Casita Maria’s 80th Anniversary Exhibition Celebrates 10 of its Alumni, including Tito Puente, Tina Ramirez and Grandmaster Melle Mel

unnamed (25)Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, the first charitable organization to serve the Latino Community in New York, is proud to present CASITA MARIA: 80 YEARS OF INSPIRING THE FUTURE, an exhibition that celebrates Casita’s 80th anniversary through the life stories and achievements of ten of its most distinguished alumni.


From its origins in El Barrio, East Harlem in 1934 up until today in the South Bronx, Casita Maria has been a second “home” and safe haven to local youth and their families, offering social services, arts and education. Throughout the years, many “Casita Kids,” have gone on to become outstanding successes in their lives.


CASITA MARIA: 80 YEARS OF INSPIRING THE FUTURE presents the personal narratives and select objects from the following Casita Maria alumni: ALEXANDER ACEVEDO, internationally acclaimed Gallerist; JOE CONZO SR., Latin Music Historian; LORRAINE CORTÉS-VÁZQUEZ, 65th Secretary of State of New York. DAVID GONZALEZ, award winning Journalist for The New York Times and Photographer; GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL, Hip Hop Pioneer; “The King of Latin Music,” TITO PUENTE; TINA RAMIREZ, Founder of the world-renowned Ballet Hispanico; “LADY L,” LYNN SAUNDERS, Hip Hop Artist and Youth Educator; EDWIN TORRES, Author and New York State Supreme Court Judge; and DAVE VALENTIN, award-winning Latin Jazz Musician.


On view from January 21 through April 8, 2015, the exhibition will contain photography, music, costumes and ephemera that represent key moments or achievements in these accomplished alumni’s lives. For example, on display will be recordings and photographs of TITO PUENTE and DAVE VALENTIN, and other props and costumes representing the careers of TINA RAMIREZ and GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL.

Public programming for CASITA MARIA: 80 YEARS OF INSPIRING THE FUTURE will start with Casita Maria and Alumnus BENNY BONILLA’s 80th Birthday Party as the opening reception on Wednesday January 21, 2015 from 6 – 8 PM complete with music, food and party hats! Midway through the show, an IMAGINING workshop will be led by2050 LEGACY in partnership with The US Department of Arts & Culture on Wednesday, March 11 from 4 – 6 PM for all Casita Kids (current and alumni) to turn their dreams into concrete images and words. The results will be displayed in Casita Maria’s Youth and Community Gallery throughout the exhibition. Also, on Thursday, April 2, 2015 from 6–8 PM, DAVID GONZALEZ and Folklorist ELENA MARTINEZ will have a conversation about growing up with Casita Maria and life in the South Bronx from the 1960s through 1980s.



ALEXANDER ACEVEDO is a Gallerist and Historian specializing in 18th and 19th century American paintings, Old Masters and European works of art, Asian art, rare collectibles, historical items and decorative arts. Now in its 43rdyear, Acevedo founded the Alexander Gallery in 1971. Acevedo has shown artists from the world renowned Hudson River School such as Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William Harnett, Louis Remy Mignot, Thomas and Edward Moran, Frederic Remington, Gilbert Stuart and Richard Caton Woodville.

JOE CONZO, SR. is a Bronx based Latin and Jazz Music Historian, Tito Puente’s publicist and confidant and author of Mambo Diablo: My Journey with Tito Puente. He worked for Puente until his passing in 2000. Conzo Sr. works to preserve Tito Puente’s oeuvre directing an exhibit and archive on Puente’s life at Hostos Community College. He has written several publications based on Puente’s work including The Many Methods of Tito Puente. Conzo Sr. has a large collection of ephemera and rare live recordings of Latin Music Legends such as Charlie Parker and the Machito Orchestra and has consulted on feature films such as The Mambo Kings. Conzo Sr. continues to produce re-releases of Tito Puente’s music and is one the most important historians of his legacy.

