Headshot of Myrna Salazar wearing a black jacket and a light patterned scarf. She has light hair and is looking slightly off-center to the camera.
Myrna Salazar Credit: Joe Mazza/Bravelux

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 a reality, CLATA cofounder and executive director Myrna Salazar, won’t be there to see it.

Salazar died on Wednesday, August 3, two weeks after celebrating her 75th birthday. And for the generations of artists she inspired, promoted, prodded, and encouraged over the decades, the loss feels unfathomable. 

“I met Myrna when I was very young and she was the kind of person that you had no idea would fight for you in the way that you needed,” says Miranda González, artistic director of UrbanTheater Company, who notes that she first met Salazar as a young actor when she was represented by Salazar’s firm, Salazar & Navas Talent Agency Inc. Salazar also represented actor Ivan Vega, cofounder and executive director of UrbanTheater Company, and his wife, Melissa Gonzalez Vega, early in their careers.

González eventually decided to move out of acting on camera and into directing onstage—a decision that Salazar had trouble accepting initially. “She was upset that I went into directing and I stopped acting. She was like, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ It took her a bit, but once she understood my passion was directing rather than commercial acting, it became, ‘So then how are you gonna be the best at it? How are you gonna do this with the best? What do you need?’ 

“If I was in a room, she knew my entire résumé. She would pull me over [to meet people], ‘I have known her since she was young, since she was a baby.’ And she would give this person my entire résumé that I had no idea that she had memorized. She would give him the highlights and she would tell them, ‘You’re gonna give her money.ʼ” 

Salazar, a native of Puerto Rico who was raised in Chicago, began her career as an economic development specialist at the West Town Economic Development Corporation. Her own résumé encompassed marketing and advertising, along with running her talent agency. (Among the artists Salazar helped nurture: Justina Machado, Aimee Garcia, Raul Esparza, and Nadine Velazquez.) Prior to cofounding 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 came about through a collaboration spearheaded by Salazar among ILCC, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance

“I don’t recall exactly when and where we met because she’s an icon in the Latino community,” says CLATA board president Marty Castro. “Many years ago, our paths crossed on some effort and some initiative in the community, but it wasn’t really until five years ago or so that she and I began to work very closely together, when I was invited to chair the board of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, which was her brainchild. 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 approached to be the founding chair. I remember first thinking, ‘I can’t take on another project,’ but when they told me that Myrna was involved, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’d love to, because I’ve never had a chance to work with her.’ And frankly, I learned so much from her these last five years, working with her closely, and seeing her vision and her passion and the grace that she brought to everything she did.”

Salazar was 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 told me, ‘I need a break. I’m gonna take a little break,ʼ” says González. “And I really thought she was retiring, you know. But she went right into the Chicago Latino Film Festival, like a year later. And I said to her, ‘I thought you needed a break.’ And she was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You know, this is just my new passion and this is where I’m at. And I wanna be here and I want to support it and make this something as big as I can make it.ʼ”

Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Myrna Salazar in Teatro Vista’s 2017 production of La Havana Madrid by Sandra Delgado Credit: Joel Maisonet

Some of Salazar’s story came to life in Sandra Delgado’s 2017 immersive musical La Havana Madrid, produced by Teatro Vista and based on a popular Latinx nightclub that occupied the corner of Belmont and Sheffield. Salazar’s remembrances of the club (which closed down in the late 60s as the neighborhood began gentrifying) were delivered by actor Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. 

“Playing her, I will say it was career-changing as an artist,” says Gonzalez-Cadel. “Personally as an artist, stepping into her shoes changed me. I was so intimidated when I heard I was gonna portray her, because obviously, playing a real human that exists is always intimidating, but playing a real human who is gonna be sitting in the front row?

“There was a moment in 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 came in carrying a very small purse. And then, you know, I had to go into a monologue. So we found this moment—this was pre-pandemic times when it was OK to approach the audience. And they were sitting at little cabaret tables at the Steppenwolf 1700 space. And we found this moment where, as I was getting ready to do my monologue, I would approach a table. I would give my purse to someone to hold it without any words, just put someone in charge of my purse and then turn around and go back on stage. And when Myrna came to see the show, I gave her the purse.”

As I talk to González and Gonzalez-Cadel, it occurs to me that Latinx theater leadership in Chicago represents a matriarchy: In addition to González at UTC, there’s Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo, co-artistic directors for Teatro Vista; Rebeca Alemán, founder and president of Water People Theater; Rosario Vargas and Marcela Muñoz, co-artistic directors for Aguijón Theater (the oldest Latinx company in the city); and Karla Galván, artistic director at Teatro Tariakuri. I often saw Salazar at shows by these companies, both during the Destinos festival and at other times.

Showing up for your community was something that González (who is herself a prominent advocate in supporting work created by and for her neighbors in Humboldt Park) says Salazar always emphasized. 

“She would call me if I did not go to a show. ‘Miranda. Where were you? You know, I reserved for you and for Ivan and you both were not there.’ She was just that person that if we did not show up for each other, she was disappointed. And that is one of the things that she taught me.”

Her voice catching, González says, “The way she just enrolled people in her life, you really didn’t have a choice because you only saw the possibility. And she made me ask myself, ‘Am I extending my hands to the next generation? Am I helping them make a way? She did not want us to go through what she went through. She wanted it to be easier for us. And I have to say that there are many people in this industry that 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 better walk through and you better walk through with greatness and grace.ʼ”

This year’s Destinos festival takes place September 15-October 16 at venues throughout the city, and is dedicated to Salazar. She is survived by her children Yvette (Steve) Sharp, Iliana (Greg) Romero, stepson Christopher Dovalina, 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 with a Destinos that is 99 percent done. She was not only a public leader, but she was the kind of leader that would literally roll up her sleeves.” In addition to continuing with 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 establishment of their own arts center.