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Maria Hinojosa: This is Latino USA, the radio journal of news and cultura. It’s Latino USA. It’s Latino USA. Welcome to Latino USA. I’m Maria Hinojosa. 

We bring you stories that are underreported, but that matter to you. Overlooked by the rest of the media. And while the country is struggling to deal with these problems. We listen to the stories of Black and Latino students.

A united Latino front. A cultural renaissance. Organizing at the forefront of the movement. I’m Maria Hinojosa. ¡No se vayan! 

Marta Martínez: It’s May 2022 and the world is raving about the release of Bad Bunny’s new album, “Un Verano Sin Ti.” (MUSIC)

During his promotion in New York City, the king of reggaeton, or pop music in general, basically, chose to celebrate the launch in a quite unexpected place.

He’s in this modest Puerto Rican bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, decorated with LED Christmas lights, flowery tablecloths, and walls full of family photos, baseball posters, and framed newspaper clips. It could be your grandma’s living room. (MUSIC)

 Bad Bunny is next to this tiny old woman with frizzy white blonde hair, who’s always smiling. All of her fingers are taken over by these giant, colorful rings. She exposes them in front of her chest for the photos, like a peacock opening its tail. And Bad Bunny imitates her. “¡La reina!” People shout, “La reina,” “The queen.”

Bad Bunny describes her as the “Real Flow”. 

(People chatting) 

Her name is María Antonia Cay, but everyone in New York City knows her as Toñita. 

She’s the owner of the “Caribbean Social Club,” a gathering for Puerto Ricans and other Latino communities since the 1970s. And it’s also the last Latino social club standing in Brooklyn. (MUSIC).

Bad Bunny is behind the bar next to Toñita, drinking a Medalla beer, the Puerto Rican label, and serving cocktails in plastic cups. Having a Puerto Rican star like Bad Bunny spending the night at Toñita’s was a big deal for its boricuan owner and her community. And he’s not the only one. Jennifer Lopez, Madonna or Maluma have shown up at the club as well.

But a year after Bad Bunny’s visit, Toñita herself was in court, fighting to keep running the club the way she’s always done it. 

Maria Hinojosa: From Futuro Media and PRX, it’s Latino USA, I’m María Hinojosa. Today, “Otra Noche at Toñita’s.” How the last Puerto Rican social club in Brooklyn is fighting erasure and doing that with free food, free dance, and by intentionally building community.

The Brooklyn neighborhood known as Williamsburg has long been known as a center for the Hasidic Jewish community. Recently, It’s all about young artists and creative professionals, mostly white and upper class, who have taken over the neighborhood. (MUSIC).

For many decades, though, the south side of Williamsburg was also known as Los Sures because the majority of its southern streets, from South 1st to South 11th, were populated by people from Puerto Rico and later from the Dominican Republic. The remains of this vibrant Latino community are fading, though, in South Williamsburg. Over the last two decades, gentrification has taken over the salsa block parties, the baseball games, and the domino competitions. 

But there’s still one place on Grand Street that is fighting to keep the legacy of Los Sures alive. “The Caribbean Social Club,” which is also known as “Toñita’s.”

 (MUSIC.) Over the last two years, noise complaints and inspections have been on the rise, challenging the future of this Puerto Rican haven as the neighborhood keeps on changing and becoming less and less affordable. The median sales price of a home in Williamsburg is $1.2 million. And to rent, a two bedroom apartment would set you back about $6,000 a month on average.

Latino USA senior producer Marta Martínez, who you heard from at the top of the show, recently spent some time at “The Caribbean Social Club,” as its owner Toñita went through yet another round of obstacles to keep running her club the way she’s done it for nearly 50 years. 

Here’s Marta with the story.

Marta Martínez: “I am on Grand Street on my way to “Toñita’s” and the first thing I’m seeing is quite an upscale hairdresser on the corner.” 

It’s a bright, chilly October afternoon in Williamsburg, and a walk on one of its main avenues is pretty telling about what kind of people live in this Brooklyn neighborhood today.

“Next, there is a men’s suit store. It’s called “The Black Tux,” and definitely looks quite expensive. (LAUGHS).

