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Jose Pepe Flores, Loisaida raconteur and record collector, realizes his dream

BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK | For a number of years, Jose Pepe Flores, ethnomusicologist and record collector extraordinaire, dreamed about creating a Puerto Rican cultural center and sharing his extensive knowledge of Latin music.

“People used to come to my house to do research for books and music about musicians, records, arrangers, composers, etc.,” he said. “I have the archives.”

And 10,000-plus LPs, ranging from music from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands, jazz, Latin jazz, music from Africa, Brazil to even classical.

“It just happened,” he said, about his record collection. “I didn’t think it would get this big.”

Then, three years ago, the owner of the storefront frame shop in the same building where Flores has lived for more than 40 years, passed away. Flores contacted his longtime friend Lyn Pentecost, an artist, activist, visual anthropologist and curator, to discuss his ideas and help him raise money. She had recently stepped down as the founding director of the Lower Eastside Girls Club.

“I had just retired,” Pentecost said. “Curating and photography were always part of what I did, so I agreed to pay half the rent to get La Sala started, but I wanted to curate the walls. It wasn’t long before we partnered with Loisaida, Inc. and also received grants from LMCC [Lower Manhattan Cultural Council] and NYSCA [NY State Council on the Arts].”

In December 2022, La Sala de Pepe (“Pepe’s Living Room”) and Foto Espacio (“Photography Space”), at 73 Loisaida Avenue (Avenue C), between Fifth and Sixth Streets, became a reality. Its inaugural exhibition of photographs, which presented an historic look at Loisaida, featured works by Marlis Momber, Andre Cerillo, Maximo Colon and Charlie Rosario.

“I opened the door, and people started coming in,” Flores recalled. “It was a big success.”

And they have been coming in ever since, through subsequent exhibits or people just stopping by and hanging out. The “official” hours are Tuesday to Saturday, from 1 p.m. on, but unofficially, it’s another thing.

“Sometimes,” he said, “people pass by, ring my bell, and I come down.”

Jose Flores, standing, at far left, with musicians at a sidewalk jam session outside La Sala de Pepe. (Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock)

Flores transported all his records from his apartment’s living room to Pepe’s Living Room, which sports a comfortable couch, tables and chairs.

“We call ourselves a social club, as opposed to a business,” Pentecost explained. “We’re not only nonprofit, we’re like no profit. Nothing is for sale.”

“We don’t make any money here,” Flores added. “We try to keep it simple and honest because it’s for people in the neighborhood. We’re fighting cultural amnesia. It’s a fresh thing to have something like this in Loisaida.”

About three-quarters of Flores’s vast collection has been archived and catalogued, set up by New York University students using Airtable.

“Pepe knows so much about the individual performers,” Pentecost said. “We are downloading his hard drive, which is in his brain. Academics, grad students and others stop by to consult with Pepe. He’s really an academic himself.”

It was always the intention to have more photographs than paintings, Pentecost explained. However, they made an exception for Charlie Rosario’s successful solo show “Dedicated to the Drum, 50 Years of Art and Design,” which opened in February 2023. Rosario, a graphic artist who paints, “sometimes didn’t get the credit for the album graphics,” Flores noted. “Having him here in his wheelchair, diabetic, with one leg amputated, talking to young people was eye-opening for them; he is a primary source. We sold his paintings, but didn’t take a penny in commission. He really needs the money.”

At La Sala de Pepe, guitarist Kiki Cotto kicks back “on the beach.” (Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock)

Flores knows about needing money. He was born in Puerta de Tierra, near Old San Juan, in public housing. When he was 4, the family moved to Vega Alta in the countryside, surrounded by sugarcane fields. He began collecting records and books when he was 12. He was first interested in books, with records as a complement.

“In school, every year they gave me a stipend for clothes and books,” he recalled. “I bought records with the money and went to thrift shops to buy clothes. I was exposed to jibaro [Puerto Rican country music] at a bar, which bands went to in order to rehearse and warm up before they performed at a radio station.”

Flores, 72, emigrated to the Lower East Side when he was about 20, and at first “couch surfed,” he said, staying at various people’s apartments. He left his record collection in Puerto Rico and started all over here.

“There were so many record shops then,” he recalled. “You could walk out with shopping bags full of records for a few dollars.”

Music reviewers, like Vince Alletti, always had review copies to hand out.

“I listened to all of them,” he said. “I met other collectors; we compared notes. Sometimes if you had an extra copy, you gave it away or traded. It was a great community. I rarely sell a record, but I give them away, especially to the young.”

Flores was a teacher at Children’s Liberation Daycare Center, housed at P.S. 122 performance space, at Ninth Street and First Avenue. He taught there for more than 30 years until he retired. When P.S. 122 closed down to renovate, the daycare never recovered.

“We weren’t babysitters,” he said, of his 2-to-5-year-old charges.

The daycare was based on the Emilio Reggio model, more progressive than Montessori, and funded by the city.

“I was teaching them to cook, weave, enjoy music and movement,” he said. “We used the city as a learning tool. We were out every day, no matter what the weather.”

Pentecost was in Mexico in January and February, and Flores was away in February, visiting Puerto Rico and Cuba.

“I didn’t want the walls empty,” Pentecost said. Thus, “Pepe Dreams of Sunshine — a group photography show celebrating the warmth of our community” — was created as an antidote to winter, complete with palm trees, ocean views and folding beach chairs. The exhibit featured work by six photographers of scenes of summer. Some of Flores’s album covers were displayed, and photos of them were woven into a large collage.

