The Last Puerto Rican Social Club in Brooklyn

Social clubs were once the glue that held the Puerto Rican diaspora together. Today, there’s only one left in Brooklyn.

Carl-Johan Karlsson | Longreads | October 2018 | 13 minutes (3,603 words)

Nestled within the brown, red, and yellow gingerbread houses that line Williamsburg’s Grand Street in Brooklyn, Toñita’s (technically named Caribbean Social Club) is easy to miss, unless you spot the neon Corona sign and the weathered sticker that says We’re open. Inside, there’s a disco ball, a reindeer head mounted on the wall, and a palm tree wrapped in Christmas tinsel. A pool table surrounded by plastic chairs stands in the center of the wood-patterned vinyl floor. Photos of baseball players in eclectic frames festoon the walls. Gilt baseball trophies jostle one another on high shelves. The biggest frame is dedicated to Roberto Clemente — the sainted Puerto Rican right fielder who died in a plane crash in 1972. On the walls, posters for salsa shows and domino tournaments compete for space. A wooden plaque — from the City Council of New York thanking Maria Antonia (Toñita) Cay for her service to the community — hangs on the wall by the little bar in the corner.

By 9 p.m. on a Saturday, darkness has rolled across New York, but Toñita’s is just waking up. Little tornados of smiling people dance around the pool table. Salsa tones mingle with conversations in pattering Spanish. Occasional cheers ring out as a pool player sinks a ball. In the corner, two 80-something men in baseball caps meditate over a game of dominoes — oblivious to the tumult from the TV on the wall, where a Spanish-speaking Arnold Schwarzenegger guns down a group of assailants.

Behind the bar, serving Corona and Heineken, stands Cay. She wears a black silk jacket. Colorful rings adorn her fingers. She is 77, with curly reddish hair, dark eyes under carefully plucked brows, and a vague smile.

“It used to be several social clubs just on Grand Street,” Cay says as she opens a beer. “But one after one, they all disappeared.”

Toñita’s opened in 1973. It’s a remnant of when social clubs glued together whole communities of strangers in a strange land. When immigration to New York from Puerto Rico peaked in the ’50s and ’60s, the clubs evolved into an expression of the culture Puerto Ricans had left behind. Sprinkled throughout Williamsburg’s South Side, the Bronx, and East Harlem, where most islanders settled, social clubs were places to find family members and people from the same hometown in Puerto Rico, to find help with translation for hospital visits, to play dominoes, dance, and hear Caribbean music. Perhaps most importantly, these clubs helped Puerto Ricans to mobilize into a significant political force in New York City (America’s first Puerto Rican–born congressman, Herman Badillo, started his career in the political organizations the clubs formed.)

Toñita’s opened in 1973. It’s a remnant of when social clubs glued together whole communities of strangers in a strange land.

In the corner, the men slam the red-and-white dominos on the table, their Coronas jumping. Behind them, hidden by the drooping leaves of a palm tree, hangs a small photo.

“I was young then,” Cay says, her younger self smiling behind the glass. Her hair is longer, a deeper red. She looks taller, but her dark eyes are the same. “It can’t have been long after I arrived.”

It was 1956. A few months prior, Cay and her younger brother had boarded a plane in San Juan. She and her brother were part of an influx of Puerto Ricans who left their homeland to seek their fortunes in the States. Portrayed by some as an American colony and by others as American territory with special rights, the United States claimed Puerto Rico as spoils of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Although Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, it was the continuing economic depression on the island coupled with an increased demand for workers in American manufacturing that spurred many Puerto Ricans to leave in the 1950s. At the time Cay arrived, more than 700,000 Puerto Ricans — nearly three times the contemporary population of San Juan — had left the island to settle in the United States.


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Toñita, the second oldest of nine siblings and only 15 years old, had never seen the inside of an airplane. She remembers the sound of the propellers turning from wind to thunder as the plane slowly wheeled onto the runway. Most of the passengers were likely sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, and tomato farmers fleeing Puerto Rico’s withering agricultural economy, leaving whole villages of makeshift homes and empty shacks behind.

Cay was calm. She watched as Puerto Rico thinned on the horizon. She imagined towering buildings and neon signs recalled from postcards and photos sent from the friends and family who’d left before her.

***

New York’s first Spanish-speaking neighborhoods sprang up in Chelsea at the turn of the last century. After the end of World War I, that settlement shifted uptown, turning the Jewish and Italian neighborhood of East Harlem, along with the Red Hook and Borough Hall sections of Brooklyn, into Puerto Rican enclaves. As immigration from the island increased, the Puerto Rican settlements expanded to the South Bronx and to Williamsburg’s South Side. “We called it Los Sures [The Southies].” Cay says. “Everyone was hiring then, and many moved there to find jobs in the surrounding industries.”