LORRAINE CORTÉS-VÁZQUEZ, 65th Secretary of State of New York, has an M.A. from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, with additional studies at Columbia’s School of Non-Profit Management and John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Cortés-Vázquez is the second person of Puerto Rican ancestry to serve as Secretary of State in a State of the Union.  During her term Cortés-Vázquez accepted the resignation of Senator Hillary Clinton when she joined President Obama’s cabinet as U.S. Secretary of State. Cortés-Vázquez is recognized for her non-profit work serving as President of the Hispanic Federation and the Executive Director of ASPIRA of New York. She currently serves as Executive Vice President for Multicultural Markets and Engagement for the AARP.

DAVID GONZALEZ is a Photographer and Journalist born and raised in the Bronx. Gonzalez earned a B.A. in psychology from Yale University and an M.S. in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Gonzalez has worked in notable institutions such as En Foco and Newsweek Magazine. A long-time member of the “Metro Desk” of The New York Times, Gonzalez’s work focuses on New York City neighborhoods and how they reflect the larger social and cultural issues in America. He runs the acclaimed Lens blog and is a founding member of Seis del Sur a Nuyorican photo-journalist collective. He was inducted into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Hall of Fame in 2013.


GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL is a Hip Hop Pioneer, lead rapper and songwriter for Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. The group released hit records such as Superrappin and notable hits such as Freedom and White Lines: Don’t Do it. In 1982 Melle Mel wrote and released the hit record The Message later becoming the first Hip Hop record to be added to the United States National Archive of Historic Recordings and the first Hip Hop record inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Melle Mel is the first Rap artist to win a Grammy award for ‘Record of the Year’ and has appeared in various films such as Beat Street, Beat This: A Hip Hop History, and Wild Style.  As a founding member of Windows of Hip Hop, Grandmaster Melle Mel continues to be a prominent figure in Hip Hop culture and the Bronx community.


TITO PUENTE, known as “The King of Latin Music” was born and raised in Spanish Harlem. He earned his degree at the Juilliard School of Music in Conducting, Orchestration and Theory. In 1948, Puente formed The Tito Puente Orchestra and released his best-selling album, Dance Mania (1958). Puente has release over 180 albums with his most notable songs being Babarabatiri, Ran Kan Kan and Oye Como Va. Puente, a percussionist specializing in theTimbales, ushered Afro-Cuban/Caribbean sounds such as Mambo, Son and Cha-Cha-Cha into mainstream music. Puente has received 5 Grammys as well as a Latin Grammy for ‘Best Traditional Tropical Album’ for Mambo Birdland. He was inducted into the National Congressional Record and received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in 1992.


TINA RAMIREZ is the Founder of Ballet Hispanico. Born in Venezuela of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent and raised in New York City, Ramirez’s foundational studies are in Classical, Contemporary and Spanish dance traditions. She began her career with the Federico Rey Dance Company touring internationally. She went on to perform in the Broadway productions of Kismet, Lute Song and the television adaption of Man of La Mancha. Ramirez founded Ballet Hispanico in 1970 as an institution that explores, preserves and celebrates Latino cultures through dance and served as its Artistic Director until 2009. Ramirez was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005 and has received countless awards and honors in recognition of her work, including the Dance Magazine Award, the Hispanic Heritage Award for Education, Capezio Dance Award, New York State Governor’s Arts Award and the New York City Mayor’s Award of Honor for Arts & Culture.


“LADY L,” LYNN SAUNDERS is a Bronx born Hip Hop Artist and Youth Educator. Inspired by high school jams with classmate GrandWizzard Theodore (Hip Hop Pioneer and Alumnus of Casita Maria), Saunders started her music career with “The All Stars Talent Show Network” managing dance groups such as Unique Flavors, Sweat, Too Hype and Cotton Candy and the Rap groups, Cypress Live and The Come Alive Five MCs. In 1986 she was signed to Emergency Records under Apollo Management and recorded Ice Cream Dreams and Lady L Meets Emanon. Saunders has performed at numerous New York venues including: The Apollo Theater, The Limelight and The Roxy along with many Hip Hop Pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel and The Cold Crush Brothers. She was featured on the first music video television program Hot Tracks and appeared in the feature film Brown Sugar. Saunders is currently Casita Maria’s Middle and High School Program Coordinator.