But I’m not here to get a fancy haircut or buy an expensive suit. I can’t even remember the last time I wore any form of clothing. I’m here to visit the last Puerto Rican social club still standing in the south side of Williamsburg.

At the height of the social club’s era in the late 1980s, there were more than a thousand underground clubs in New York City. 

“And then right here, it’s “Toñita’s,” it doesn’t say “Toñita’s” outside because it says “Caribbean Sport Bar and Grill,” and you’d probably not get in if you didn’t know what it is.” 

It’s a three-story building with a dark brown facade, and the bar’s name is on these gold and black stickers, the ones you can buy at the hardware store, with the letters loosely aligned, like crooked teeth.

“The window actually looks closed, so it’s kind of hard to see unless you know why you’re here.” 

Inside is “The Caribbean Social Club.” 

“When you enter, it feels familiar. “Hola, ¿cómo están? buenas tardes.” There’s hardly any empty space on the walls. Full of portraits of Toñita, awards, family photos, baseball memorabilia, and of course, Puerto Rican flags.”

(SOUNDS) “¿Ya terminaste?”

A worn-down pool table dominates the center of the space and in the back, for people play dominoes on the table especially designed for the game, with holes to position your pieces, so that the other players can’t see them.

Toñita: “Yo aquí ya desde el 65, estoy viviendo aquí en Grand Street.”

Marta Martínez: This is Maria Antonia Cay, better known as Toñita, the club owner. She’s sitting on a high stool near the entrance, wearing a turquoise blouse. She has a dusty blonde mop of curly hair, carefully blown up. Next to her, there’s a giant Puerto Rican flag covering the shop window, and two big pots, still warm.

“Y, cuéntame por ejemplo, ahora veo que aquí hay todo de ollas, ¿qué ha cocinado?” 

Toñita: “Hay arroz, arroz blanco, hay habichuelas y hay pollo guisado.” 

Marta Martínez: This is what Toñita has been doing since the pandemic. She cooks every day in her apartment upstairs, where she lives. And at 3 p. m., when she opens the club, she brings the pots down and offers food to anyone who’s hungry.

The menu today consists of chicken stew with white rice and beans. 

“Y esto ¿lo pone usted aquí para quien quiera?

Toñita: “Lo pongo al que llega a comer. No tiene que ser cliente, simplemente sabe que hay comida y viene y come, no tiene que beber si no quiere.”

Marta Martínez: Toñita says everyone is welcome to eat for free, and they don’t have to buy a drink if they don’t want to.

“¿Y por qué hace usted eso?” 

Toñita: “Pues casi siempre yo compraba afuera y me gastaba 20, 25 pesos, ahora, con esa misma cantidad de dinero, la cocino y todo el mundo come.” 

Marta Martínez: She’s spending the same amount of money she used to to order the delivery. And now, with those same 20 or 25 dollars, everyone eats. 

On weekdays, she closes around 11 p.m. But the real fun happens on the weekends. (MUSIC). 

On Fridays and Saturdays, the night goes on for much longer. Until 3 a.m. Or even later, people drink, chat, dance, play pool, and dominos.

I asked Toñita whether she gets tired because Toñita is 84 years old. 

“¿Y no se cansa usted?” 

Toñita: “No, no me canso. Gracias a Dios que no. Me entretengo, me divierto con tanto muchacho que vienen bien contentos y se sienten felices.” 

Marta Martínez: She says she doesn’t get tired during those late nights. She just loves seeing so many young people gathering in her club and being happy. That’s when she dresses up to conceal her age, Toñita says. 

“Y veo que siempre se se pone muy guapa.

Toñita: Ya que uno mayor, por lo menos arreglarse un poquito para disimular la edad.” 

Marta Martínez: She puts on her iconic rings. (MUSIC.) 

These shiny, fake gold and crystal rings, many of them shaped like animals that are often as big as Toñita’s whole finger. One of them is a black and gold tiger, another one is a turtle with a pink and diamond shell. Her extravagant looks may attract people’s attention, but Toñita is actually quite private.

She doesn’t speak much, she rarely shares anything about her personal life, and she only has nice things to say about anyone and everyone. Like when I ask her about the intriguing rings, what’s behind them? 

“Cuénteme sobre sus anillos.