Los Sures was a piece of Puerto Rico in New York, where everyone spoke, lived, and argued in Spanish. In this pocket of Brooklyn, thousands of Puerto Ricans worked in one of the country’s harshest environments and the lowest-paying industries in New York City. Meat-packers, hotel workers, bakers, electricians, seamstresses, construction workers, painters, and cleaners all walked the streets where Puerto Rican flags hung from upstairs windows. Today, Toñita’s patrons recall Los Sures in 1965 as a land of food stamps and eviction orders; a wilderness of fighting couples and possessed lovers where neighbors lowered food and household tools between balconies and into apartments that smelled of sancocho (chicken stew), roasted pork leg, and cigarettes. When it rained, the streets swam with soda cans, newspapers, and cardboard; when it was sunny, the whole place steamed with pollution and poverty and dreams.

“It was tough, and if you couldn’t fight, you were screwed,” says José Perez, one of Toñita’s regulars who came from the island in 1954. In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn were home to teenage gangs. They were typically divided into ethnic groups that fought each other over turf. “There were gangs everywhere. You had to know what streets not to cross. Social clubs became a place where we felt safe.”

There were gangs everywhere. You had to know what streets not to cross. Social clubs became a place where we felt safe.

When Cay arrived in New York, rents were low, and Puerto Ricans pooled money to buy or rent spaces where they could safely spend time with family and friends. Some turned their own living rooms into clubs; other clubs looked like pool halls and some more like bars. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the clubs developed in different directions.

“Some provided assistance in finding housing, jobs, and schooling,” says Hector Cordero-Guzman, a professor in sociology and in urban education at the City University of New York. “Others developed into nonprofits that helped catapult people into larger politics.”

Already by 1956, there were social clubs in New York representing each and every one of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, forming a tight safety net. If a family back home was in crisis, the clubs threw fundraisers and donated money, wrote letters with legal advice, or even sent delegates with expertise in the problem at hand. Some charged member fees, and others threw nightly parties with makeshift bars to earn money for times when a member or a relative on the island was in need. The clubs became sanctuaries, the cement of their expat society, the beating hearts of the barrio. Some of these clubs operated legally and even joined together under larger umbrella organizations, while others operated illegally. By 1990 there were close to 1,400 unlicenced clubs in New York.

Already by 1956, there were social clubs in New York representing each and every one of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, forming a tight safety net. If a family back home was in crisis, the clubs threw fundraisers and donated money, wrote letters with legal advice, or even sent delegates with expertise in the problem at hand.

***

In 1965, Cay rented a room from a Jewish woman in a two-floor house on Grand Street. After Cay’s mother passed away in 1961, two of her sisters who came after her had saved up some money and decided to go back to the island. Many Puerto Ricans harbored the hopes of eventually returning to their birthplace. Salaries were higher in New York, but for many, as a 1967 bulletin published by the Social Security Administration reported, integration was a slow and difficult process. It was a time before discrimination laws, and the islanders were seen as people of color and colonials, left to navigate their citizenship. The complexities of mainland culture were explained to newcomers in bodegas, on stoops, in churches, over factory sewing machines, and in the clubs. The American dream was dim at best, and the SSA bulletin noted that many felt more like migrant workers than immigrants. Puerto Rican first, said the islanders, New Yorker second, and American if there was anything left over.

But Cay had no plans to go back home. An ardent baseball fan, she wanted to open her own club for Puerto Rican players to have a place of their own. “There were hundreds of clubs, but I only knew of one or two female owners,“ Cay says. “I didn’t care.”

Her opportunity came unexpectedly. The Jewish woman who had been her landlord for eight years had taken a liking to Cay. In cooking Puerto Rican dishes for the woman’s daughter, Cay had become much like family. As the landlord grew older, she wanted someone to take over the house. She wanted Cay to buy the space, on the condition that she be allowed to remain as Cay’s tenant until she died. Cay came from humble beginnings, and $5,000 — the purchase price of the house — was a considerable amount at the time. But Cay was determined to achieve her dream.

***

In the skirt factory, needlework happened on wooden chairs in front of long rows of tables where women with hair in buns tight as ropes hunched over hundreds of automatic sewing machines. Movements turned to reflexes from endless repetition as the needle shot up and down. Many were experienced seamstresses with skills passed down through generations; now, they were relegated to a specific section in the assembly line. Less need for skill; less pay.

Cay knew she could never raise enough money to buy her landlord’s house with the few dollars she made at the factory. So she started her own business. “I worked from eight to four in the factory, and then I went home to my own sewing machine and made dresses,” she says.