EDWIN TORRES is an Author and New York State Supreme Court Judge. Torres graduated from Stuyvesant High School and attended City College of the City University of New York, followed by the Brooklyn Law School. Torres was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1958. As an Assistant District Attorney, Torres participated in the prosecution of the infamous Sal “the Capeman” Agron in 1959. Shortly thereafter, he became a criminal defense attorney. In 1977, Torres was appointed to the New York State Criminal Court and was elected to the State Supreme Court in 1980, where he is a judge representing the Twelfth Judicial District in New York City. As an author, Torres wrote the crime fiction novel Carlito’s Way in 1975 and its sequel After Hours in 1979, which was later adapted into a feature film released in 1993. 


DAVE VALENTIN is an award-winning Latin Jazz Musician and Jazz Flutist, born and raised in Bronx, New York. Valentin studied with musicians Hubert Laws, Harold Bennett, Harold Jones and attended Bronx Community College.  In 1977, Valentin made his recording debut with Ricardo Marrero & The Group. Discovered by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, Valentin was the first artist signed to GRP records. Valentin has recorded over 15 albums, combining the influence of Pop, R&B and Brazilian music with Latin and Smooth Jazz, to create a slick and accessible form of crossover Jazz. In 2000, he appeared in the documentary film, Calle 54, performing with Tito Puente and toured with El Negro and MioSotis. Since the mid-2000s, Valentin has been signed to Highnote Records releasing World On A String and Come Fly With Me. In 2003 he received a Grammy Award for the Latin Jazz category for the album Caribbean Jazz Project, with Dave Samuels.




“Our goal is to celebrate Casita Maria’s 80th Anniversary through our most enduring legacy– alumni who have gone on to achieve greatness. Through their successes, we hope to instill a sense of pride in our current Casita Kids for their community’s history as well as inspire them to set their aspirations even beyond what their imaginations can reach,” explained Christine Licata, Curator and Director of Performing and Visual Arts at Casita Maria.


“Every year Casita brings hope and opportunity to the over 1,500 young students in our in-school and after-school education programs. We also run a major performing and visual arts program for the community. Almost anyone you talk to in the South Bronx and East Harlem communities will tell you about Casita; explaining how their family was helped, how doors were opened, how their life was changed by this organization. We hope CASITA MARIA: 80 YEARS OF INSPIRING THE FUTURE will engage our audiences with the history of Casita and the legacy of some of the great figures who have emerged from our community,” explained Sarah Calderon, Executive Director at Casita Maria.


Casita Maria Gallery

928 Simpson Street,
6th Floor Bronx, NY 10459


Gallery Hours

Mon-Fri: 10 AM – 6 PM

Sat-Sun: By appointment






January 21 – April 8, 2015



Wed., January 21, 2015 from 6 – 8 PM



LED BY 2050 LEGACY in partnership with The US Department of Arts & Culture

Wed., March 11, 2015 from 4 – 6 PM



Thurs., April 2, 2015 from 6 – 8 PM




CASITA MARIA CENTER FOR ARTS & EDUCATION is an 80-year old South Bronx-based community arts and educational organization that presents diverse, contemporary visual and performing arts and education programming for all ages.


Casita Maria’s Gallery‘s exhibitions and public programs are supported by the Ford Foundation and public funding from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts.


Photos: Left: Casita Maria Alumnus, Tito Puente as a Boy Scout, 1934. Right: Official photo commemorating his star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame,” 1990, photographer Martin Cohen. Images courtesy of Joe Conzo, Sr. Archives.

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