Think Rita Moreno mixed with your favorite world-traveler aunt who brings you trinkets from far-away lands and mesmerizes you with stories of intrigue and adventure. That's Myrna Salazar, executive director and co-founder of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance ( CLATA ).
CLATA is in the spotlight this month, with Latinx artists from around the world joining forces for the second annual Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. Aptly named Destinos ( or Journeys ), the festival runs from Sept. 20 through Nov. 4. ( See sidebar )
"( Latinos ) constitute 44 percent of the student population in Chicago Public Schools and we have only two small theaters that have a home in Chicago," said Salazar. "Our stories need to be told. We have excellent talent, excellent playwrights. We want to generate new audiences." ( Chicago is home to Teatro Vista and Aguijon Theater, both dedicated to producing works that reflect aspects of the world's vastly varied and intricate Latinx cultures. )
Salazar has been on her own journey since long before CLATA was formed or Destinos was even a vision. She's been lauded with numerous awards for her work in the Chicago Latino community ( including kudos from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce ) and has been a panelist for numerous discussions on diversity and equality. Still, some of her most pivotal accomplishments come from facing circumstances as trying as triumphant.
Born in Puerto Rico, Salazar's family moved to Chicago when she was nine. Her first glimpse of Chicago was Midway Airport.
Salazar found joy in her new life. Her stepdad was a cuatro ( string quartet ) musician, a poet and a lyricist who performed regularly at weddings and quincenaras. Salazar loved listening to him play.
By the time she was ready for high school, Salazar wanted to attend public school. She no longer cared what the nuns had to say. For the first time, she found herself in a diverse student population, among young people with African-American, Mexican, Polish and Puerto Rican roots.
Did the newfound and exciting environment spark her creativity?
"No," Salazar said. "I got married. I married and stayed home." Being a wife and mother would have been the end of many typical stories for women steeped deep in traditional Latino culture in the 1960s.
But Salazar shattered the norm and recreated it as a beautiful mosaic.
"I come from a stock of very strong women," she said, crediting both her spirit and her upbringing. "Women are the driving force of any home whether you are Puerto Rican, Central American, or South American. We are the helm, the wheel, although much is said about Latino men being machista."
When Salazar married, she broke with tradition in a way that illustrated her fierce independent streak: She refused to take her husband's last name.
It was just as well: She eventually divorced her first husband, ridding herself of any further oppressive expectations. ( Her second husband, the late Cesar Dovalina, was one of the founders of La Raza, Chicago's Latinx paper of record. )
As a single mother of two daughters, Salazar found ways to earn extra cash. She put her strong Latina voice to good use by doing voiceover work. She tried to create a modeling agency that would cultivate Latina models, "but Chicago was not ready for that," she said.
She evolved the company she'd created with her own money into Salazar and Navas Talent Agency. For 25 years, she placed Latinx artists in important roles and vital positions. In a May interview with Voyage Chicago, She estimates that she helped more than 300 Latinx actor and models get jobs, often working with client base of more than four dozen Fortune 500 companies. Today, under new ownership, the agency continues to thrive.
Salazar has long been a connector of people, helping to create relationships among Latinx artists looking to create something original that reflects their lives, cultures and traditions. That's reflected in her response to someone who didn't know that the National Museum of Mexican Art was right here in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. "It's a gem," she told them. "You better go see it."
"That's what I like to be able to do, connect more people. It's something that I take pride in," she said.
CLATA reflects that: Salazar worked with some of the city's most influential and well-established Latinx organizations to get CLATA off the ground. International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago ( where she was Director of Development and Marketing for about five years ), the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance joined forces to create CLATA.
Ask Salazar how it feels to have touched so many peoples' lives and she responds humbly. "Don't let me be the center point," she said. The focus, she insisted, should be on CLATA. "It's the Alliance, these young people," she said.
For the full schedule for Destinos: The Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, visit CLATA.org . .
See related: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Destinos-picks/64120.html .