By Dennis Taylor
A favorite childhood memory, says Juan Sánchez, is standing alongside his father’s piano, singing a Spanish-language version of the wistful “If I Were a Rich Man” from the iconic Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Life was good for young Juan, who grew up in Spain, in a family whose entire history had its own soundtrack.
His great-great-grandfather was the organist at the Granada Cathedral in Spain. His great-grandfather was a composer who played 17 instruments, and his great uncles were professional musicians. His grandmother and his father were pianists. His dad played by ear — no sheet music needed.
“I was a song-and-dance kid, and I’d also write really crappy poetry for my grandmother,” Sánchez recalled recently, laughing at the memory. “Whenever company would come over, someone would say, ‘Juan, come over here and recite some poetry!’”
“My mother called me ‘El niño de los buenos días, buenas tardes, y buenas noches’ — the boy of the good morning, the good afternoon, and the good night. I was the showtime kid, very outgoing. I would talk to a lamppost.”
No surprise, he grew up musical, touring the U.S., Canada and Spain as a singer, guitarist and occasional violinist, recording his own albums and composing songs.
And, oh, what he would do today, if he were a rich man …
Finding his calling
Helping other people’s kids awaken to a new passion is how Sánchez, the married father of three musical and creative kids, enriches his own life. He spends much of his time these days in a converted locker room attached to a gymnasium at Seaside’s Martin Luther King Elementary School, now home of the nonprofit multicultural arts organization he founded in 2015.
Palenke Arts is where he and his volunteer instructors teach multiple disciplines of art — currently 13 classes in all — to 225 students, more than half between the ages of 6 and 12.
Sánchez was one of four locals honored last week as “Champions of the Arts” at a gala event sponsored by the Arts Council for Monterey County. He was quick to share credit with “hundreds of folks who said, ‘We believe in Palenke Arts,’ (including) our teaching artists, volunteers, our students and their families, visiting artists and performers, our board members and, of course, the donors.”
Like Sánchez, who moved to the U.S. as an 18-year-old student almost 40 years ago, the vast majority of Palenke students are from immigrant families, a factor that has made the project a labor of love from its outset.
“It is truly exhausting, emotionally, mentally and physically, but when you see the positive results begin to multiply, that’s exhilarating and exciting,” he said.
He empathizes with the challenges they’ve faced. “All immigrants have endured indignities,” he said. He feels blessed by his own journey, which led him to Universidad Complutense de Madrid in the 1980s, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in English philology (written and spoken communication skills for workplace success). Then it was off to UCLA, where he obtained a master of arts in applied linguistics in 1991.
While his wife, Mayola Rodríguez, pursued her master’s at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Sánchez taught a service learning course in Prunedale.
“I would challenge my students to become a socially-conscious community participant, and I encouraged them to look toward the arts as an answer,” he said. “I’d say, ‘What are you going to do to make your community a better place?
“At some point, I realized I had not done that level of work in my own life. That’s when I started asking questions and connecting with people to eventually create this Palenke project.”
In Seaside, he saw great potential and a dire need in an ethnically diverse community.
“Touring as a professional musician gave me some insight into how much of an art desert the community of Seaside is, in terms of infrastructure,” he said. “What is there to do here at 7:30 at night, when many families are just getting home from work? Unless you want to go to Target or Panera, there’s not much.”
Elements of success
After researching elements common to successful programs, Sánchez settled on the following bullet points for Palenke Arts:
- Create a friendly, inviting environment;
- Surround students with bona fide professionals, people who make a living from their artform;
- Find a comfortable space, in close proximity to where they live;
- Provide snacks.
“We’re not yet hitting on all of those marks, but we’re really trying to create that kind of experience for all,” he said.
Sánchez also removed expense as a potential roadblock for students. The cost of the program ($100 a year for Seaside families, $400 for others) is waived, no questions asked, if a family declares itself in need of a scholarship. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School of the Arts students also attend free, a perk for which the school provides Palenke Arts with its permanent space.
All-star team of instructors
Palenke comes from the Spanish word “palenque,” a platform or arena used for different forms of entertainment, surrounded by seats for spectators propped with posts or stakes.
Kids have a wide variety of options at Palenke, including visual arts taught by painter Paul Richmond of Open Ground Studios, ballet folklórico led by dance instructor/choreographer Patty Cruz, jazz workshop with saxophonist Paul Contos of the Monterey Jazz Festival Education Program and a bilingual youth chorus conducted by Seaside High drama teacher River Navaille and Sánchez himself.
Also on the curriculum are beginning biolin taught by “Molly’s Revenge” fiddler John Weed, a beginning guitar class led by Flaco El Jandro, individual piano by Eric Rowe, AfroCaribbean percussion with professional percussionists Javier Muñiz and David Ríos, beginning trumpet led by Monterey Jazz Festival performer Felix Díaz-Contreras. Palenke also offers hip hop dance with Eddie Standifer, danza folklórica Mexicana featuring Esdras Rosas and Belém Mata, and Palenke Poppers/hip hop dance led by Quianna Summerhill.
Attendance has been robust, even through the pandemic, when Palenke families enthusiastically endured outdoor classes and performances in frigid weather.
“We’re very proud that we’ve been able to stage five different outdoor events for the community this year, all free of charge,” said Sanchez.
But his greatest rewards, he said, are those magical moments when students become smitten with an art form through their experiences at Palenke.
“I see them go into this trance, when they’re transported somewhere else; they’re not in this world,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this kid’s art isn’t going to be in a museum, but I’m watching his life being transformed in real time.’ And that’s not just happening year after year. I’m seeing it week after week.”
Despite grants from the California Arts Council and the Packard Foundation, support from the city of Seaside and the generosity of multiple donors, the future of Palenke Arts remains precarious.
Driving a slow bus
“It’s like being the driver of a very slow, methodical bus,” said Sánchez, a former CSUMB professor who only a few months ago became a full-time staffer at the organization he founded. “Some folks get on the bus, others get off. There are a million stops, and the bus isn’t as fast as I want it to be.
“We’re looking to expand our circle of supporters, because our goal is to create a truly vibrant multicultural arts center in the heart of Seaside that will benefit the whole peninsula,” he said. “The work continues, and this is how we can move forward.”
Additional information can be found online at palenkearts.com.
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