Cay bought the rose-colored material for $2 and sold the long dresses for $15. She was a talented seamstress, and in her room on the second floor, she never spent more than 20 minutes to conjure up a full dress. The rumors of her talent spread quickly and it wasn’t long before she earned more from her own business than at the factory. Finally, in 1973, she bought her landlord’s house. Toñita’s Social Club was born.

“I started with just some chairs and tables, then built a bar, and filled the place with all the things I could find in the streets or stuff that restaurants and bars didn’t want,” she says.

Rumors of the new locale spread quickly. Baseball players brought their wives, girlfriends, and kids. Eventually, what started as a baseball clubhouse became the go-to place of the barrio. Cay sponsored fundraisers to buy gear and uniforms for the players and hosted domino and card tournaments. At night, the place opened for people to dance, play pool, and drink. Like most other clubs, Toñita’s didn’t have a liquor license, and it was common for people to bring their own rum and put their name on the bottle. It was a way of getting around the police, who would send agents disguised as beggars to see whether the clubs were selling hard liquor, trying to shut them down.

Like most other clubs, Toñita’s didn’t have a liquor license, and it was common for people to bring their own rum and put their name on the bottle.

“Not much has changed since,” Cay says, raising her palms to the ceiling. “We used to have even more trophies, but players took the biggest ones when they moved home.”

All around her, the 40 or so patrons swig Corona and sway to the bachata tones pouring out of the jukebox, amid the odor of beer and perfume. Closer to the bar, steam from pork and rice curls out of big steel containers. A late arriver with a sun-kissed face and tousled hair suddenly storms through the entrance, snapping his head right and left as he eyeballs the men scraping their plates in the corner. He spots Cay, and breaks into an almost toothless smile. “Thought I was going to miss out.” Cay laughs as she serves the latecomer a healthy portion.

The toothless man digs into his meal, rice cascading down his chin, breaking two plastic knives in the process. “Gracias!” He waves to Cay and rushes over to the pool table. He shoves his hands down into his pockets and pulls out a few crumpled bills and stares into his palms in what looks like deep spiritual contemplation. “Look,” Cay chuckles, nodding at him. “Now he can’t decide if he should spend his dollars on a pool game or a beer.” Eventually he settles for the latter, and Cay serves him a Heineken, then sighs, handing him some coins for a game.

Cay floats through the room, passing the twirling dancers, the old men pursuing their eternal dominoes game, the containers of food she’s cooked herself, and the bar where couples, friends, and cousins sit knee to knee. If she asked for it, she’d have every ounce of their attention. It’s not flattery when they smile at her, or obeisance when they make way, but gratitude. Hers is the last remaining social club in Los Sures. She’s the founder. La dueña. For more than four decades, she has preserved a sliver of a time before the internet, before iPhones, and before gentrification; a time when people shared problems, a time when they had to reach toward one another. It’s a time almost forgotten, yet in here, it persists.

Cay floats through the room, passing the twirling dancers, the old men pursuing their eternal dominoes game, the containers of food she’s cooked herself, and the bar where couples, friends, and cousins sit knee to knee.

Patrons stumble in and out. Cay stands by the door, her back a little hunched, thinning hair falling onto her shoulders, and suddenly she looks very small. She looks at the little lot across the street where she grows tomatoes and salad vegetables in the summers.

“Times changed,” Cay sighs, as several creases sharpen in her forehead. “And then there was the fire.”

***

The beginning of the end of the Puerto Rican social clubs happened on March 25, 1990, when an evening of dancing turned into a night of death. Julio Gonzales, a 35-year-old Cuban man, was kicked out of the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx after an argument with Lydia Feliciano, a woman he’d been seeing. Feliciano was working at the coat check at the club and would later be one of only six survivors. After being booted out, Gonzales, blinded by rage, walked over to a local gas station, bought $1 worth of gasoline, and set the venue’s only exit ablaze.

Happy Land, which had been ordered closed by the city 16 months earlier due to insufficient sprinklers and fire exits, quickly turned into a burning prison where 87 patrons died from fire, smoke inhalation, or were trampled to death in the chaos. The all-night disco was immensely popular among Latinx youth and the victims were primarily Hondurans who had come to celebrate Carnival. In the small dance hall, smoke spread so quickly that many of the victims were found still holding drinks in their hands, their legs entwined in bar stools. To this day, it’s the deadliest nightclub fire caused by arson in U.S. history.

The following day, rumors circulated through Los Sures. Fire. Death. Eighty-seven dead. Round and round the questions ran. What will happen now? Will they close down the clubs?

By sundown the night following the fire, then-mayor David Dinkins ordered the inspection of known illegal social clubs by the Happy Land Task Force: 20 units made up of firemen, building inspectors, and police officers drawn from undercover narcotics teams. They mapped out the clubs, knocked on doors, asked questions, checked papers, and counted exits. They taped closure orders to the doors.

