Caribbean Social Club 00:00
Maybe for fifty years everybody was on their own. Nobody said hello to nobody. But people change. Now you pass by, they say hello. They don’t know you. They ask ‘How are you?’ and everybody feels better.

Maria Antonia Cay is a ray of sunshine in South Williamsburg. This local’s local single handedly runs the Caribbean Social Club, a decades old community space that is part bar, part game room, and part charity kitchen. Tonita’s been living above the space since the mid-sixties, run the club since the seventies, and owned her building since the early eighties. The history of the space finds expression all over the walls: pictures upon pictures of patrons, athletes, and historical snippets adorn the walls. Beer is ridiculously cheap, and on Sundays, Tonita’s home cooked food is a gift to her patrons. The Caribbean Social Club is an establishment with a soul, and Tonita is its beating heart.

We caught up with Tonita recently and got her word on giving back to the community, South Williamsburg’s old name ‘Los Sures,’ and the potent Puerto Rican drink ‘chichaito.’

CONVICTS

Hey there. To start, can you tell us your name and where we are?

TONITA

My name is Maria Antonia Cay. This is my caribbean social club and we been here a lot of years and I feel like we will be for years to come. I’ve lived upstairs since 1965.

CONVICTS

But your nick name’s Tonita – where did that come from?

TONITA

In Puerto Rico, they call me Antonia Toniya or Tonita. We always have nicknames from our names.

CONVICTS

Why did you come to New York?

TONITA

Like everybody I wanted to come to the city and stay working.

CONVICTS

Where were you in New York originally?

TONITA

In what area? First I went to Manhattan, 23rd street and then I moved out to Delancey. I also lived in the Bronx, then I passed by to Brooklyn.

CONVICTS

Tell me about this area? When did you move here? What’s this area about? What’s it like here?

TONITA

I moved over here in 1965. But to me, it’s only new buildings now. The oldest stores were here before there was a store in every building. I bought this building, I forget how many years ago. I think it was in 1982.

CONVICTS

You told us this started as a baseball clubhouse. How did the baseball team come about?

TONITA

We had people talking about making teams so we started the baseball league in I think ‘73. I enjoyed it and went to games for many years. We had eight teams, so it was too hard to support eight teams and now nobody wants to do nothing.

CONVICTS

When did the club change?

TONITA

1999. They started asking for more money for the park. So we can’t afford it.

CONVICTS

Did the place look the same back then as it does now?

TONITA

The walls were almost the same, but they change sometimes. Sometimes people take away pictures so we put up another one.

Favorite? I never have a favorite. To me everything is the same and everybody is the same. I hate when somebody says ‘my best friend.’ No you don’t have a best friend, you have a friend.
CONVICTS

That’s great. Tell me what happens here at the club now?

TONITA

It’s still the same because the people still come. We give free food on Sunday to keep everybody coming. They are full of food. They buy the food, and from the money they spend we buy more food.  

CONVICTS

What happens on the other days of the week?

TONITA

Playing dominos, talking. They have good time. And that’s why I keep the place because I feel the same, I have a good time too. When I see them happy, everybody’s happy. Everybody enjoying.. they eat, they talk, they drink. And everybody’s behaved.

CONVICTS

So the energy still feels the same?

TONITA

Yeah because when you feel like you’re having fun, you have energy.

CONVICTS

What are some of your favorite memories of this place?

TONITA

Favorite? I never have a favorite. To me everything is the same and everybody is the same. I hate when somebody says ‘my best friend.’ No you don’t have a best friend, you have a friend.

CONVICTS

What do you serve?

TONITA

Rice and beans, pork and chicken. One week I make chicken and one week I make pork. I make eight pounds of beans every Sunday and twenty five pounds of rice all by myself. I make 120 pieces of chicken and eight pernil, which is the loin of pork. I cook all the time. All by myself.

CONVICTS

Who comes through on Sundays?

TONITA

Anybody can come to eat. Most of the time there’s a lot of people. Places give food away from Monday to Friday and sometimes Saturday. Sunday nobody gives out food. So I started giving food then on Sunday because I see that a lot of people don’t have a place to eat. Sometimes you will come at one o’clock and maybe forty or forty five people will be here.

CONVICTS

What about dancing? Is there dancing here?

TONITA

Don’t call it dancing. They’re doing exercise. It’s not dancing anymore. It’s like exercise.

CONVICTS

Talking about the baseball, does any of the community still watch the baseball or watch the sport?

TONITA

No, no because it was a lot of work so nobody wants to. But there are still old timers in Lindsay Park. They have a league all the time.

CONVICTS

Do you have family who help you with the club?

TONITA

No, no family helps me in the club, but the ones who come here do something. They help out. I have my sister, she used to help me out but now she doesn’t feel like being in the club no more. They get older. Even though I got older, I stayed.

CONVICTS

It’s great. I hope it never changes.

TONITA

We hope so too.

CONVICTS

Tell me, who are some of the characters who come here often? The bartender or people that are always here every day?

TONITA

We don’t have no bartender. If I do something, everybody comes and helps. Like everybody go and get the beer and they pay me. So we don’t have no bartender nobody. I cook by myself, I serve myself or they serve themselves. It’s simple. We become like family.

CONVICTS

That’s great. So this area is called Los Sures?

TONITA

They used to call it Los Sures because it was South 1st, South 2nd, 3rd and 4th. And now they changed it to Williamsburg. It’s the same. The only thing they want to change is the name because people like to change, so they change names too.

CONVICTS

Do people get along in the neighborhood?

TONITA

Maybe for fifty years everybody was on their own. Nobody said hello to nobody. But people change. Now you pass by, they say hello. They don’t know you. They ask ‘How are you?’ and everybody feels better. You see somebody smile at you and you feel good.

CONVICTS

How do you describe this to someone who has never been here before?

TONITA

I don’t describe it. They see it and like it or run away.

CONVICTS

No advertising?

TONITA

No. One person says ‘Let’s go there, let’s go to Caribbean, let’s go see Tonita’. So when they come they know the place already. And anybody who comes from Puerto Rico hears that they have to go to Tonita’s. So they come here and they feel good.

CONVICTS

Have you got a boyfriend here?

TONITA

Boyfriend? No no boyfriend. They all my friends, everyone. They all love me as a mother. They love me as a mother or an aunty.

CONVICTS

Do you have a drink of choice? Do you have beer or rum or what is a Puerto Rican drink?

TONITA

In Puerto Rico we make the Chichaíto, this is a special drink from Puerto Rico. Everybody from Puerto Rico loves Chichaíto. It’s a mix of anisette and rum. You could drink only one shot or you could drink little by little. In Puerto Rico they say, no this is a drink for men. You only need two or three to get drunk. Very heavy.

CONVICTS

But is that your favorite?

TONITA

I don’t drink Chichaíto. I never drink in my life.

CONVICTS

Why not?

TONITA

I don’t know. I never felt like drinking, I never felt like smoking. I just didn’t want to.

CONVICTS

Thanks Tonita, it’s been a pleasure. We’ll surely be back.