Toñita: Los anillos, este, un día me puse y todo el mundo le gustó y seguí poniéndomelo.”

Marta Martínez: And all she says is that she just put them on one day and because everyone liked them, she kept wearing them. It feels that whatever Toñita wants to say, she says it through her club, through its walls and the way she’s always there to serve her patrons. 

(LAUGHS) “Ni piña ni coco.”

Toñita’s sister is sitting by the domino table, and she doesn’t want to speak to me either. 

Toñita’s sister: “Pero pérate, ¡tramposo! (LAUGHS) Tengo la puerta entonces….Octavio.”

Marta Martínez: But someone else does.

Octavio: “Siempre aquí, vengo todo el día.” 

Marta Martínez: “¿Y qué hace aquí? 

Octavio: Jugando, dómino, y amistades aquí.”

Marta Martínez: Octavio is one of Toñita’s regular customers. He’s also from Puerto Rico and he’s 78 years old. Octavio says he comes every day, as soon as Toñita opens, and after eating, he plays some rounds of dominos with his friends.

He’s been around since it opened in the 1970s. 

Octavio: (Unintelligible). 

Marta Martínez: Octavio wears a t-shirt that says “Caribbean social sports.” 

Besides dancing, sports have always been vital to the club, especially in those early years. Octavio says they even won domino championships in the neighborhood

“¿Y aquí se siente como en familia?

Octavio: En familia, siempre.”

Marta Martínez: At heart, Octavio keeps coming to the club for the same reason so many Puerto Ricans keep coming. Because they feel their family here. And Toñita says, it’s not only Boricuas, Latines from all over the continent and the city, come here. 

Toñita: “Ellos juegan dómino, juegan billar, este… Algunos se entretienen hablando con los otros, dan su movimiento.

Y se sienten felices de estar en un sitio que nadie los está discriminando por nada, ni por edad, ni por una cosa ni por la otra.” 

Marta Martínez: People come because they feel welcome, they feel happy here, and safe from discrimination. 

Toñita: “Yeah, aquí siempre ha sido así, aquí nunca se ha discriminado a nadie.”

Marta Martínez: Toñita adds that it’s always been like that at the “Caribbean Social Club.” There’s no discrimination.

It wasn’t so in the neighborhood, or New York City in general, really. In the 1950s, after World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans arrived in New York City, fleeing poverty, hunger, and lack of jobs on the island.

Archival tape: It was the first airborne mass migration in American history. A dozen daily flights ferried Puerto Ricans from San Juan to Idlewild and LaGuardia airports. 

Marta Martínez: Nearly one million Puerto Ricans arrived in New York City in those years. When they landed, Puerto Ricans faced discrimination for their race, class, language, and lack of formal education.

Toñita was only 16 years old when she arrived in 1956. 

Toñita: “Yo vine sola. Yo vine a cuidar a unos niños que la mamá trabajaba y no tenía quién se los cuidara y yo vine con ella a cuidárselo.”

Marta Martínez: She came on her own to work as a babysitter in the Bronx. Then, in the 1960s, she moved to the south side of Williamsburg.

Big industries like the “Navy Yards” and the “Domino Sugar Factory” were hungry for cheap labor, and Puerto Ricans became one of its major workforces. 

Like many other Puerto Rican women at the time, Toñita worked as a seamstress at a skirt factory. 

The area became known as Los Sures, Spanish for the Southerns, referring to the people coming from the South, but also the stretch from South 1st to South 11th streets in Williamsburg, because the people living in these humble buildings and unkept streets were mostly Puerto Ricans.

Similar to El Barrio in East Harlem or the South Bronx, Los Sures became an enclave for poor Latino communities, who were treated as second-class citizens and pushed away from other neighborhoods. Toñita rented an apartment on Grand Street from a Jewish woman. They became close and Toñita cooked for her landlord’s daughter.

When the owner grew older, in 1974, she sold the building to Toñita for 5,000 dollars, that would be more than 30,000 dollars today. 

Toñita loved the neighborhood and she had no plans to go back to Puerto Rico. So she made the effort to purchase a building. What she loved about the street was that the children were always playing with balls.

