Puerto Rican Pop-Up Shop Celebrates 20th Year in Queens

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Néstor David Pastor

Salsa music is blasting onto a busy street in Ridgewood, Queens. A row of cars parked on the lot of a car dealership are sporting the Puerto Rican flag across their hoods. And tethered to the street lamp on the corner are three flags: the American, the Puerto Rican, and the rainbow flag of the LGBT community.

It’s windy this Friday afternoon, so each flag is waving at full strength. The chain link fence of the lot on 79-20 Cypress Avenue is filled with signs for The Wepa Spot, a pop-up store that sells Puerto Rican flags and memorabilia in the weeks leading up to the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade held in New York City.

It was twenty years ago that East New York native David Vargas decided to buy some Puerto Rican flags and set up a stand on Cypress Hills Street, just around the block and up a few streets from the store’s current location. Back then, David was looking to make a little extra money. But after selling out his inventory–and showing his wife Jennifer the earnings when he got home–The Wepa Spot went from a small stand on the side of the road to a six-month traveling showcase of all things Puerto Rican. 

The store typically opens just after Mother’s Day, sometimes a little before. It’s the first leg of a tour that includes cities such as Hartford, Chicago, Philadelphia, Hamilton, and Vineland, among others. This lasts from around May to October, with David and his crew working as vendors at various events. 

Many customers remember the original location and come back every year to purchase Puerto Rican memorabilia before the Parade. But after years of growing in popularity and reputation, the business was moved in 2010 to its current location, a lot that David rents from Cypress Motors Car Dealership. 

It’s Friday afternoon, two days before the parade. Customers park in front of the lot and greet David along with Tina “The Peanut”, a Bronx native, and Kenneth Quarles from Philadelphia. Tina welcomes customers and takes orders as Kenneth begins to dress car hoods with the Puerto Rican flag. It takes him about 10-15 minutes for him to install each flag, sometimes diagonally, across, or in other custom patterns. 

Car dressing has become the signature of The Wepa Spot, an art they have mastered which brings customers from all over New York City, including Long Island and New Jersey, year after year. Jonathan, a car owner, stops by to have his car dressed. Since getting his first car at 18, he’s been coming back every year the last decade to have his car outfitted with the flag. He jokes that one year he tried to do it himself, but that it’s a little more complicated than it looks.

Among the many loyal customers of The Wepa Spot are motorcycle and car clubs such as The Outlaws, the Rough Riders, and Popular Choice. The business also supports the LGBT community, something which began around five years ago when David noticed that no other vendors were selling LGBT merchandise at an event in Chicago.  

“None of the vendors had gay flags. My wife said bring them. I wasn’t sure if people would accept it, but we did it anyway [...] We don’t discriminate against our customers.”

As it was announced last month, the theme of the 59th annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade will focus on the struggles of the LGBT community and family unity. In this regard, The Wepa Spot has been ahead of the game. 

Later in the day, David’s wife Jennifer and their children Anthony, Eric, and David Jr., will arrive from New Jersey to help with the Friday night and weekend rush of customers. The business is open 24 hours a day as Tina explains. They also stay open until Sunday night, meaning they aren’t able to go to the Parade, despite providing many Puerto Ricans with the means to proudly display their heritage.

“My parents always showed me my roots,” David says. As a bass-playing salsero, he’s especially proud of the music collection he sells along with the other merchandise. Music booms across the street where vehicles will be lining up for last minute decorations, which includes flags, decals, and more. 

In the future David Vargas hopes to open a store. Next to the lot owned by the dealership is a former printing shop. The location would be perfect since customers from the area would know where to find them. But for now, the hustle continues.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 10 June 2016.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.