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 Alba waits for the 47 bus at the 7th and Washington stop. ALDÍA News file
Alba waits for the 47 bus at the 7th and Washington stop. ALDÍA News file

How SEPTA Route 47 showed Alba Martinez Philly’s Latino community

The bus and ride she took more than three decades ago is now immortalized in her song, “La Guagua 47.”

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When Alba Martinez first came to Philadelphia in 1985, at the top of her list of reasons for coming to the City of Brotherly Love was its Latino community.

“I knew that Philadelphia had a diverse Latino community because I had done my homework and research,” Martinez said in a recent interview with AL DÍA.

The other reason was to join Community Legal Services to be a public interest lawyer. Martinez was 22 and fresh graduate from law school in Washington D.C., where she also made major connections with the city’s own diverse Latino community. In addition to the music culture she learned growing up partly in Puerto Rico, she also added other instruments and sounds from other regions in Latin America.

“I ended up playing music from the Andes. I didn’t grow up with Andean music, and I was playing instruments from different countries and just absolutely loved it,” said Martinez.

But when she first settled in Philadelphia a month before she started her new job, Martinez had trouble initially finding the Latino community she had researched from her apartment at 15th and Pine in Center City. People she would ask about it either didn’t know or think it existed.

One day, Martinez decided to do her own research again and picked up a phone book, where she found the contact information for Taller Puertorriqueño. A man named Luis Hernandez picked up the phone when she called.

“Nena, girl, run to fifth street and get on the Route 47 bus right now and come up here right now, get off at Fifth and Lehigh,” Hernandez told her.

As soon as she hung up, Martinez did as she was told and took the Route 47 bus for the first time to North Philadelphia. The scene when she got off at Fifth and Lehigh right next to El Centro Musical is one she will never forget.

There was a band playing outside the famed music store, people mulled about and engaged in conversation with one another, and colors popped off the various businesses in the corridor. When Martinez made it to Taller, she went into its bookstore full of Latin books and art, and then had lunch on a street corner as a changed Philadelphian.

“In other words, that ride was my ride to happiness in the city of Philadelphia and I don’t have any other way to describe it,” she said.

“In other words, that ride was my ride to happiness in the city of Philadelphia and I don’t have any other way to describe it,” she said.

Martinez became a frequent rider on Route 47 as she would make frequent trips from Center City to North Philadelphia.

Professionally, Martinez would grow from a public interest lawyer into a nonprofit leader in the city with Congreso de Latinos Unidos and later with the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. After a stint with the City of Philadelphia, Martinez entered Corporate America as a principal at Vanguard, heading the retail investor group.

In 2020, after 13 years with Vanguard, Martinez left to reconnect herself with more artistic and culturally-connected work, founding Ritmo Lab — a music label dedicated to supporting Latinx community music and arts projects.

She also returned artistically to the bus that changed her life more than three decades earlier. Getting back into the music she lived for so long growing up in Puerto Rico, Martinez began dabbling with songwriting. One of her first tracks ended up being “La Guagua 47,” or “The 47 Bus.”

When she shared it with others, including Leo Gruber who ended up singing it, Martinez was surprised to find the story rang true for them as well. It may not have been the Route 47 bus, but the sense of belonging it depicted was common.

“A story of arriving, solitude, finding home,” said Martinez. “I believe that it is a sort of story so universal, you don’t even have to be a migrant to share that experience. We feel it when we move from town to town, from place to place.”

“La Guagua 47” was released officially through Martinez’s Ritmo Lab on June 17, 2021.

This year, as part of AL DÍA and SEPTA’s Abordo SEPTA collaboration, highlighting how Philly residents use public transportation in the city, “La Guagua 47” will be getting a dedicated community film project to showcase Martinez’s story and how the Route 47 bus connects Latino communities from North and South Philadelphia and contributes to their Latinidad within the city.

There are big plans for the project, but at the center of Martinez’s artistic vision is the importance of collaboration, which she hopes to do with a number of other Philly Latinx artists.

“La Guagua 47 will be ‘an artistic sancocho’ influenced by the creative contributions of diverse artists, media makers, community members and organizations in the Philadelphia Latinx community, and produced in a way that facilitates positive human interactions,” reads a project description from Ritmo Lab.

Those positive human interactions are something everyone has been lacking over the previous two-plus years not just in Philly, but the world.

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