“Yo, este, hacía bolitas de pegado y se las tiraba por la ventana, y ellos se buscaban. Cogían como bolita y eran contentos con su bolita de pegaban.” 

Marta Martínez: She would throw them small balls out the window, and they would pick them up. (MUSIC).

Baseball is actually one of Toñita’s deepest passions. 

In Los Sures, there was a baseball team, and she wanted to create a space where they could hang out, similar to Puerto Rico’s chinchorros, or simple bars where families and friends gather to eat typical food, drink, and dance. That’s when she decided to open the Caribbean Social Club. 

Toñita: “Entonces empezamos a poner equipos de pelota y en béisbol necesitábamos un sitio donde reunirnos. Y ahí, pues, fue que decidimos poner el club.” 

Marta Martínez: Puerto Rican Social Clubs became more popular as more boricuas arrived in the city. They were mostly informal, sometimes even held in someone’s living room, and they often didn’t have licenses to sell alcohol or officially run as a bar.

Toñita was also one of the few women who owned social clubs in the city.

She says she’s always been the only one giving orders here. 

“Usted siempre ha sido la mánager del local. 

Si yo, yo aquí no manda más nadie más que yo.” (MUSIC)

As industrialization moved away from the cities, in the 1980s, more Puerto Ricans lost their low-paying jobs, and crime rose with the lack of economic opportunity.

By 1990, nearly half of all Puerto Ricans in the U.S. were living in poverty. 

It’s hard to find information about the history of Los Sures in particular, about their achievements and their culture, but also their struggles.

There’s probably more information hanging on intimate places like Toñita’s walls and the stories told by their longtime clients, then on the internet or in libraries. 

Archival tape: “You can’t go wrong. Yo tengo que comer mija, por favor cooperen.”

Marta Martínez: The richest source I could find on what it was like to live in South Williamsburg in the 1980s is a documentary called Los Sures, directed by Diego Echeverria, a Chilean filmmaker who grew up in Puerto Rico. 

Documentary Los Sures: “As you know, this is a neighborhood of struggle. We’ve been struggling since we were kids.”

Marta Martínez: The film says that, in the 1980s, there were some 20,000 Puerto Ricans living in Los Sures. The film paints a bittersweet picture of those times. There was gang violence and joblessness. 

Documentary Los Sures: “You can’t trust nobody. You gotta always look, look the way how you’re gonna make that money, you know?”

Marta Martínez: Single mothers surviving on welfare or trying to keep their children away from drugs. 

Documentary Los Sures: “Sometimes I’ll owe my light, my gas, my telephone, my rent so that I could have something to give to my kids. It’s not easy living on welfare.It’s kind of humiliating.”

Marta Martínez: But also block parties and breakdance competitions. For many, social clubs like Toñita’s became a safe haven from the increasingly violent streets and a city that kept pushing them down and into the poorest, most abandoned corners. 

At Toñita’s, they could celebrate their roots, their music, their language. They could just be proud of themselves and, in many ways, it still feels this way today….(MUSIC)

There’s one thing Toñita misses from those early days, though. The kids playing on Grand Street. 

Toñita: “Esta calle ha sido siempre igual lo único que antes habían muchos niños porque habían mucha familias con niños, pero ya, ya no hay niños por aquí. Poquitos, hay poquitos.”

Maria Hinojosa: Coming up on Latino USA, after surviving the violence and economic depression of the 1980s, Toñita’s now faces new challenges to keep its doors open. Gentrification and aging. Stay with us. ¡No te vayas!… (MUSIC). 

 

 Hey, we’re back. 

Before the break, we learned about how María Antonia Cay, better known as Toñita, opened the “Caribbean Social Club” in South Williamsburg, and what it was like to be in this predominantly Puerto Rican community in the 1970s and 80s.

Since then, the club faced many challenges, from the rise of gang violence to economic uncertainty. With many boricuas wanting to leave the area.

As the 2000s approached, Toñita’s and Los Sures faced a different kind of challenge. How to stay in a now highly desired neighborhood.

Latino USA senior producer Marta Martínez takes the story from here.

Marta Martínez: We’re at the “Caribbean Social Club” and Toñita is supervising some floor renovations in the back, where the long bar is. This is where she sits on the weekend nights, serving beers and mixed drinks. 

