This story was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Hispanic Heritage Month opened with a splash of color and pride at the premiere of La Guagua 47, a short film set to an original song of the same name by songwriter and producer Alba Martínez. The film was created in partnership with SEPTA, Al Día News, and Ritmo Lab.
The Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater was filled with Latino people of all different backgrounds, many of whom donned Puerto Rican flags on their clothing, to support the film and its cast and creators. (The opening was followed by a fiesta in the Kimmel Plaza.) La Guagua 47, which translates to “the 47 bus” in English, is about a young Latina moving to Philadelphia and struggling to find her comunidad in the city she now calls home.
SEPTA’s 47 bus route runs 24/7 from Fifth Street and Godfrey Avenue to Whitman Plaza. The route, the film’s protagonist, Alba (played by dancer Ashley Rivera), quickly finds out, connects Philadelphians not just to different Latinos and neighborhoods, but also to the feeling of being home. All she has to do is hop on the 47 at Fifth and Lehigh — in the heart of el barrio.
There is no doubt that the premiere was an empowering and highly anticipated night for the Latino community. Before the film began, the sold-out crowd cheered for a flurry of speakers, including host Isabel Sanchez from NBC10/Telemundo62; Leslie Richards, CEO and general manager of SEPTA; Jane Golden, founder of Philadelphia Mural Arts; Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Kimmel Center; and, of course, Martínez herself.
“To the Latino community of 1985, thank you for embracing me, loving me, and giving me a space to belong for almost 40 years,” Martínez said to the audience. “This magical community project called La Guagua 47 began at a time when I was feeling, once again, the need to belong. And once again, Philadelphia’s Latino community wrapped around me, helped me heal, and showed me that Latinidad is more than just a phrase.”
“It empowers us, it motivates us, it feeds us, it shields us, and it honors us,” Martínez said, which received strong nods all around.
The power of community
The community Martínez spoke of showed up for her before, through volunteering on the set of La Guagua 47. When crew members put out an open call for “anyone and everyone” to show up and help out, they received what they needed. While the film starts off centering its protagonist, it almost immediately jumps into showing just how important the community volunteers were in the formation of the centerpiece of the video: la guagua itself.
The bus in the film is made beautiful by a community’s love. Each community member plays a part in making la guagua a work of art, whether it’s by handing the decorations down a line or by adding the flowers to the top of the bus. The collaborative nature of it was seen behind the scenes, too.
The film’s lead visual artist was César Viveros, who is both a West Kensington celebrity and, more important, a Mexican muralist and cofounder of the César Andreu Iglesias Garden.
The trouble he ran into with La Guagua 47 was that he could not actually alter the bus, and all he had to work with were the measurements and his ideas. “I wasn’t even allowed to use [duct] tape, I wasn’t even allowed to drill, I wasn’t even allowed to build,” Viveros said in The Journey to La Guagua 47, a video shown before the film started.
Soon after, his problem was solved by a friend’s idea: using a net to hang all of the designs off the bus. From there, Viveros worked with the crew and community volunteers to piece together their vision.
It’s difficult to tell that there were any difficulties behind the scenes once the six-minute film takes off, going to show that La Guagua 47′s director, Pedro Escárcega, captured the vision beautifully. Watching the film allows viewers to feel as though they, too, were on set, and is especially emotional for those who may come from the areas shown on screen.
West Kensington residents will easily recognize Centro Musical and Taller Puertorriqueño, and South Philly residents will note the appearance of South Philly Barbacoa. 47 bus regulars will experience their usual journey much more colorfully as the video follows its route, passing through Old City and Chinatown.
The film’s last stop is a traditional Puerto Rican bombazo, showing everyone involved in the film dancing in the street and playing brass instruments, piano, and hand drums (or bombas). The final party scene is an explosion of joy, representation, and gratitude for having found community and family in Philadelphia.
During a live panel, Rivera would later say that she could not get the smile off her face the entire time they were filming. “People ask me, ‘How did you keep a smile on your face?’” she said. “I actually, genuinely had a really good time.”
Looking around the Kimmel Plaza, it became clear that La Guagua 47 means something significant to many different types of Latino people in Philadelphia.
Julia Ponce was running the merchandise table at the event and was happy to be able to help out her old friend, Martínez. “I used to be an activist,” Ponce said. “I met [Alba] through different nonprofit organizations. It’s very important that we get together to make changes for the better.”
If you have been to Feria del Barrio in West Kensington, or have seen any of the neighborhood’s live music performances, you would surely have recognized one of the premiere’s attendants, Isalid Cardona.
Cardona plays hand drums in Los Bomberos De la Calle, a Puerto Rican bomba and plena group. He also had a role in the film, playing the masked Vejigante, a folkloric character in Puerto Rican culture.
“I feel proud to be a recognized figure in the community,” Cardona said. “First comes family, then God, then your community.”
The premiere was also a night for Latino LGBTQIA community members to be celebrated.
José Serrano came to the event to support his friend Monika Polanco, who plays the unicorn in La Guagua 47. “They were really open to the LGBT community, so that made me feel like a part of it,” Serrano said.
Serrano and Polanco both came to Philadelphia from Costa Rica, and Polanco has noticed that the roles Latinas play in society are getting stronger and more diverse. “Latinas, we are set in this box that we only come here for reasons like to work hard,” she said.
“Being in the drag community and meeting all these Latinos that have been doing it has given me a different perspective of what Latinos are doing in the States, in Philly. We’re growing and showing what we’re capable of offering.”
Sabrina Iglesias is a communities and engagement editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.