Before Cupcakes / Anna Menta


In the morning, when I walk through Williamsburg, Brooklyn on the way to work, I pass by shiny new apartment buildings, organic grocery stores, and bakeries that sell, exclusively, cupcakes. I'm not saying I don't love a good cupcake as much as the next person with taste buds, but walking down these streets it's hard to believe less than twenty years ago they were the setting of a thriving Latino/a community and culture. 

In their short documentary titled Toñita’s (still above: Toñitas is part of UnionDoc's Living Los Sures transmedia project) filmmakers Beyza Boyacioglu and Sebastian Diaz highlight the harsh gentrification that Los Sures ( "South Side ") of Williamsburg has undergone since the 1990s. Their film showcases the Caribbean Sports Club, the last Latino/a social club left in the neighborhood, often referred to as simply  "Toñita's " by its customers, after the owner Maria Toñita. Boyacioglu and Diaz tell the story of the club, Toñita, and it's patrons; celebrating this last fragment of a once flourishing community, and in the process highlighting how dramatically it has transformed to the Williamsburg we know today.

I was lucky enough to get to attend the world premiere of Toñita's at Documentary Fortnight 2014: MoMA's International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media last month as a photographer/videographer for UnionDocs. In addition to taking blurry photos and shaky video, I watched the film and the Q&A with Boyacioglu and Diaz that followed. 

The film opens on the club itself at peak hours—bustling with life, people dancing, drinking, and playing pool. An upbeat Latin American soundtrack accompanies the action, echoing the mood of patrons in the club—smiles and laughter from every corner. Regulars adore the club's owner, Maria Toñita, professing their gratitude and devotion to her. We see Toñita piling an exorbitant amount of beans into her cart at a grocery store (big laugh here from the audience) and learn that she prepares and gives away free food at her club every Sunday, because most homeless shelters don't serve on Sundays.  "She makes you feel like there's a little piece of Puerto Rico in Williamsburg, " comments one clubgoer.

This adoration of Toñita and her club is bittersweet however, as regulars recall what the South Side used to be.  "The geography has changed completely. In every little space they make a building. They invaded Los Sures, " says one regular, referring to the now predominantly white population of Williamsburg.

However, Boyacioglu and Diaz do not merely present a simple story of the evils of gentrification. Some of the regulars expressed contentment with the neighborhood's new beautiful markets and restaurants and safer atmosphere. Said one,  "It's awesome, and no it doesn't bother me, at all. I don't feel anything toward anybody of anything. " 

After hearing much about her through interviews with regulars of the club, we formally get to meet the namesake, Maria Toñita herself, at the end of the film. Toñita is soft-spoken and reserved despite her many exuberant, doting customers. She quietly asserts her intention to keep her club open for as long as she possibly can. She expresses a longing for her home, Puerto Rico, which she calls  "perfect, " and conversely calls the Caribbean Sports Club a  "hobby, " yet seems to have no intention of ever returning to the island. Perhaps she feels she is needed in Williamsburg to guard this last pocket of Latino/a culture. 

Toñita's comes to a close and the room breaks into enthusiastic applause of the nearly 300 other people in the theater with me. Boyacioglu and Diaz have presented their short documentary along side three other short documentaries, but based on the Q&A you'd think they'd presented it alone. It's clear that much of the audience feels strongly about the displacement —in fact many who raise their hands feel so strongly they forget to actually ask the filmmakers a question, and instead express their profuse gratitude for the film's creation along with outrage for their community's continued gentrification. Boyacioglu and Diaz take it in stride—Boyacioglu conveys her hope that their film will both show what New York is losing in this harsh displacement and encourage new residents of Williamsburg to meet the original residents of the neighborhood to begin to bridge the gaps between past and present. Diaz agrees and adds,  "Beyond ethnicity, I think the idea of community is what I think is truly important to think about. "

I left MoMA that day with a new outlook on the streets I drip coffee on everyday as I hurry to be at work on time. Evidence of the once-thriving Latino/a community is still not visible to me, but now I know where to find some. Toñita's Caribbean Sports Club has remained open for 40 years, and in doing so has denied the complete erasure of this community. I hope it stays open for 40 more.

Anna Menta is a junior Cinema Studies major at Oberlin College with a concentration in Peace and Conflicts Studies. She is interning at Break Thru Films and UnionDocs Center for Documentary Arts in Brooklyn.