“¿Y usted se pone también ahí detrás de la barra del bar, verdad?” 

Toñita: “Yo también ayudo en así yo también. Todos ayudamos aquí, aquí no tenemos trabajadores, todos son ayudantes.” 

Marta Martínez: Says she just helps, like everyone else. Everyone helping at the club is doing it voluntarily. She doesn’t have anyone on staff. She just keeps running things the way she used to when she first opened, like a living room welcoming anyone who wants to come in. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, young artists and musicians, mostly white and upper middle class, started moving to South Williamsburg. The area was cheap and close to Manhattan, so the challenges for Los Sures completely transformed with the change of the century, starting with the erasure of its Spanish name. 

Toñita: “Pero llama Los Sures, me puede poner el tiempo que la agencia de , de real estate, le cambiaron para Williamsburg para darle más énfasis al sitio. Y y tener la oportunidad de poder vender mejor y de hacer mejor negocio.”

Marta Martínez: Real estate agents started relabeling the area as Williamsburg, not Los Sures, as a way to make more money. 

“¿Y qué le parece a usted eso? 

Toñita: “Bueno para mi ha sido mejor porque, muchas casas que estaban en el abandono las han arreglado, y el sitio está más bonito.” 

Marta Martínez: Toñita says change has been mostly positive. A lot of houses that were abandoned have been renovated, and the neighborhood looks nicer now. (MUSIC).

Rents skyrocketed fast, turning Williamsburg into the most gentrified area in New York City. The average rent grew by almost 80% between 1990 and 2014. 

Toñita: “Y por lo regular a la mayoría de la misma gente, eh, en Los Sures, la gente, son pocos los que han cambiado de Sur 1 hasta Sur 8 y 9, la mayoría son puntos pequeños.” 

Marta Martínez: Toñita says the neighborhood has changed, but around South 8th and South 9th streets, most of her neighbors are still Puerto Rican. 

It’s hard to really assess how much gentrification has affected Puerto Ricans living in Los Sures. To put that displacement into figures.

According to the latest census data, about 25 percent of the neighbors in Williamsburg identify as Hispanic.

That’s over 23,000 people, and nearly half of them were Puerto Ricans.

The erasure is happening, symbolically and physically. In 2023, neighbors of Los Sures found that the Graham Avenue street signs had suddenly lost its other name, Avenue of Puerto Rico. 

News: On about a 15-block stretch of Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg, a sign was about the recognition of one’s heritage, one’s roots. But about three months ago, the city began removing the Avenue of Puerto Rico signs, sparking confusion and anger. 

Marta Martínez: Real Estate developers had been pushing for this erasure for more than a decade in the up-and-coming neighborhood. 

News: We’re not going anywhere. We’re no…I promised my mom and all the pioneers that over my dead body will that sign be removed, and as long as I live, I will fight.

Marta Martínez: The city put the signs back the day after neighbors complained, saying it had been a mistake.

Toñita says she’s been offered millions to sell her building on Grand Street. The building next door has an estimated value of 2.5 million dollars on Zillow. 

Toñita: “Me hacen oferta, pero yo ya no vendo. No necesito vender. Yo necesito estar feliz y tranquila aquí.”.

Marta Martínez: Toñita says she’s not interested in selling. She doesn’t need to. She makes enough from collecting rent from her tenants and the earnings at the club. She just wants to keep doing what makes her happy. Being here, at the club, serving her community. Because it’s not only about her. 

Toñita: “Y además, tengo que pensar en los inquilinos que también sufrirían, porque si ellos compran es para, para hacer un edificio grande que podrían hacer aquí, y tengo que pensar en ellos también.”

Marta Martínez: She worries about what would happen to her tenants, because if she were to sell, they would tear down the club and build a big condo apartment building. And it wouldn’t be her Puerto Rican tenants who would be able to afford living in those new apartments. 

So she keeps offering free food to anyone who comes in, and keeps selling beers at 3 dollars.

That hasn’t made her particularly popular among the new bars that have opened more recently on Grand Street, where a glass of wine can cost 17 dollars. 

Richer neighbors mean other types of challenges. More noise complaints, more inspections, and sometimes, those can get more serious. 

