In this episode of the Western Wayne News podcast, Amigos Latino Center Executive Director Pavel Polanco-Safadit talks about the center’s work to engage and serve the local community. He also recounts his own journey from the Dominican Republic into the United States, creating a life of musical exploration, teaching, learning and adapting.
A Spanish language version of this episode is also available.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: I am Pavel Polanco Safadit. I am the executive director of Amigos Latino Center.
Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media, and the Western Wayne News in Wayne County, Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond, Indiana and longtime host of the Listen podcast, I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community.
My guest today is Pavel Polanco Safadit. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Pavel is an internationally known pianist and Chicago Music Awards nominee. As executive director of Amigos Latino Center, he’s dedicated to empowering the Latinx community to engage actively in Richmond and in Wayne County, and to promoting learning, cooperation and respect across cultures. Welcome Pavel, thanks so much for sitting down with me today.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: It’s a pleasure, Kate. Thanks for having me.
Kate Jetmore: Let’s start with Amigos. From what I understand, you have four major programs that you offer through the center, focusing on leadership, English, tennis, and basic needs. So if you wouldn’t mind, walk us through some of those activities, and I’d also love to know what challenges they’re addressing in the community.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Yes. Actually we have five major programs because we added a new one at the end of last year. So yeah, we have been in Richmond, Indiana since 1999 serving the Latino community and health, social service, education, and also cultural connections. So for us to be able to do that, we have five major programs and one of them is the Latinx Leadership Program that concentrates on the middle school and high schools teaching students social emotional learning and also college and career explorations for the high school and also college and career exploration in high school explorations for the middle school.
We also have the-
Kate Jetmore: Ah, okay.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: … yeah. So we also have the tennis program and we partner with the USTA, the United States Tennis Association of Indianapolis and we have three different groups of students and they meet every week. We have around 60 students in that tennis program. We have a basic needs program.
After COVID, it was very important for us to be involved in the needs of the families, even deeper and so with that program, we connect them to resources. It can be legal, it can be health wise, furniture distribution, food distribution. We have a toy drive during the holidays, you name it, we are involved in every aspect of it.
We also have a new program that is called VOCA, Victims of Crime Act. It’s a program that serve the Latino women who have been in a domestic abuse situation and the number five program, which is the number one, and that’s how Amigo began, is the English Learners Program. So those are our five major ones.
Kate Jetmore: Oh, that’s wonderful. And what I hear you saying is that specifically with the basic needs program, what you found was that some needs that were being met through schools during COVID, they were suddenly not there because the kids weren’t in schools. And so you started that during the lockdown, during the pandemic, and then has that program continued?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Yes, yes, it is very active. Very active.
Kate Jetmore: Wonderful, wonderful.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: During the pandemic, a lot of our families, they work in the restaurant business as waitressing, waiters and also construction so they lost their jobs. So they had no way to make an income so that’s when we began to really think about. We did it and in a small portion before, but then became a real problem and we have a person in charge of that.
Kate Jetmore: I love hearing the very practical way that Amigos is facing these issues because it’s so easy to have an opinion about things and talk about the way things should be, but Amigos is taking such an active role in the community and really providing solutions for people who need solutions. I’d like to turn now, Pavel, to music. You are a musician, so of course you’ve also brought some pretty exciting music programming to Amigos as I understand it, which is the perfect fit considering your experience of course and Richmond’s deep musical roots.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: That’s right.
Kate Jetmore: What new possibilities do you see opening up in the community when this long local tradition is complimented by music from other cultures?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Well, we actually, we are having an impact in the community because we have a festival that is called Amigos International Festival, and that’s when we bring live music from different part of the globe as well as different food from different part of the globe. During that festival, it’s free for the entire community and we get about 3,000 people there. So that’s an introduction, that’s a global music introduction to that community, which it is not exposed. So we are the wagon that brings that over there for the most part to the community. We bring the culture, meaning music in general. So I mean food.
Kate Jetmore: Right.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: They got food of different part of the globe in there, and that’s great, we have grown a little bit, but not music for sure so to the community, not to in a university where the student, no, to the community in general. So yeah, we are the wagon.
Kate Jetmore: Right. You know, I actually had the pleasure of attending the event this last fall. I happened to be in Richmond and late summer, early fall and one thing that I loved about it is that so often in the United States people talk about Latino, the Latino culture, but as you know, as you well know, Latino is a word that encompasses many, many different cultures, and that can be applied to food, as you said, it can be applied to music and it’s not a monolith. We’re talking about very different cultures from the Dominican Republic where you’re from, to Mexico, to Peru, to Colombia. So can you talk a little bit about how those different cultures come in when it comes to the food and the music?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: I mean, you mean during the festival?
Kate Jetmore: For example, or also during in the programming at Amigos?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Well, we have students and families from different places, so they’re already intertwined in the programs and they talk within each other about their culture, and we make sure that we also highlight their culture and different activities we do. In the festival, we make sure that we have food from those places. Not all of them obviously, but most of them and music. So that’s the way we connect.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah, yeah. And I can really see that in enriching the people who attend the festival just by being in the presence of that variety and that rich cultural heritage from all of those countries.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Yeah.
