain some of the short documentaries being produced to expand on Diego Echeverria’s documentary film, “Los Sures” at UnionDocs?

CA: We’ve produced 30 short documentary projects, mostly character-driven films, by fellows in our Collaborative Studio. Some of these works are about people in the community who have amazing stories, some are about special places, some are about political struggle, and some are about traditions and family. There are a lot of angles and a lot of stories. Most of the projects have been invited to be shown at great festivals and venues, and some have won awards. For instance, Third Shift won best short documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival.

GJM: What do you hope to accomplish as your project moves forward? Is this a continuous project you and your team hope to keep going for the community of Los Sures?

CA: We want Living Los Sures to “live up” to its name. I hope it will continue to grow and be a rich and dynamic reference point. We are treating it more like an arm of our organization than a one-time project with a clear end point. This year we will make six more short projects in the Collaborative Studio and we are working with many community members to gather stories for “Los Sures: Shot by Shot.” So if you are interested, sign up for the mailing list to learn about upcoming plans and events.

You can hear more oral stories from the Living Los Sures project by playing the interactive game, 89 Steps produced by UnionDocs & P.O.V. Where in this game you get to meet Marta Avilés [a subject in the film] by using your mouse to guide yourself through the streets of Los Sures; walking to find her, so she can then take you up “89 Steps” to her apartment, learning more about her life as you embark on the journey.

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Gabriel José Maldonado

Poet, Gabriel José Maldonado (also known as Neo-Literato) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education, where he majors in Museum Education. In his spare time, he loves writing poetry and taking photos throughout his travels. In the future, he intends to pursue a career in preserving Hispanic and Latina/o cultures, because being Puerto Rican has made him proud to spread our culture through the arts.