Williamsburg, Brooklyn today is the epitome of hipsterdom. If you manage to squeeze onto a Brooklyn-bound L train at rush hour, you will be transported to a magical land of plaid shirts, lumberjack beards, organic everything, bar-and-barber-shop combos, and zero-room lofts that start at $2,500 a month. But a walk along Avenue of Puerto Rico hints at a very different past. Luckily, that past was captured by economist and documentary filmmaker Diego Echeverria, born in Chile and raised in Puerto Rico.
With funding from PBS, Echeverria and his small crew documented the sights and sounds of what was a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan. Echeverria, from his home in Miami, spoke with Vivala about Los Sures, and how he sought to convey the strength of a community facing economic hardship and increasing gang and drug violence. Los Sures tells the stories of Tito, Marta, Ana Maria, Cuso, and Evelyn through their own experiences as men and women who had either come from Puerto Rico or whose families had migrated, and about their survival adapting to a gritty New York City in the 1980s. Over three decades after the first screening of Los Sures, as New York becomes a magnet for wealth in an increasingly globalized world and its neighborhoods change at the speed of light, the film is more relevant than ever before. Here’s what Echeverria has to say about New York then and now.
Why did you choose South Williamsburg for your film?
The challenge began to find a community to explore and document. I knew that I wanted to do it in a very personal way. It was a quest of finding the people who would tell me the stories, tell me their experiences along the way. I went to the Bronx and East Harlem. When I got to Los Sures in Williamsburg, from the moment I went into those streets those streets spoke to me in a very particular way. It was such a lively place. It was a community that was so coherent, that had such vitality. Yet, next to Manhattan it was so isolated. There was no doubt it was a perfect place. When I looked at the statistics, when I looked at the social indicators, it was one of poorest Puerto Rican communities in the city, if not the poorest. It was a community that really had something quite special. That is what you are seeing in the film. You see a livelihood. Something there that was quite unique, it was a community that had been there a long time. The people came together in a way that you would not see in other Puerto Rican communities.
Heroine use was to some extent ravaging New York’s Puerto Rican community at that time. Was it a conscious decision to steer your film away from that theme?
The drug was an important part of that community those years. We cannot avoid that. That was very present. [But] that was not the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to tell how people actually survive in a difficult environment—to see someone like Marta wanting to keep her family together and controlling the lives of her children, Tito doing all sorts of petty crime, participating in stealing cars and in selling the parts of the cars. But Tito was not into selling drugs or anything like that. He was not that kind of person. So although we see it—people smoking grass and having cocaine and things like that—that’s not what the film’s about. That was part of the reality.
The story I wanted to tell was a story about how people survive in very difficult circumstances and how they were actually building a better life along the way. The story that there was hope to get ahead was very important to me. In fact, among all the people we chose—although they were going through some very difficult moments at that time—Tito was able to never go back to prison. He never went back and never had any problems with the law. He became a person in charge of maintaining buildings in the neighborhood until today. He was a great father to his kids, a great son to his family, to his mother.
How did the rest of the characters fare?
Marta started working soon after we left Williamsburg. She was a working person for most of her life. Ana Maria—I never followed with her. She was older. Hers was a more difficult situation. Cuso kept on working all is life. Even today he works. He’s 74 or 76 and working. He has a beautiful family: wonderful kids, grandkids—I think he even has great grandkids. He has a beautiful family right in the neighborhood. He has a beautiful home there. Evelyn became mid-level administrator at Bellevue Hospital, so all very successful stories.
Williamsburg is very different today than it was in the 1980s. Do you feel nostalgic for that old New York?
When I look at the neighborhood, the changes have been so drastic. What I love seeing are those Puerto Rican and Dominican families that are still there. When I look at them, I think of the stories of what they went through with great admiration. It was a difficult neighborhood in those years. It has changed a lot. And many of those families witnessed all those changes for the best. And when they tell their stories, they’re beautiful stories. On how they remained there, how they saw those changes, how they decided to stay in the worst of times. And they’ve seen the neighborhood improve to a great extent.
I have to say that it’s not only a process of gentrification that took place. It was also the work of those community leaders. So yes, I am nostalgic to some extent. But on the other hand, there is a reality that one has to acknowledge: it’s part of what New York is all about — transforming itself. It’s a city that’s some sort of a chameleon. It just changes itself constantly.
What about those worried about displacement?
That is where community organizing plays a role. We owe a great extent to community organizations that played a key role in securing housing for those Puerto Ricans who may not have the incomes of the new people arriving, yet who secured a place to live and improved those buildings along the way. That is why community organizing is so vital and so important. Even churches play a role in creating programs for children and families.