Remembering Myrna Salazar 1947-2022 – Chicago Reader
Next month, the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance will present the fifth annual Destinos Chicago International Theater Festival. But it will be bittersweet; the woman most responsible for making the festival happen, CLATA co-founder and executive director Myrna Salazar, won’t be there to see it.
Salazar died Thursday, August 3, two weeks after celebrating her 75th birthday. And for the generations of artists she has inspired, promoted, nudged and nurtured over the decades, the loss seems unfathomable.
“I met Myrna when I was very young and she was the kind of person you had no idea would fight for you the way you needed,” says Miranda González, artistic director of ‘UrbanTheater Company, which notes that she first met Salazar. as a young actress when represented by Salazar’s company, Salazar & Navas Talent Agency Inc. Salazar also represented actor Ivan Vega, co-founder and executive director of UrbanTheater Company, and his wife, Melissa Gonzalez Vega, at the start of their career.
González eventually decided not to act on camera anymore and to direct on stage – a decision that Salazar initially found difficult to accept. “She was upset that I got into directing and I stopped acting. She was like, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ It took her a little while, but once she realized my passion was directing rather than commercial comedy, it became, ‘So how are you going to be the best at this? you do this with the best? What do you need?’
“If I was in a room, she knew all my curriculum vitae. She would shoot me [to meet people], ‘I’ve known her since she was young, since she was a baby.’ And she would give that person my entire resume that I had no idea she had memorized. She was giving him the highlights and she was like, ‘You’re going to give him money.’ »
Salazar, a Puerto Rican native who grew up in Chicago, began his career as an economic development specialist at the West Town Economic Development Corporation. His own resume encompassed marketing and advertising, as well as managing his talent agency. (Among the artists Salazar helped nurture: Justina Machado, Aimee Garcia, Raul Esparza, and Nadine Velazquez.) 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 was born out of a Salazar-led collaboration between the ILCC, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance.
“I don’t remember exactly when or where we met because she’s an icon in the Latino community,” says Marty Castro, chairman of CLATA’s board of directors. “Many years ago our paths crossed due to efforts and initiatives in the community, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that she and I started working very closely together when I was invited to chair the board of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, which was his brainchild. It was his idea. And with sheer force of will, she forged together the alliance of our three most important and distinguished Latin American cultural institutions. I was approached to be the founding president. I remember thinking at first, ‘I can’t do another project’, but when they told me Myrna was involved, I was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to, because I don’t have never had the opportunity to work with her.’ And frankly, I’ve learned so much from her over the past five years, working closely with her and seeing her vision, her passion, and the grace she brings to everything she does.
Salazar has been married twice. Her second husband, Cesar Dovalina, former owner of the Spanish-language newspaper, La Raza, and La Margarita restaurants, died in 2001. “After her husband passed away, she said to me, ‘I need a break. I’m going to take a little break,” González said. “And I really thought she was retiring, you know. But she went straight to the Chicago Latino Film Festival, like a year later. And I said to him, ‘I thought you needed a break.’ And she was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You know, it’s just my new passion and that’s where I’m at. And I want to be here and I want to support it and make it as big as possible. »
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 memorabilia from the club (which closed in the late ’60s as the neighborhood began to gentrify) was delivered by actor Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel.
“Playing it, I would say, changed my career as an artist,” Gonzalez-Cadel says. “Personally, as an artist, putting myself in her shoes has changed me. I was so intimidated when I heard I was going to portray her, because obviously, playing a real human who exists is always intimidating, but playing a real human who is going to be seated in the front row?
“There was a moment on the show that she always told me was her favorite moment. It was something we found in rehearsal with Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who directed the piece. I came up with a very small purse. And then, you know, I had to get into a monologue. So we found this moment – it was a pre-pandemic period when it was okay to approach the public. And they were sat at little cabaret tables at the Steppenwolf 1700 space. And we found this moment when, as I was about to do my monologue, I approached a table. I gave my purse to someone ‘one for him to hold without a word, I would just put someone in charge of my purse, then I would turn around and come back on stage. And when Myrna came to see the show, I gave her the stock Exchange.
As I talk to González and Gonzalez-Cadel, it comes to mind that running the Latinx Theater in Chicago represents a matriarchy: in addition to González at UTC, there are Lorena Diaz 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 Teatro Aguijón (the oldest Latinx company in the city); and Karla Galván, artistic director of Teatro Tariakuri. I have often seen Salazar at the shows of these companies, both during the Destinos festival and at other times.
Showing up for your community was something González (who herself is a strong advocate for supporting work created by and for her neighbors in Humboldt Park) says Salazar always emphasized.
“She would call me if I wasn’t going to a show. ‘Miranda. Where have you been? You know, I made reservations for you and for Ivan and you two weren’t 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.
Voice captivating, González says, “The way she enlisted people into her life, you really had no choice because you only saw the possibility. And it made me wonder, ‘Am I reaching out to the next generation? Am I helping them find their way? She didn’t want us to go through what she went through. She wanted it to be 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 his idea was, “If I can open the door for you, you better go through and you better go through with greatness and grace.” »
This year’s Destinos Festival runs from September 15 to October 16 at venues across 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, Florentino (Rosellen) Mitchell.
Castro notes that it’s a tribute to Salazar’s organizational skills and work ethic that “she left us a Destinos that is 99% complete. She was not only a public leader, but she was the kind of leader who would literally roll up her sleeves. In addition to continuing Destinos’ work, Castro says CLATA hopes to fulfill another dream that Salazar had, and discussed with her the week before his death: creating their own arts center.