Next month, the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance will present the fifth Destinos Chicago International Theater Festival. But it will be bittersweet; the woman most responsible for making the festival a reality, CLATA co-founder and executive director Myrna Salazar, will not be there to see it.
Salazar died on Thursday, August 3, two weeks after celebrating his 75th birthday. And for the generations of artists she inspired, promoted, fueled and encouraged for decades, the loss is unfathomable.
“I met Myrna when she was very young and she was the kind of person that you had no idea that she would fight for you in the way that you needed to,” says Miranda González, artistic director of UrbanTheater Company, who notes that she first met Salazar . as a young actress when she was represented by Salazar’s firm, Salazar & Navas Talent Agency Inc. Salazar also represented actor Iván Vega, co-founder and CEO of UrbanTheater Company, and his wife, Melissa Gonzalez Vega, at the beginning of their races.
González ultimately decided to give up acting in front of the camera and pursue directing on stage, a decision that Salazar initially had trouble accepting. “I was upset because I started directing and stopped acting. She said, ‘I can’t believe you did that. It took her a little while, but once she understood that my passion was directing rather than acting commercially, she became, ‘So how are you going to be the best at it? How are you going to do this with the best? What do you need?’
“If I was in a room, she knew my entire resume. she would stop me [to meet people], ‘I’ve known her since she was young, since she was a baby.’ And she would give this person my entire resume that I had no idea she had memorized. She would give him the highlights of her and tell them, ‘They’re going to give you money.’”
Salazar, originally from Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, began her career as an economic development specialist at the West Town Economic Development Corporation. Her own resume covered marketing and advertising, as well as running her talent agency. (Among the artists Salazar helped nurture: Justina Machado, Aimee García, Raúl Esparza, and Nadine Velázquez.) Prior to co-founding CLATA in 2016, Salazar served as director of development and marketing at the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago (ILCC), which produces the annual Chicago Latino Film Festival (CLFF).
CLATA emerged through a Salazar-led collaboration between the ILCC, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the Puerto Rico Alliance of the Arts.
“I don’t remember exactly when and where we met because she is an icon in the Latino community,” says CLATA board president Marty Castro. “Many years ago, our paths crossed because of some effort and some initiative in the community, but it wasn’t really until about five years ago that she and I started working very closely, when I was invited to chair the board of the Alliance of Latin Theater of Chicago, which was his creation. It was her idea. And with the sheer force of her will, she forged together the alliance of our three largest and most distinguished Latino cultural institutions. I was proposed to be the founding president. I remember first thinking, ‘I can’t take on another project,’ but when they told me Myrna was involved, I thought, ‘Oh, I’d love to, because I’ve never had the opportunity to work. with her.’ And frankly, I learned a lot from her these last five years, working with her closely and seeing from her the vision of her, the passion of her and the grace of her that of her brought to everything that she did.”
Salazar was married twice. Her second husband, César Dovalina, former owner of the Spanish-language newspaper, The race, and La Margarita restaurants, died in 2001. “After her husband passed away, she told me: ‘I need a break. I’m going to take a little breakʼ”, says González. “And I really thought she was retiring, you know. But she went straight into the Chicago Latino Film Festival, like a year later. And I said, ‘I thought you needed a break. And she said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You know, this is just my new passion and this is where I’m at. And I want to be here and I want to support him and make this as big of a thing as I can.”
Part of Salazar’s story came to life in Sandra Delgado’s 2017 immersive musical Havana Madrid, produced by Teatro Vista and based on a popular Latinx nightclub that occupied the corner of Belmont and Sheffield. Salazar’s recollections of the club (which closed in the late ’60s as the neighborhood began to gentrify) were introduced by actor Cruz González-Cadel.
“Playing her, I will say it was a career change as an artist,” says Gonzalez-Cadel. “Personally, as an artist, putting myself in her shoes changed me. I was so intimidated when I heard I was going to play her, because obviously playing a real human that exists is always intimidating, but playing a real human that will be sitting in the front row?
“There was a moment on the show that she always tells me was her favorite moment. It was something that we found in rehearsal with Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who directed the piece. I walked in with a very small purse. And then, you know, I had to go into a monologue. So we found this moment: those were pre-pandemic times when it was okay to get close to the audience. And they were sitting at cabaret tables in the Steppenwolf 1700 space. And we found this moment where, as I was getting ready to do my monologue, I was walking up to a table. I would give my bag to someone to hold without words, I would just put someone in charge of my bag and then I would turn around and walk back to the stage. And when Myrna came to see the show, I gave her the bag.”
As I speak with González and González-Cadel, it occurs to me that Latino theater leadership in Chicago represents a matriarchy: in addition to González at UTC, there is Lorena Díaz and Wendy Mateo, co-artistic directors of Teatro Vista; Rebeca Alemán, founder and president of Water People Theatre; Rosario Vargas and Marcela Muñoz, co-artistic directors of the Teatro Aguijón (the oldest Latinx company in the city); and Karla Galván, artistic director of the Tariakuri Theater. Many times I saw Salazar in shows of these companies, both at the Destinos festival and on other occasions.
Showing up for her community was something that González (who is herself a prominent advocate for supporting work created by and for her neighbors in Humboldt Park) says Salazar always emphasized.
“He would call me if he wasn’t going to a show. ‘Miranda. Where were you? You know, I booked for you and Ivan and neither of you were there. She was just that person that if we didn’t show up for each other, she was disappointed. And that’s one of the things she taught me.”
With a broken voice, González says, “The way he enrolled people in his life, you really didn’t have a choice because you only saw the possibility. And he made me wonder, ‘Am I reaching out my hands to the next generation? Am I helping them make a way? She didn’t want us to go through what she went through. She wanted to make it easier for us. And I have to say there are a lot of people in this industry who don’t want that for you. You know, if they worked hard, you had to work hard. But her idea was, ‘If I can open the door for you, you’d better walk through it and you’d better walk through it with grandeur and grace.’”
This year’s Destinos festival takes place from September 15 to October 16 at venues throughout the city and is dedicated to Salazar. She is survived by her children Yvette (Steve) Sharp, Iliana (Greg) Romero, her stepson Christopher Dovalina, her grandchildren Ariela Romero, Andrés Romero, Gabriela Bibbens and Gabe Sharp, her mother Carmen Rosado Feliciano, her sister Carmen Salazar and her first husband, Florentine (Rosellen) Mitchell.
Castro notes that it is a tribute to Salazar’s organizational skills and work ethic that “he left us a Destinos that is 99 percent finished. Not only was she a public leader, but she was the kind of leader who would literally roll up her sleeves.” In addition to continuing the work of Destinos, Castro says that CLATA hopes to achieve another dream that Salazar had and that he had been discussing with her the week before her death: the creation of her own arts center.