A friend hopes to immortalize Joaquin Rivera

Wilfredo Rojas is on a mission.

The longtime Fishtown resident is leading a letter-writing campaign to rename Olney High School after his dear friend Joaquin Rivera, who passed away last year.

Joaquin Rivera sings and plays a guitar in 2003 before the Good Friday procession. (Gerald S. Williams / Staff Photographer)

“I can’t think of any other fitting way to honor his life and unselfish work than to immortalize this great Philadelphian,” says Rojas.

In November 2009, after complaining of chest pains, Rivera, 63, died while waiting to see a doctor in Aria Health’s Frankford Campus’ emergency room. While he waited, his watch was stolen.

His death garnered national media attention.

While the hospital's practices were being investigated, three homeless people were eventually arrested for stealing Rivera's watch.

Through his death, the city learned that the silver-haired Rivera was a popular musician in the Latino community, rarely seen without his guitar. He strummed and sang a form of music known in his native Puerto Rico as bomba y plena. He often used his talent in celebration and in protest. And as a bilingual counselor at Olney High School, where he worked for 32 years, teachers, students and alumni remembered him as a someone who helped countless students get on the road to college.

For Rojas, his friend's activism deserves a lasting tribute. 

Rojas says last month he sent letters to school reform commission members and school superintendent Arlene Ackerman to rename the school: Olney/Joaquin Rivera High School.

To date, he says he's received no response. Although his effort has gained support from State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione.

Rojas is now stepping up his effort. He's posting on neighborhood blogs and writing articles in community newspapers asking people to flood Ackerman with letters and emails to rename the school in honor of Rivera.

“It’s important to send a message to future generations that we have to give back to our communities,” says Rojas. "Once you go forward, and reach your goals, you have to give back to others. And Joaquin did that.”