SEPTA’s 47 bus connects Latino communities in Philadelphia in ‘La Guagua 47’

Hispanic Heritage Month kicked off with a splash of color and pride on Thursday night’s premiere Guagua 47, a short film based on 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 Latinos from all walks of life, many of whom wore Puerto Rican flags on their clothes, in support of the film, its cast and creators. (The opening was also followed by a fiesta at Kimmel Plaza.) Guagua 47which translates to “the 47 bus” in English, is about a young Latina moving to Philadelphia and struggling to find her community in the city she now calls home.

SEPTA’s 47 bus line operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from 5th Street and Godfrey Avenue to Whitman Plaza. The route, which the film’s protagonist Alba (played by dancer Ashley Rivera) quickly discovers, connects Philadelphians not just to different Latinos and neighborhoods, but to a sense of home. All she has to do is hop on 47 at 5th St and Lehigh Ave – the heart of el barrio.

There’s no doubt that the premiere was an uplifting and highly anticipated evening for the Latino community. Before the film began, the sold-out crowd cheered on a flurry of speakers, including host, Isabel Sanchez of NBC10/Telemundo62; CEO and Managing Director of SEPTA, Leslie Richards; Philadelphia Mural Arts founder Jane Golden; president and CEO of the Kimmel Center, Matías Tarnopolsky 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 told the audience. “This magical community project called Guagua 47 started at a time when I felt, once again, the need to belong. And once again, the Latino community in Philadelphia wrapped around me, helped me heal, and showed me that Latinidad is more than just a phrase.

READ MORE: The West Kensington Community Garden is a haven. Defenders are trying to give all Philadelphia neighborhoods similar spaces.

“It empowers us, it motivates us, it nourishes us, it protects us and it honors us,” continued Martínez, who received strong nods all around.

The community Martínez spoke of has shown up for her before, volunteering on the set of Guagua 47. When the crew made an open call for “anyone and everyone” to come forward and help, they received just that. As the film begins by centering its protagonist, it almost immediately jumps to show how important community volunteers were in shaping the centerpiece of the video: the guagua itself.

The film bus is embellished with the love of a community. Every member of the community helps make the guagua a work of art, whether by putting the decorations back along a line or adding the flowers to the top of the bus. The collaborative nature of it was also seen behind the scenes.

The lead visual artist for the film was César Viveros, who is both a West Kensington celebrity and, more importantly, a Mexican muralist and co-founder of the César Andreu Iglesias Garden.

The troubles he encountered with Guagua 47 was that he couldn’t actually modify the bus, and all he had to do was the measurements and his ideas. “I wasn’t even allowed to use tape, I wasn’t even allowed to drill, I wasn’t even allowed to build,” Viveros said in The trip to La Guagua 47a video released before the start of the film.

Shortly after, his problem was solved by an idea from a friend: to use a net to hang all the drawings off the bus. From there, Viveros worked with the crew and community volunteers to piece together their vision.

It’s hard to say there were any difficulties behind the scenes once the six-minute film took off, going to show that Guagua 47′ director Pedro Escárcega captured the vision beautifully. Watching the film makes the viewer feel as if they too are on set, and is especially moving for those who may come from the areas shown on screen.

Residents of West Kensington will easily recognize Centro Musical and Taller Puertorriqueño, and residents of South Philly will notice the appearance of South Philly Barbacoa. 47 bus regulars will experience their usual journey in a much more colorful way as the video follows its route, passing through Old Town and Chinatown.

“First comes family, then God, then your community.”

Isalide Cardona

The film’s final stop is a traditional Puerto Rican bombazo, showing everyone involved in the film dancing in the street and playing brass, piano, and hand drums (or bombas). The final party scene is an explosion of joy, performance, and gratitude for finding community and family in Philadelphia.

During a live panel, Rivera would later say that she couldn’t get the smile off her face during the entire shoot. “People ask me ‘how did you keep smiling? “, She said. “I actually had a really, really good time.”

Looking around the Kimmel Plaza, it became clear that Guagua 47 means something important to many types of Latinos in Philadelphia.

Julia Ponce ran the merchandise table at the event and was happy to help out her old friend, Martínez. “I was an activist,” Ponce said. “I met (Alba) through different nonprofits. It’s very important that we come together to make changes for the better.

If you’ve been to Feria del Barrio in West Kensington, or seen one of the neighborhood’s live music shows, you’d surely recognize one of the premiere attendants, Isalid Cardona.

Cardona plays the hand drum in Los Bomberos De la Calle, a Puerto Rican band from Bomba and Plena. Isalid also had a role in the film. He played the masked Vejigante, a folkloric character in Puerto Rican culture.

“I’m proud to be a recognized figure in the community,” Cardona said. “First comes family, then God, then your community.”

The premiere of Guagua 47 was also a night for members of the Latino LGBTQIA community to celebrate.

“We are growing and showing what we are capable of offering.”

Monika Polanco

José Serrano came to the event to support his friend Monika Polanco, who plays the unicorn in Guagua 47. “They were really open to the LGBT community, which made me feel like a part of it,” Serrano said.

Both Serrano and Polanco came to Philadelphia from Costa Rica, and Polanco noticed that the roles Latinas play in society are becoming stronger and more diverse. “Latinas, we’re placed in this box that we only come here for reasons like working hard,” she said.

“Being in the drag community and meeting all these Latinos who have done it has given me a different perspective of what Latinos are doing in the United States, in Philadelphia. We are growing and showing what we are capable of offering.

Acknowledgement

Work produced by The Inquirer’s Communities and Engagement office is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of project donors.

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