“Save Toñita’s! Save Toñita’s! Save Toñita’s! 

On June 1st, 2023, Toñita is at the New York Criminal Court Summons in Lower Manhattan.

She’s facing five misdemeanor charges after a city inspector found that the club had violated its alcohol license, like allowing people to leave the bar with alcoholic drinks, and that she wasn’t keeping any finance records. 

So they’re not fines that would put Toñita’s existence at risk. They would probably amount to about 5,000 dollars total, but Toñita’s community understood it as a threat.

A symbolic attack on Toñita’s club and her desire to keep doing things the way she always has. Serving cheap beer, having dance parties, and yes, being loud. 

Patricia Sulbarán: “¿Es la primera vez que le pasa a usted esto?” 

Marta Martínez: Former Latino USA producer Patricia Sulbarán, who started reporting this story before me, attended the hearing in June.

Toñita told her it was the first time she was standing in front of a judge. 

Patricia Sulbarán: ¿Es la primera vez? Wow. 

Marta Martínez: Toñita is wearing a black blazer and a white shirt, far from her usual bright colors. Her makeup is also discreet, a green eyeshadow and soft pink lipstick. And she’s not wearing any of her iconic rings.

What’s really interesting is that there’s quite a big group who came to support her, about 20 people, and they’re mostly young Latinos and Latinas, like Djali Brown-Cepeda.

Djali Brown Cepeda: “I’m here because it’s very important that we show up, especially for our elders.” 

Marta Martínez: Djali created an Instagram page, “Nueva Yorkinos,” where she documents the stories of Latinos and Latinas in New York City.

Djali Brown Cepeda: “We show up for the people who are the glue of our community. Toñita has been doing this since the 80s, formally, informally since the 70s. It’s a place where we’re allowed to come together. We’re allowed to gather. We’re allowed to be, and gentrification strips that away from us, the ability to be.” 

Marta Martínez: For David Galarza, a labor organizer, it’s not only the club that they’re trying to save by being in front of the court today, it’s something bigger.

David Galarza: “Everybody perhaps has a story about somebody that has been displaced, either from their home or their business, and that’s exactly the story that’s happening from San Juan to Los Sures. And that’s got to make that message very clear, that we’re being displaced, we’re under assault, the same way that Toñita’s is under assault. So that hit a nerve.” 

Marta Martínez: Gabriela Canal is a Colombian-American. She discovered the club seven years ago, and she’s been going ever since. 

Gabriela Canal: “The group that I used to go out with all the time, we were all Latinas, we’d always go dancing, and we’d always end our nights or our weeks at Toñita’s. And one by one, that group has kind of left.

I’m like one of the only ones left here in New York. So one of them got deported back to Colombia, one of them moved to Puerto Rico. I don’t know, I think I owe it to that friend group as well to show up for a place that meant so much to us. So, ah, ahora voy a llorar. (LAUGHS). Seriously.”

Marta Martínez: About two hours later, Toñita gets out of the court building.

The hearing lasted less than five minutes. And the trial will take place later in June. Her smile is even broader than usual. She’s beaming with all the support around her. 

“Y les doy, estoy bien, contenta de haberlos visto aquí, sabiendo que estamos ahí, fuerte, fuerte, fuerte. 

Demonstrator: Y con el boricua…”

Marta Martínez: Toñita thanks everyone for showing up at the court on a weekday. She says they’ll remain strong. People are cheering, saying the club should be treated with respect. 

Toñita: “Muchas gracias a todos. Que tengan buen día. Que Dios los bendiga a todos y ¡Viva Puerto Rico!

 (Crowd shouts) ¡Toñita se respeta! ¡Toñita se respeta! ¡Toñita se respeta! ¡Toñita se respeta! ¡Toñita se respeta! ¡Toñita se respeta!

Marta Martínez: Back at the Caribbean Social Club, next to the domino’s table, where the veterans spend the afternoons, I meet Juan Diego Espina.

Juan Diego Espina: “¡Qué nervios! tú que estás acostumbrada, a todo el tiempo le hacen preguntas.” (LAUGHS) 

Marta Martínez: A 27-year-old Latino who recently started calling the club home, despite not being from Puerto Rico. He was born in Colombia, and has been living in New York City for some eight years.

