Willie's Tavern on a winter Saturday afternoon has the football game on the TV, a raucous number on the jukebox and a crowd at the bar and at the pool table. It is a typical New Jersey neighborhood bar but for the nieghborhood it serves is the Puerto Rican town called Aibonito.
Wilfredo (Willie) Rivera sits at the bar gluing a broken pool cue. His uncle, Wilbert Rivera, watches. His brother, Eliu Rivera, drops in. The talks is quick and friendly, in two languages about two cities - Aibonito and Jersey City.
Aibonitenas, as they call themselves, have forged a special relationship between the two cities over almost four decades.
"Aibonito is right here, marked by the green banana," Willie says, pointing to an illuminated map of Puerto Rico hanging on the wall courtesy of Schaefer Beer. Illuminated fish and boats dot the water, and the banana marks the inland town next to the word Aibonito.
Many Puerto Rican communities in the United States originally were formed in the 1940s and 1950s on kinship and village ties from the island. Most of these communities, however, have become diffused as years passed, and in this they followed the pattern of previous immigrant waves.
But the ties between Aibonito and Jersey City remain strong.
Benjamin Lopez who arrived in 1959 estimates that half the 20,000 people living in Aibonito have been to Jersey City at one time or another to visit the 8,000 Aibonitenas and other Puerto Ricans living in Jersey City.
On a drive through downtown Jersey City, Lopez points out the grocery stores, taverns and shops owned by Aibonitenas. "About 80 per cent of the shops in theis neighborhood are Aibonitenas," Lopez said.
A policeman enters Willie's Tavern and is asked about Aibonito. He went there on his honeymoon at the urging of Puerto Rican friends. "You ought to go, man," he advises.
"it one of the coolest places in Puerto Rico. Very high. Very beautiful," Lopez says and the assembled Aiboniteans nod agreement. But it isn't able to support its people on banana growing and its few light industries so its people have joined the migrantion to the United States that has made so many parts of New York and other American cities displaced Caribbean towns.
"Everyone comes with a dream of working and making money and then going back, at least to be buried there, Lopez said.
Willie makes clear quickly that he's an exception. "I can stay down there a month, but no more," he said. "After 9 p.m. there's nothing open in Aibonito; there's nothing to do." But his father and mother have gone back after running a Jersey City grocery store for 25 years and Willie makes two short visits each year.
The crowd at Willie's is middle class. The conversation is of small businesses, jobs and families. "We're most of us related in one way or another,' Lopez said, gesturing to the men listening at the bar.Some Aiboniteans, he adds later, have made it big and moved out of downtown Jersey City to the better residential areas. They don't stop by bars like Willie's anymore.
No one is certain how the Aibonito-Jersey City link was established.Former Aibonito Mayor Leo Gonzales said that Aibonitenas driven from the island in search of jobs in the early 1940s like Jersey City because it "reminded them of Puerto Rico."
Gonzales, who runs a restaurant in Aibonito, said in a telephone interview, "They wanted to establish a place where they could live as they did in Puerto Rico. At that time Jersey City was a little like Puerto Rico. There were no big buildings and not so many cars."
One of the high points in Aibonito-Jersey City relations came with an exchange of visits by the mayors of the two cities in 1974, Gonzales said.
The present mayor, Francisco Santos, who defeated Gonzales last year, said he has never been to Jersey City, "but I'm looking forward to a trip."
"As a matter of fact," the mayor added, "I am planning a trip to Washington to the Department of Commerce to try to get some money. After Washington I'll visit Jersey City."
Sports also link Aibonito, one of them illegal.
Men returning from visits to Aibonito would sometimes feed knockout drops to fighting cocks and carry the unconscious birds in suitcases to Jersey City. The coskfights - which are illegal in New Jersey and most states - "got too popular," Rivera said.
Police noticed the crowds and one day a raid caught 119 people, not all of whom, Lopez is quick to add, were Aibonitenas.
In place of cockfights, the Aibonitenas are busy organizing six bowling teams to take down to Puerto Rico for matches against home teams. The only problem is that Aibonito doesn't have a bowling alley so it will not be one of the towns they challenge.
In Willie's Tavern the talk is also of Aibonito's new professional basketball franchise in the Puerto Rican League. Recruiters came up to Jersey City when the team was forming and tyouts were held in a local tym.
Eliu Rivera, Willie's brother, ran for the city council this year, hoping for a victory based on the Puerto Rican vote in Jersey City.
Lopez was his campaign manager and between their two families they had 240 registered voters. But Rivera lost.
The experience, however, has encouraged the Aibonitenas to prepare for future campaigns. No Puerto Rican has been elected to the city council.
The Sociadad Fraternal Aibonitena, Inc., was founded in 1958 when there were only one or two thousand people from Aibonito in Jersey City. It collapsed a couple of times over the years, but Lopez, the Riveras and others are working hard to bring it back.
They have bought and are rehabilitating an old building that once housed a funeral parlor as the social and political headquarters of the association. They plan to provide business advice to people trying to get started in Jersey city and to help new arrivals finds housing.
Over the music from the jukebox and the football announcer's voice from the color television, a visitor asked at Willie's Tavern what the December temperature was in Aibonito.
"it's about 85 now, but you have to wear a sweater at night," Lopez said. "From the mountains you can see the sea.'