His death was news, now his life is art

Joaquin Rivera performing on Good Friday 2003. He died in 2009 waiting in a Center City ER, then watch was stolen.
Joaquin Rivera performing on Good Friday 2003. He died in 2009 waiting in a Center City ER, then watch was stolen. (File photo)
Posted: March 15, 2014

Most people heard of Joaquin Rivera only when he died - slumped in a Philadelphia hospital emergency room while waiting for treatment that never came, then robbed of his watch by three drug addicts.

But others knew him for decades before that, as a compassionate high school counselor, accomplished musician, and devoted activist who worked to help others find their way forward.

Last month, a new theatrical production opened in New York, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who found in Rivera the inspiration for her work. On Saturday, scores of Rivera's friends and supporters from Philadelphia's Latino communities will journey north on buses to see his legend brought to life on an Off-Broadway stage.

"It's so emotional, it's wonderful," said Nilda Ruiz, president of Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha Inc., a health and community development organization. "His legacy continues. People can see that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

Rivera never saw himself as an important person doing important work, she said. If he knew of Saturday's pilgrimage, "he would be shocked."

The association (APM) has filled a bus, and the Norris Square Civic Association has packed another. Other colleagues are forming car pools.

About 150 people are going to see The Happiest Song Plays Last, the third part of a trilogy by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who grew up in Philadelphia and uses the city and its people as her muse.

The story of cousins Elliot and Yaz began with Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue, and continued in Water by the Spoonful, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2012. The play was recently produced by the Arden Theatre.

Happiest Song is showing at Second Stage Theatre, a venue that seeks to produce contemporary American plays that it feels deserve wider audiences.

Half of the new play is set in North Philadelphia and draws upon Rivera's activism and musicianship. In the play, Elliot and Yaz discover the joy of coming home and the importance of family, their story set to the Puerto Rican folk music that Rivera loved.

"He was a troubadour for an entire community," Hudes said from New York. "On Mother's Day, he'd go to Greenmount Cemetery and play at my grandmother's grave. He did that at baptisms, funerals, and weddings for my family. He was always part of the fabric of my life."

She loved his spirit, his kindness, the way his activism was integral, not a twice-a-year duty on election days. He was so present and constant that his death seemed impossible.

"My mom called me and said, 'Did you hear what happened to Joaquin?' I said no. She said, 'I can't even tell you, look it up online.' "

His death became national news, sparking outrage over crime and hospital care in a drama that occurred two days after Thanksgiving 2009.

Late on Nov. 28, Rivera, 63, walked from his home on Duffield Street to Aria Health-Frankford Campus, formerly Frankford Hospital, where he complained of pain in his left arm and abdomen.

He was told to sit in the waiting room. He died there, without being examined, 11 minutes later.

As Rivera sat dead, two men and a woman hovered around him, security video showed. One man snatched his watch and passed it to the other. When a witness went to get a security guard, hospital staff finally checked Rivera, 50 minutes after he entered the emergency room.

The thieves - Richard Alten, then 45; Jannira Walker, 21; and Martin Smith, 41 - were described by police as homeless drug addicts. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced in 2010 to probation.

Rivera's watch, a stainless steel Kenneth Cole model, was returned to his family. A state Health Department inquiry found the hospital negligent or deficient in multiple emergency-room protocols.

Rivera came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico when he was 18. He later started a band, Los Pleneros del Batey, for which he wrote and performed plena, the folk music of his island home that brims with social activism.

He played plena on the front steps of his Frankford rowhouse and at weddings, birthday parties, parades, and church events. His music was central to his activism, friends said, and he joined Latino groups in demonstrations on issues of housing, education, and policing.

He battled the city's seizures of North Philadelphia houses through eminent domain and wrote a song, "Philadelphia, I Choose to Stay in My Home."

He was a respected longtime bilingual counselor at Olney High School, which has a large Hispanic population. He was known for helping students reach for what seemed the unobtainable, some of them becoming the first in their family to attend college.

"You don't realize how many people he touched," said City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who spent hours talking with Hudes as she developed the play.

Quiñones Sánchez remembered Rivera's going door to door with her in 1999, seeking votes in Frankford in what would be a losing effort. And she remembered his hugging her, his tears falling, when she won in 2007, becoming the first Latina on City Council.

She still has one of his guitars, a keepsake with which she said she cannot bear to part.

Ruiz, the APM president, said that when she was an Olney student in the late 1970s, Rivera helped her get to college, while other counselors pushed her toward nondegree programs, which they seemed to think more appropriate for a Puerto Rican girl.

"He says, ' Mija, do you really want to go to college? I can help you, but you really have to want it,' " Ruiz recalled. "Had it not been for that moment in my life, where I was told, 'Yes, you can, and this is how,' I don't know where I would be today."

Ruiz graduated from Temple University and earned an MBA from what is now Eastern University. At APM, she supervises a 140-person staff and a $20 million budget that serves 40,000 people a year.

It's key for her "to do what Joaquin did for me, to open opportunities for other people," Ruiz said.

She recalled seeing him at Christmas 2005.

"Just look at you," he told Ruiz, squeezing her cheeks. "I knew you were going to do something special."


IF YOU GO

"The Happiest Song Plays Last" is being performed at the

Second Stage Theatre,

305 W. 43d St., New York City.

Box office: 212-246-4422.

Website: http://2st.com/.


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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