By June 1990, the task force reported that out of the original 1,391 clubs, 84 were left open. It was the end of an era.

“Such a tragedy, so many lives lost,” Junior Ramirez says, staring down at the coffee table. “This place changed after the fire,” he says. Ramirez, a former social club owner and musician, moved to East Harlem from Puerto Rico in 1958. It was in this neighborhood, where “salsa music poured out of every bodega and artists of all sorts lined the streets,” that Ramirez found his passion for music. Today he is known in the community as one of the great salsa percussionists of his time and has played alongside giants like Tito Puente and Rafael Hernández. Music was good money back then, Ramirez remembers with a smile. He opened his first social club in lower Manhattan and made enough money to open six more — three of them in East Harlem. Ramirez hired salsa, bachata, and merengue bands and the musicians all jammed and played together, “like a big family.” After the concerts the owners visited each other’s places to drink and dance.

“But it wasn’t all roses,” Ramirez says, looking up with a sober expression. “Most drank too much, smoked too much, spent the money they made from their club in the one next door. Most of the people I know from those days have either gone back to the island or are dead.”

When the crackdowns started, most of the owners who couldn’t afford or didn’t have the possibility of getting the required licenses were left without any income. Ramirez, who prides himself on never drinking and always “looking for ways to make a buck,” managed to keep his places open. Rather than blame the crackdowns, he says it was the changing times that forced him to throw in the towel in the early ’90s.

“The third and fourth generation eventually lost touch with the culture the pioneer settlers had brought from the island,” says Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, a professor of Puerto Rican studies at Brooklyn College. “They were raised in the U.S. system and didn’t have the same need for the clubs.”

Meanwhile, New York — which had long been the center of the Puerto Rican diaspora — successively turned into a mosaic of Hispanic cultures with the influx of Mexican and Dominican immigrants. Starting already in the ’80s, as the country’s economic growth shifted to the country’s southern tier, the Sunbelt became the more popular destination for Puerto Rican settlers, particularly Florida. But the community structure in these places is different from the one that developed in New York.

“The organization is rather about common issues than about hometowns,” Cordero-Guzman says. “There is internet and better communications now, and people don’t depend on such organizations. It was a thing of its time.”

***

At Toñita’s, it’s close to midnight. “They tried to shut us down,“ Cay says while grabbing a Corona from the worn fridge standing askew behind the bar. “But my club wasn’t considered unsafe and eventually I also managed to get all the licenses.”

At the time of the crackdowns, gentrification had started to pump up the rents in the neighborhood, but since Cay had bought her place in the ’70s, the rent hikes didn’t affect her.

“Inspectors still come here sometimes,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief. “They were here last month and gave me a $1,500 fine for having unregistered staff.” Cay pauses briefly to look over at the dancing and chatting crowd. “I don’t have employees — this is a community.”

Cay pauses briefly to look over at the dancing and chatting crowd. “I don’t have employees — this is a community.”

She disappears into a back room, then returns carrying a marzipan cake over her head. The patrons cheer and whistle as the la dueña cuts through the crowd. It’s a birthday cake for her sister who is there with her nephew Emilio Pennes, or “Colonel,” a nickname he earned after returning from active duty in the U.S. Army. He pats his mother on the back as she blows out the candles, and the crowd sings “Cumpleaños Feliz” out of sync.

Cay takes a seat in the corner, her usual spot. She looks content — a queen gazing out over her people. Colonel spots her from across the room and pulls himself loose from the crowd of well-wishers to take a seat beside her.

“This is where I learned to play dominoes, and this is where I learned how to talk to older people,” he says with a look of nostalgia. “I guess kids don’t get that these days. “When they shut down the clubs, parents stayed at home. They became disconnected from their children.”

Colonel sits for a while, his hand resting on Cay’s shoulder. Then he gets up and once more melts into the crowd of cheering and dancing celebrators.

Outside the steamy windows, a thin mist has amassed, and the lights become champagne-colored pyramids below the streetlamps. Laughter and drunken howls echo from down the block where people are pouring out of swanky bars. A group emerges from the dimness — high heels, skinny jeans, beards, hats. The hoard passes Toñita’s modest entrance; some cast a glance, then move on and fade back into the gloom.

Cay stays right where she is, and leans back against the wall tattooed with Puerto Rican history, the treasures she’s salvaged. Contentment fills her eyes, but there is a hint of fatigue.

“When I’m gone,” she sighs heavily, “all of this will be too.”

***

Carl-Johan Karlsson is a freelance journalist based in New York and Paris.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Fact checker: Ethan Chiel

Copy editor: Jacob Gross