Williamsburg locals plan rally to support Puerto Rican social hub Toñita’s

tonitas williamsburg
Locals are rallying to save Toñitas, a mainstay of the Puerto Rican community in Williamsburg.
Photo courtesy of Google Maps

On Thursday, neighbors will gather outside 1 Center Street in Manhattan to support the owner of an important longtime community gathering spot and bar on the south side of Williamsburg, Caribbean Social Club, aka Toñita’s, as the beloved matriarch faces a legal summons.

According to an Instagram post made by Gabriel Hernández Solano and shared by Toñita’s, the adored neighborhood spot and “vital community hub” is under threat due to the accumulation of fines and “increased scrutiny and pressure,” which the post says is occurring amid changing demographics and rising rents.

“A beacon of Los Sures, Toñita’s has been a cultural hub for over four decades, the last Puerto Rican social club serving as a living testament to the vibrant heritage that shaped Williamsburg since 1980,” the post reads. “Toñita’s has been a place of community gathering music, dominos, billiards, and free food prepared daily by Toñita herself.”

The post places the situation in the wider context of the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification, saying long standing residents and businesses are being pushed out, and because of that, culture and gathering spaces such as Toñita’s are being erased.

“Toñita’s is not just another bar in Williamsburg. It is more than a club. It’s a beacon of cultural identity, unity, and heritage. To lose Toñita’s is to lose a part of our community’s soul in an increasingly flavorless Williamsburg.”

Maria “Toñita” Cay bought the building at 244 Grand St. in 1974, city records show, and opened the Caribbean Social Club later that decade, according to Business Insider. It quickly became a hub for the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican, and wider Caribbean and Latinx, communities. Last year, Puerto Rican chart-topper Bad Bunny even stopped by to chat to the matriarch while he was filming a music video in the city, giving Toñita’s a viral moment on social media.

Although in its early days Toñita’s operated as a social club, mainly geared towards Puerto Ricans interested in baseball (as Cay very much is), it transitioned into a legal bar and operates with a liquor license. Social clubs were a popular feature of Brooklyn life in the early to mid-20th century, run as private members clubs rather than businesses and often catering to immigrant communities in specific neighborhoods. While most have closed, some still operate, including in Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens, such as the Italian Van Westerhout Cittidini Molesi Cultural and Social Club.

And, of course, Toñita’s has stood strong. A 2018 New York Times article stated “Puerto Rican residents who have been pushed out — or are resisting — gather at Toñita’s, a social club where music, food, and friendship sustain bonds that were forged decades ago when the neighborhood was a bastion of the Puerto Rican working class.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Toñitas (@tonitasny)

The court action may be related a failure to make payments on a workers compensation insurance policy. According to a 2018 complaint filed in New York Supreme Court by Commissioners of the State Insurance Fund, the Caribbean Social Club failed to make payments on a workers compensation insurance policy the club took out in 2016, and the bar allegedly owes the fund $28,132.36. In early 2019, the court found that the club owed the money, plus $1,761.93 interest and $265 in disbursements, totaling $30,159.29. Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner could not confirm that case is the reason for the current court action, and reached out to Toñita’s for more information but did not hear back by time of publication.

Nuevayorkinos, a multimedia project dedicated to preserving the city’s Latino and Caribbean culture and history, said in an Instagram post: “Since 1980, Toñitas has been a place where Latinos from the diaspora have been able to share space, commune, be fed, and be free. Where la gente plays dominoes and pool, dancing to Fania and drinking Medalla. Toñitas is one of the last strongholds of Boricua culture in an ever changing landscape that is Los Sures, South Williamsburg.”

The post continues that gentrification in Williamsburg has led not just to rising rents, but to cultural erasure, becoming an “unrecognizable play land for the rich.”

“Gentrification is violence. Gentrification strips us from the freedom to be. The freedom to gather, and be in community; the freedom to play our music and create memories in neighborhoods we’ve called home for generations. Gentrification is the annihilation of the collective for the desires of the individual.”

The posts on Toñita’s and Nuevayorkino’s Instagram pages have attracted a number of comments from community members, sharing concerns about the club’s survival and its importance.

The rally to support Cay and the club will be held at 9:30 a.m. outside 1 Center Street in Manhattan.

This story first appeared on Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner