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East WillyB: Web Series Highlights Divide Between Long-Term Residents and Hipsters

Flaco Navaja stars as Willie Jr. in the web series East WillyB. (All photos courtesy of East WillyB.)

“This is Bushwick, baby - where anything can happen,” exclaims Willie Jr., the main protagonist in East WillyB, the Bushwick-set web series. East WillyB is like the Puerto Rican version of Cheers, where everybody knows your name, but they’re not necessarily happy you came - and they’re not shy about letting you know, either.

The show’s second season, which humorously depicts Bushwick’s Puerto Rican community clinging to its culture and neighborhood in the face of gentrification - or as the show insinuates, the “oncoming yuppie invasion” - premiered on March 19 with a special screening at Bryant Park Hotel in Manhattan. The series, created by Julia Ahumada Grob and Yamin Segal, includes 12 episodes, of which only six have been filmed. A new episode will be released every two weeks through May on the show’s YouTube Channel beginning March 20, with the first two shows already available.

The six to nine-minute episodes chronicle the hijinks of Willie Jr. (Flaco Navaja) as he tries to keep his sports bar a float and tries to win back his ex-fiancé from his arch nemesis, Albert. The show also highlights the many recognizable quirky caricatures of Bushwick, represented by the primarily Latino characters, including the bodega CEO, piragua (shaved ice) purveyors, local artists, family drunks, sassy women, local beggars, salsa music lovers, as well as the unwanted “hipsters.”

East WillyB tackles themes such as unrequited love, family relationships, identity, stardom aspirations, sexuality, hybrid skin colors/cultures, fear of change, rising rents, entrepreneurship, and gentrification, which instigates a well-known divide between the areas “original tenants” and the growing new residents. The show is filled with the authentic sounds and looks of Bushwick, funny one-liners, well-developed characters and great establishing shots of the colorful 'hood we know and love.

Bushwick residents, as well as residents of other gentrified New York boroughs, will quickly see themselves in some of the token characters. Specifically, Bushwick residents will also laugh at inside local jokes, such as the proper way to refer to Bushwick (hint: not, East Williamsburg) or the silliness - or brilliance, depending on which side you’re on - of incorporating yoga in a bar (I’m looking at you Cobra Club).

The show does an amusing job of portraying greedy real estate agents selling small cramped apartments to young, non-native New Yorkers with the promise of being close to Williamsburg.

“I’m talking about the L train a block away, the JMZ two blocks away, Brooklyn Bowl, Meatball Shop and Williamsburg bars around the corner,” the creepy agent tells future tenants right before closing the deal by throwing in the ultimate “panty-dropper” - a kegerator. And also right before all three get pelted by eggs thrown by a moo moo-wearing, long-time resident hysterically screaming, “There will be no panty dropping in my back yard! This is Jesus’ house!”

East WillyB creators Yamin Segal and Julia Ahumada Grob. (Photo by Charles Diaz.)

Grob, who also stars as Ceci Rivera in the show, said the show’s target audience is the new generation of Latinos who are educated, identify with hip-hop culture and are between 25 and 40 years old. Segal, the show’s other creator and lead star Navaja, both said that the show is one that all U.S.-born Latinos can relate to, regardless of which ethnicity they represent.

However, East WillyB makes many specific cultural references, which if you’re not familiar with Puerto Rican culture (like me) means you will miss most of the jokes. The only one I got was the corny “Fake Anthony” name-calling referencing Puerto Rican-American singer Mark Anthony.

The show also depicts, and potentially reinforces, the divide between the different Latin American cultures in New York by overtly mocking Mexicans and jokingly threatening a Salvadorian in the first episode. “I’m gonna piss on you… I’m a make a road block, and the only people allowed in are Puerto Ricans. So if your flag doesn’t have that one white star—you outta here. You know why it’s white? Because it ain’t Mexican, playa,” [sic] a character tells Edgar, the show’s Salvadorian artist character.

As a self-proclaimed Texican (a Mexican-American hailing from Texas) living in South Williamsburg, one would think I’d easily identify with the target audience. Instead, I felt insulted and was reminded of the negative instances, albeit few, I’ve experienced from Puerto Ricans in New York for being of Mexican descent. I can’t help but wonder whether that’s the Puerto Rican consensus on Mexicans? If so, why?

I also felt as if I had to choose between identifying with either the Puerto Ricans, which are supposed to represent all Latin Americans, or the unwanted hipsters. If I had to choose, I’d probably choose the unwanted hipsters. And, as a hipster viewer, I’d probably also feel insulted with the show’s overt hipster-bashing. I understand these hipsters are bringing unwanted change to the neighborhood for long-time residents, but they’re also doing good things for it too, things that Bushwick Daily strives to chronicle while also keeping the stories of the original residents alive to demonstrate what a great and vibrant neighborhood Bushwick is because of all these mix of characters and cultures.

As Dave Wondrich, Esquire’s drinks writer, states in the March issue: “[At] least the YUTs [Young Urban Tradesmen] are neat and constructive, things the punks and the hippies and the beatniks before them were most assuredly not… Hipsters might be parasites, but at least they leave the host alive.”

As with many new shows filmed in and around Bushwick, East WillyB has been described as an alternative to HBO’s Girls, which was created by Lena Dunham. While Girls, primarily set in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, is criticized for being homogenous and white, at least it doesn’t directly insult particular races or ethnicities. Rather than broadly calling itself a “Latino story” or a show aimed at all Latinos, East WillyB should simply call itself a primarily Puerto Rican story aimed at Puerto Ricans. It doesn’t mean non-Puerto Ricans shouldn’t watch, but at least we have a better idea of what to expect.

Nonetheless, I think the show is professionally shot, especially given its minuscule budget, and it has a lot of potential to be turned into a longer series. And it’s always great to have different perspectives represented, especially minority voices. It can only serve to give a more holistic view, and perhaps will encourage other voices to come forth in the future.

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