“Kiki [Cotto] held down the fort and kept the doors open,” Pentecost said.

Cotto occupied his time by playing the guitar. Sometimes musicians dropped in and joined him.

“I’m grateful Pepe took me in as a musician,” Cotto acknowledged. “I serenade everyone. It brings the community back together. It’s a needed place for people from all different backgrounds and ages. I met a lot of interesting people here, and young people have such interest.”

The back cover of the “Salsa Con Estilo” (“Salsa With Style”) compilation album, the inspiration for the space’s current photo exhibit. (Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock)

In warmer weather, musicians somehow find their way here by word of mouth and put on impromptu performances outside the Sala to the delight of passersby. All musicians are welcome.

“It’s an inspiration to let others come to play,” Cotto said.

Two years ago, The Village Trip, a two-week festival that celebrates the Downtown community’s arts and activism, expanded to include the East Village. (The Village Sun is one of the annual festival’s co-sponsors.) Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday was commemorated at that year’s festival, though there were other themes, as well.

“We produced a short film that connected the Charlie Parker Festival and Jack Kerouac, featuring composer David Amram, Pepe Flores and community activist Howard Hemsley,”  Pentecost said, “and had a concert with many musicians and poets built around Parker and Kerouac.”

“When I saw Pepe again after many years,” Amram wrote in an e-mail, “he exudes the SPIRIT that is so special about N.Y.C., and reminds us all of our shared humanity. Pepe is a saint and keeps that flame of the Lower East Side burning bright. His place may be small, but his influence is HUGE! We are all lucky he is here.”

Last year the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington highlighted music and civil rights. La Sala de Pepe weighed in with “Jazz for Justice: A Benefit Concert for Keith LaMar,” who is on death row in Ohio. Many jazz musicians, including Arturo O’Farrill, Albert Marques and David Amram, are involved in the campaign to abolish the death penalty.

“La Sala is committed to working for his eventual retrial and release,” Pentecost said of LaMar. “We raised over $1,000 for Keith’s legal costs. I have been involved for many years in the prison abolition movement.” (See and

The photo exhibit — and the Ansonia Records disc for which it’s named — focus on classic Latin music “dance floor gems from the vaults: 1950s to 1980s.”

This year’s Village Trip, set to occur from Sept. 14 – 28, will celebrate the centennial of James Baldwin’s birth. The author and civil rights activist lived at 81 Horatio St. from 1958 to 1961. (In October 2015, Village Preservation affixed a commemorative plaque to the building in his honor.)

“We are mounting an exhibition about the Puerto Rican theater group Teatro Cuatro, which came out of M.F.Y. [Mobilization for Youth] in the 1960s,” Pentecost said. “They were the precursors/founders of the Latino theater movement, which launched many poets and playwrights.”

“People talk about the drug-infested neighborhood, which the system tends to highlight,” Flores said. “On this block, at 6 a.m., people were lined up to buy drugs, and cops didn’t bust anyone. But so much creativity was also going on here. It was a whole movement, with Chino Garcia and CHARAS, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the New Rican Village. That gave us a chance to learn, participate, have a sense of community. You felt safe. It was a thriving art scene, people reclaiming buildings. We wouldn’t have community gardens if the community hadn’t saved them. It was the first place I saw performance art, performeros, one of the places where it was born.”

La Sala is mounting a major exhibition, “Ansonia Records Presents: Salsa Con Estilo,” curated by Pablo E. Yglesias, which opened on April 4. The exhibition showcases the evolution of salsa, the Latin dance music genre, as seen through the perspective of Ansonia Records, an earlier label that preceded Fania Records. Ansonia Records, a New York independent Latin label, was founded in 1949 by Rafael “Ralph” Pérez, who was Puerto Rican. He named it after the popular Upper West Side hotel, where the record company often housed visiting musicians. The La Sala de Pepe show’s title is the same as the name of a new compilation album.

The exhibit showcases the label’s roster of musical artists and output from the 1950s and 1960s to the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, with never-before-seen photos of some of the label’s most iconic artists, like Arsenio Rodríguez and Mon Rivera. Genres like plena, bomba, danza, son, cha-cha, mambo, pachanga and música jibara, to name a few, were represented. Ansonia’s last recording was in 1990, but through digitizing of master tapes, these sounds and artists are now becoming available once again.

Flores, of course, has a treasure trove of vintage vinyl LPs, some of which are on display for the show. There is also a large-scale canvas print reproduction of the new “Salsa Con Estilo” compilation album’s cover artwork by Marie Watanabe, a contemporary Japanese commercial artist.

The photo exhibition runs through Memorial Day weekend, culminating with the Loisaida Festival on Sun., May 26.


  1. Natalia Spiegel Natalia Spiegel April 27, 2024

    This is so great to read about. Companero Flores is an amazing person and this is such a great contribution to Loisaida. I just wish they would eopen and resurrect CHARAS as well, make it a true community center once again.

  2. Carol Frances Yost Carol Frances Yost April 15, 2024

    Very important history! Just one note: You don’t “emigrate” from Puerto Rico to the U. S., because as a Puerto Rican you are an American citizen.

  3. Rachel deAragon Rachel deAragon April 9, 2024

    Hats off to Jose!!!

  4. David Messiah Stamps David Messiah Stamps April 9, 2024

    This l👀ks amazing! Definitely going to check this out!

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