Juan Diego was having lunch with a friend. He comes all the way from Queens at least once a week to chat with Toñita. In 2017, a Colombian friend brought him here for the first time. 

Juan Diego Espina: “So the first time I walked in here, um, it was like a shock to me because, uh, I had been here for like a year, like two years maybe.

It was, it was very different to like walking in a place like this in the middle of New York. You know, you would never think that a place like this exists.” 

Marta Martínez: It was certainly a special place for Juan Diego. The club became so central in his life in a way he never expected. He met his girlfriend here five years ago. He started collaborating with Toñita and organizing events at the club.

When he’s here, he feels transported in time, back to Colombia, to what living in a Latin American country is like. Because here in New York, he feels that, sometimes, he almost forgets about his Latin culture. 

Toñita’s is becoming a quote-unquote cool place in a gentrifying neighborhood. And that also means more young white people coming to Toñita’s.

It is more noticeable on the weekend nights, when the bar gets crowded, and more famous artists wanting to be seen. Like Madonna and the Colombian singer Maluma, who did a photoshoot at the club for Rolling Stone magazine in 2021. 

Madonna: “We’re mapas, baby. We came here to do business.” (LAUGHS). 

Marta Martínez: For young Latines like Juan Diego, Toñita is a place that feels like home and they want to protect it.

Do you feel like you’re part of like a resistance movement somehow? 

Juan Diego Espina: “Somehow it is, yeah. If you want to see it that way, it is. But for most people, it’s just, you know, love.”

Marta Martínez: It seems that over time, Toñita’s opened its embrace, from welcoming Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to all the newly arrived from Latin America.

At a time when their connection to their roots is very different than it used to be.

Juan Diego Espina: “I’m not Puerto Rican, but I feel Latino like everyone else, so like I feel like this place has taken all of the all of the different countries and like it’s just like… be together, have a drink with somebody else, meet their, meet their country, know their culture.

And so, yeah, la, la Latinidad sube bastante, for sure.” 

Marta Martínez: The conversation with Juan Diego made me think about how Toñita’s hasn’t lost its role as a safe haven for Latines. It has adapted to a new generation that is proud of its Latinidad in a more public way and that values what came before them.

In the back, Octavio, the 78-year-old man who comes every day, is playing dominos, as usual. While we’re chatting, he brings up something that worries him. 

Octavio: “Ella es mayor que yo.”

 “Mayor que yo.” 

Marta Martínez: “¿Y le preocupa? 

Octavio: “Yeah, sí, a veces que va…esto ya.” 

Marta Martínez: Toñita is getting old. She’s older than me, he says, and he wonders what’s gonna happen with the club. Toñita isn’t married and she doesn’t have any children. More than the fines and the noise complaints, maybe the biggest existential threat for the Caribbean Social Club isn’t actually the new neighbors….(MUSIC). 

On June 22nd, three weeks after the first hearing, this time in downtown Brooklyn, Toñita went back to the court to face trial for the fines related to her alcohol license violations. She wears a black blazer again, this time with a yellow shirt underneath. Her eye makeup is turquoise and her lips, magenta.

This time, I’m surprised that there are no crowds outside supporting Toñita. It’s just two of Toñita’s friends. And then for media coverage, there’s Andrés Guerrero, who’s a Colombian photographer, and myself. It takes hours for Toñita to face the judge, because her lawyer is late. 

Past 2 p.m., Toñita finally takes the stand.

She’s been granted an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Which basically means that if for the next six months she receives no complaints or fines, her case will be fully dismissed. 

Toñita: “Estoy muy orgullosa de que ustedes vinieron también a apoyarme y me siento contenta porque en realidad no era motivo para que molestaran a un social club como el de nosotros.”.

Marta Martínez: Toñita says she’s proud of the resolution because it wasn’t necessary to bother the social club the way they did. 

Toñita: “Si en el futuro pasara lo mismo, en los seis meses no pasara nada, pero si pasara, pues haríamos la lucha nuevamente.”

Marta Martínez: She adds that if it happens again in the future, which she hopes it won’t, she’d continue to fight with the support of her community.