Kate Jetmore: So as I mentioned, Pavel, you grew up in the Dominican Republic, you now live here in the Midwest. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about not only the advantages, but the disadvantages of leaving your home country.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Oh, it’s been like around 30 years ago. Well, family for sure. Leaving that young and not growing all the way with your family, usually the Latino kids as well, most of they do, they grow around their parents. We don’t leave our parents’ house, so we’re pretty, until we are ready to get married or something like that, right? Forget about going to school and leaving the parents’ house. No, we’re still there, but I left at a very young age, and that was the first impact on my end. It was missing my family, but in coming to a different culture where I didn’t speak the language very well, and I was very welcomed, that’s for sure. And people were very patient with me as I went through that process. And I didn’t come to the Midwest, when I came here, I went to South Carolina and then I began to learn some English there.
I had for three or four months. Then I began at the University of Arkansas, and that’s when I began my undergrad in music, music composition. And then people there, they were super nice, actually, I just went there and play a concert this past February. It was pretty fun. Then I went to Kentucky after that because one of my professors said, “Hey, I got a job in Kentucky. You want to do your Masters and be my assistant?” I was like, “Yeah.” So I went, began Masters in Kentucky. And then after that, music obviously, and then after that I didn’t know what to do, and another professor said like, “Well, let’s apply and see for PhD programs or doctorate programs in music.” And I was lucky enough to get at the University of Wisconsin for that. And then I went there for a little bit, but throughout the process, I got so involved in this culture that for me now, I live in Indianapolis, in Indiana, and this is home for me. This is the longest places I have ever been in my life.
Kate Jetmore: And what are the parts of your culture in the Dominican Republic that you haven’t let go of? Even though you’ve been part of American culture and specifically Midwest culture for a long time, what are the things you’ve held onto?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Well, music. The music, merengue music, which I love, merengue, so I’m still put up with all those CDs coming up and everything. Also, I have not let go of, oh, I have not forgotten about the struggles of resources when I was there, because even though I got a scholarship to come here, I didn’t know that I was going to get a scholarship. And I went into another area of studies there because there was nothing in music.
So I have not let go of knowing how hard it was to connect, to do something bigger. So what I have done the past 10 years is I, with a lot of help, created a festival. There’s music, education festival, educational festival, Music Ed Fest. There is a great group of people here that help me out. We bring people from Mexico so we go there and the university closes and we bring all of these musicians from different part of different countries, especially the US and we connect them not only to the music resources of the universities there, but we have brought some students in here. So we, it’s like a music educational festival where they learn with these famous musicians and they teach on the stage and then they connect to them, to the students, meaning the musicians, and it’s an amazing thing. So we do that every year.
Kate Jetmore: Oh, that sounds amazing. That sounds wonderful.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: So I have, I knew they need to be some help.
Kate Jetmore: Right. Well, and I also wonder, hearing you talk about how you still feel and understand and respect the struggle that you see other people going through when they’re trying to build a life in a new culture. I’m sure that informs your work as executive director at Amigos as well.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Yep, that’s right. Everything is connected. Everything is connected. That’s right.
Kate Jetmore: That’s right. I see a lot of common elements at the heart of what you do, Pavel, both at Amigos and as a musician, of course, you know, you have to work. There’s a measure of discipline and preparation when it comes to rehearsal and studying, memorization. But then you also have to be flexible, you know, you have to be on your toes, especially as a jazz musician. You have to listen. You have to be prepared to respond or adjust to whatever comes your way. How do these skills help to strengthen our community?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Well, flexibility is a great work. And the work we do, and the work I do as a musician, as a jazz musician working in our community, that all for working for our community, that is very… The struggles there is very vulnerable. You have to have flexibility. I mean, there is nothing set in stone. I mean, it’s just, in music, let’s take the example of music, jazz. I cannot structure that. You can structure what’s there, what’s written, but what comes out of improvisation, you cannot structure because it doesn’t work.
So it’s both structure and freedom. For our community. Yes, they have some basic things. They might have a job, but they don’t make enough money on that job so they have a structure a little bit, but then they have to have the creativity, and that’s when we come in and help out. Hey, we have a diaper distribution. There’s a little help in there. Oh my goodness, wait, we have boxes of food. Yes, cleaning supplies, yeah, so that we provide that part of the creativity part of it that they were not planning on. Or sometimes they go, “I lost my job. I had an instructor cannot pay for my rent.” So we connect them to those resources. It was not part of their plan.
Kate Jetmore: Right.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: To have that, so we connect them to those resources so their rent can be paid for one month while they get back on their feet.
Kate Jetmore: It’s such important work. I’m wondering, Pavel, as we begin to wrap up our conversation, what can you say to people out there who are very interested in becoming involved at Amigos or who want to offer their help as a volunteer or in some other way that would benefit the community center?
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Yeah, well just visit our website, amigoslatinocenter.org and write to us.
Kate Jetmore: Okay.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: And we’ll be right there. Give us a call. All the information is needed there.
Kate Jetmore: Ah wonderful. Wonderful Pavel, thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Thank you, Kate.
Kate Jetmore: And I want to wish you and your family all the best.
Pavel Polanco Safadit: Thank you, Kate.