Toñita’s: A Nuyorican Home in South Williamsburg

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“Community,” “culture,” and “identity”: these three things are solid qualities of a collective-family foundation. Though, when I think about outside factors that affect communities, such as gentrification and the subsequent mass displacement it causes residents to experience, I am led to feel that there needs to be an alternative solution.

Social clubs in communities where great struggle exists maybe one key to fighting displacement. They are our concrete examples of what it means to have community, to preserve cultures and identities.

One great representation of what it means to live in a loving community, in a home for many Puerto Rican residents is the Caribbean Social Club, popularly known as “Toñita’s” (named after its owner María Toñita), the last of its kind in the South-side of Williamsburg.

It has become so popular and recognized in the community that it is the subject of a documentary project. The film, “Toñita’s,” explores how one particular social club continues to survive in a neighborhood threatened by gentrification.

This film beautifully demonstrates what life truly means to be Boricua inside South Williamsburg’s last social club; a “Little Puerto Rico.” The vibe given off from the people who come in-and-out of Toñita’s is filled with energy, life, and love. It is a hub for Caribbean music and dancing and houses the families and friends of the Caribbean Baseball players.

Despite struggles with poverty and drugs the club has been open for over forty years, continuing to serve food to the homeless and provide a welcoming hand to those who need it.

Due to a strikingly interest in the project, I got the opportunity to see the documentary and dialogue with its directors, Beyza Boyacioglu and Sebastian Díaz.

GLM: How do feel about directing a film about a Puerto Rican culture while not being of Boricua descent yourself? What drew you to this particular culture to make an extraordinary film about the Puerto Rican people of South Williamsburg?

SD: I’ve always been into Afro-Cuban music and had originally thought of doing a project about a block party with the Caribbean Sports Club’s resident DJ Sando. For me, a block party is something very representative of Brooklyn and I thought it would be great to engage with the Nuyorican culture, which is different than simply saying Puerto Rican.

I started to hang out at the club and was fascinated by the joyful atmosphere and the sense of community once can experience there. Beyza [co-director of the film] had been engaging with María [Toñita] and thinking about proposing a project to her, and eventually we decided to do a documentary portrait of the place.

I guess part of the things that draw us to doing documentaries is interacting with new realities, so working with a Puerto Rican culture was exciting and enriching, especially when they have so much pride of their culture and when they have a history as a community in the rapidly changing Williamsburg.

BB: Being in an environment where everyone shares more or less the same cultural background, speaks a foreign language and moreover knows each other almost like a family was for sure a little intimidating at first. We were complete outsiders, so before bringing out our camera, we wanted to introduce ourselves, build relationships and gain the community’s trust. I believe even though we are not Puerto Rican, our genuine interest in their culture and that we enjoyed spending time with them, talking, drinking and dancing, made the club regulars open up to us.

Even though I’m from Turkey, which is a totally different background, I found some similarities between the Turkish and Puerto Rican cultures. Puerto Ricans’ warm and sincere personality, their generosity and hospitality, how they enjoy sharing food and eat together, reminded me of people in Turkey.

GJM: Why did you feel it was important to make a documentary about this one particular social club?

BB: We wanted to make a film about the Caribbean Social Club because we simply loved it! The first time we stepped into the club, we were fascinated by how beautiful it was. It had this makeshift aesthetic that gave the impression of a home. It’s not meticulously designed like the rest of the places in Williamsburg but you can feel that every object in that space has a meaning and things accumulated there over the years, as well as stories. After starting to spend time at the club, we were also intrigued by the regulars, how they all knew each other like a big family, how they celebrated holidays and birthdays together as well as tranquil weekday afternoons or wild Saturday nights!

In addition to all of this, María Toñita, the mysterious matriarch of the community, was a secret we wanted to unfold. Initially, we wanted to make a documentary that would celebrate the Nuyorican culture with its music, dance, and community.

The fact that this club was the last remaining one of its kind naturally brought the questions of gentrification and displacement in an urban neighborhood. Along the way, we also touched upon those questions and how the Puerto Rican community is confronting the changes in their neighborhood. The club’s resistance to gentrification made it an urgent subject.

GJM: How would you describe the energy in Caribbean Sports Club? How has it become a cultural center for a thriving Nuyorican culture in South Williamsburg?

BB: The Caribbean Sports Club became the place that holds the Latino community together in South Williamsburg because it has been there for over 40 years and currently it is the last Puerto Rican social club in the neighborhood. Maria Toñita has been stubbornly resisting the change in her neighborhood and rejecting to sell out, that is how this place became a hub for Nuyoricans. When we think about creating and sustaining communities in urban neighborhoods, continuity is the first required element and everything else builds on top of that. It is similar to The Caribbean Club’s walls where many photos have been accumulated over the years, creating links to history and memory.

GJM: Who is Maria Toñita? How did she become a respectable symbol in the local community of Williamsburg? 

BB: Toñita came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was young and eventually brought her family here. Because of her strong personality, she was a mother figure even to her older siblings. When Williamsburg was a decaying and dangerous neighborhood she bought property for very little money which made her able to thrive. She has a very generous soul and has continuously helped the rest of her community, starting with being an activist for fair housing. Eventually she created the Caribbean Sports Club to sponsor one of the baseball teams that would compete each other in the neighborhood. The club also sponsors Domino competitions and became one of several community hubs..

GJM: How is this documentary connected with the UnionDocs’ Living Los Sures project?

BB: In 2013, Sebastian and I were fellows at UnionDocs Collaborative Studio (CoLAB) program. UnionDocs is a center for documentary art, located in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Every year, they invite around ten media makers from around the world to produce collaborative short documentaries. From 2010 until this year, UnionDocs has been working on the collaborative documentary Living Los Sures and we made Toñita’s as a part of this project. Living Los Sures website launches this fall and it will include the restored version of Diego Echeverria’s 1984 film “Los Sures” annotated with the short documentaries that have been produced over the past four years. The original “Los Sures” film is the inspiration for the Living Los Sures project.

Directors, Beyza Boyacioglu and Sebastian Díaz will be having two screenings of their documentary: Toñita’s during the Brooklyn Film Festival this year, which will run from between May 30 to June 8. Here is a sneak peak of their trailer:

‘Toñita’s’ documentary trailer from Beyza Boyacioglu on Vimeo.

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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.