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.’
Hey there. To start, can you tell us your name and where we are?
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.
But your nick name’s Tonita – where did that come from?
In Puerto Rico, they call me Antonia Toniya or Tonita. We always have nicknames from our names.
Why did you come to New York?
Like everybody I wanted to come to the city and stay working.
Where were you in New York originally?
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.
Tell me about this area? When did you move here? What’s this area about? What’s it like here?
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.
You told us this started as a baseball clubhouse. How did the baseball team come about?
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.
When did the club change?
1999. They started asking for more money for the park. So we can’t afford it.
Did the place look the same back then as it does now?
The walls were almost the same, but they change sometimes. Sometimes people take away pictures so we put up another one.
That’s great. Tell me what happens here at the club now?
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.
What happens on the other days of the week?
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.
So the energy still feels the same?
Yeah because when you feel like you’re having fun, you have energy.
What are some of your favorite memories of this place?
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.
What do you serve?
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.
Who comes through on Sundays?
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.
What about dancing? Is there dancing here?
Don’t call it dancing. They’re doing exercise. It’s not dancing anymore. It’s like exercise.
Talking about the baseball, does any of the community still watch the baseball or watch the sport?
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.
Do you have family who help you with the club?
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.
It’s great. I hope it never changes.
We hope so too.
Tell me, who are some of the characters who come here often? The bartender or people that are always here every day?
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.
That’s great. So this area is called Los Sures?
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.
Do people get along in the neighborhood?
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.
How do you describe this to someone who has never been here before?
I don’t describe it. They see it and like it or run away.
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.
Have you got a boyfriend here?
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.
Do you have a drink of choice? Do you have beer or rum or what is a Puerto Rican drink?
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.
But is that your favorite?
I don’t drink Chichaíto. I never drink in my life.
I don’t know. I never felt like drinking, I never felt like smoking. I just didn’t want to.
Thanks Tonita, it’s been a pleasure. We’ll surely be back.