Overall, Toñita says, it’s been a good experience.  

Toñita: “Y ha sido mucho apoyo de la gente, de todo el que van al Club, y ha sido muy bonito, como quiera, una experiencia buena.” 

Marta Martínez: My colleague Andrés also asks her about the future of the club. 

Andrés: “¿Y el futuro del club, cómo lo ves? 

Toñita: “El futuro del club, mientras yo esté ahí, gracias a Dios, vamos a seguir hacia delante, hasta que Dios quiera.”

Marta Martínez: As far as I’m alive, Toñita says, we will continue to be open. (MUSIC).

Last fall, a few months after the trial, I went to Toñita’s on a Saturday night. (People chating).

The bar slash living room is packed, and even if it’s cold outside, here, it feels like we are in summery Puerto Rico. 

There are lots of young people, some couples dance salsa, reggaeton, bachata, lining up their favorite songs in the jukebox. Most of them are Latines, but as it gets later, more young white people join the dance floor, trying to copy the experienced dancer.

Others play pool in a dangerous environment. Anyone could get hit by a stick at any time, but miraculously, it doesn’t happen, or no one complains about it. Others play dominos, the never-ending entertainment at the club. There are also older people, like the man with yellow glasses everyone calls “El Gato,” or “The Cat.”

He says he’s been coming to Toñita’s for 40 years. 

El Gato: “Yeah, yo llevo aquí 40 años visitando a Toñita.” 

Marta Martínez: “¡Qué maravilla! ¿Qué es lo que le gusta tanto de este lugar?” 

El Gato: “La amistad, de aquí, queremos a todo el mundo no importa de qué país sea, de qué color sea después que te portes bien, los queremos a todos.” 

Marta Martínez: “El Gato” says his favorite thing about the club is the friendship. It doesn’t matter what country you come from, or your skin color. If you behave, he says, we will love you. 

Toñita is in the very back, sitting on a stool behind the bar, as usual. This time, her fingers are covered in her animal rings. And yet, she manages to open beer bottles and count dollar bills without any problem.

She’s clearly in her element. 

“Hola Toñita, ¿cómo va la noche?” 

Toñita: “Está bien buena, estamos aquí divirtiéndonos, estamos todos tranquilos, y como en nuestra casa.” 

Marta Martínez: She says the night is going great. Everyone is having fun and just feeling at home. Fifty years after she bought this building on Grand Street, Toñita’s is still opening its door every night. 

“¿Está contenta con ver tanta gente por aquí?” 

“Sí, todo el mundo está contento”.

“Me alegro, que la pase muy bien.”

“Gracias, igualmente, saludos a todo mundo.” 

On my way out of the club, trying to squeeze between the couples dancing salsa and the pool players and their sticks, someone touches my shoulder.

It’s a friend I didn’t expect to meet here. She convinces me to stay for a beer. And the night just ends like all nights at Toñita’s; we drink, we dance, we sweat, and have a lot of fun. 

(MUSIC) “Otra, otra noche otra.”

As Don Omar would sing in a song that will infallibly play every night at the club Toñita’s has survived yet, another night. (MUSIC).

This episode was produced by Marta Martínez with additional reporting by Patricia Sulbarán and Andrés Guerrero. It was edited by Sarah Whites-Koditschek and mixed by Julia Caruso. Fact-checking for this episode by Roxana Aguirre.

The Latino USA team includes Victoria Estrada, Reynaldo Leaños Jr., Andrea López-Cruzado, Glorimar Márquez, Mike Sargent, Nour Saudi, and Nancy Trujillo.

Peniley Ramírez is our co-executive producer. Our director of engineering is Stephanie Lebow. 

Additional engineering support by Gabriela Baez and J.J. Querubin, our marketing manager is Luis Luna. Our theme music was composed by Xenia Rubinos. I’m your host and executive producer, Maria Hinojosa. Join us again on our next episode. In the meantime, look for us on social media.

I’ll see you there. Como siempre. No te olvides. ¡No te vayas! Bye!

Latino USA is made possible in part by New York Women’s Foundation. The New York Women’s Foundation — funding women leaders that build solutions in their communities and celebrating 30 years of radical generosity. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. And the Ford Foundation — working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.

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