Myrna Salazar, co-founder and executive director of Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, dies at 75
A native of Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, Salazar was a staunch advocate for equity and representation of Latino artists on Chicago’s stages.
Myrna Salazar, who co-founded the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance (CLATA) and served as its executive director, has died suddenly at 75, the alliance announced Thursday.
“To say that Myrna was a force of nature would be an understatement. She has been a leader, advocate, change maker and a strong voice for the Latino community on issues from education to the arts,” said Marty Castro, CLATA board president and CEO of Casa Central.
In a statement, Heidi Thompson Saunders, the board chair for the League of Chicago Theatres said: “Myrna’s impact on Chicago theater cannot be overestimated. ... Myrna championed Latino theater companies and artists from across the city and brought theaters from all over the Spanish-speaking world to Chicago.”
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Ms. Salazar was a staunch advocate for equity and representation of Latino artists on Chicago’s stages. She also was founder and president of Salazar & Navas Talent Agency Inc., which she helmed for nearly 25 years, representing hundreds of Latino actors on stage, in films and television.
It was “the only Latino talent agency in Chicago,” said Henry Godinez, the resident artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre and chair of Northwestern University’s theater department.
Her clients included actors Justina Machado and Raul Esparza, and actor-playwright-producer Sandra Delgado.
“She was very devoted to advocating for and promoting Latinx artists, advocating film, TV, theater,” said Godinez, who was a Salazar client for Spanish-language gigs in film and TV. “She was really committed to promoting the culture.”
A native of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, she moved to Chicago at age 10 and graduated from Wells High School. In 1966, she was crowned queen of Chicago’s first Puerto Rican Day Parade, an event threaded into the 2017 Teatro Vista production of Delgado’s “La Havana Madrid” at the 1700 Theatre at Steppenwolf.
The character “Myrna” was based on Ms. Salazar, who in real life spent many an evening at the long-forgotten Lake View supper club. She helped Delgado’s research with recollections about her crowning, the club and Chicago in that era.
“She was like, ‘Sandrita, I used to go to Little Havana Madrid,’” Delgado recalled Thursday. “‘The owner was the godfather to one of my children. I had my wedding shower there. I used to sing at the club.’”
Ms. Salazar connected Delgado with other patrons, and, “Everything broke open in the most beautiful way,” she said.
For four years, beginning in 2007, Ms. Salazar also served as the director of development and marketing for the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, which each year produces the Chicago Latino Film Festival.
Early in her career she worked as project director for the West Town Economic Development Corp. There she assisted small businesses in getting loans, which helped develop Paseo Boricua, the stretch of Division Street between California and Western avenues that is the center of the city’s Puerto Rican community.
In 1982, Mayor Jane M. Byrne nominated her to a post on the Chicago Board of Education. During five years with the schools, she pushed for bilingual education and lowering dropout rates among Hispanic students.
Ms. Salazar served on the board of Choose Chicago and the League of Chicago Theaters and was a member of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s cultural arts committee.
In 2016, she co-founded the non-profit CLATA along with the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA), the International Latino Cultural Center (ILCC) and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance (PRAA). CLATA’s signature program is the annual citywide Destinos International Latino Theater Festival, which will present its 5th incarnation Sept. 14-Oct. 16, and feature a variety of productions, panels, student performances and other presentations.
Describing the mission of the Destinos festival, Ms. Salazar told the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2021: “These are our stories, our own narratives and our own experiences. They aren’t influenced by a white director who says you have to look a certain way or have an accent when you speak English. We want things that show the value of what it is to be Latino, whether it’s through our history or the flavors we bring to the country. And to put that on stage, it’s very important.”
She got a bachelor’s degree from New York State University and also studied arts management at Columbia College Chicago and the Kennedy Center, according to her CLATA biography.
“She broke many glass ceilings,” said Jay Kelly, a spokesman for CLATA.
Always stylish and with a “wicked” sense of humor, Ms. Salazar enjoyed doing business over lunches at restaurants in Pilsen, Godinez said.
“She was like an aunt to me,” said Delgado, calling her “that old school Latina who doesn’t ever leave the house without full makeup on. She had the most beautiful skin.”
“Chicago has lost a force,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater executive director Criss Henderson said in a statement. “She was a woman who could command any room through her determination and fierce love for the arts. She relished in introducing some of the world’s most exciting artists to her beloved Chicago, and amplifying the work of our city’s Latino artists and theater companies. We know that the enduring impact of the Chicago Latino Theatre Alliance and Destinos festival will continue her legacy.”
Ms. Salazar is survived by her children Yvette Sharp, Iliana Romero, stepson Christopher Dovalina; four grandchildren; and her first husband, Florentino Mitchell. She was preceded in death by her second husband, Cesar Dovalina, former owner of the Spanish-language newspaper, La Raza, and La Margarita restaurants.
UPDATE: A celebration of Myrna Salazar’s life and legacy will take place at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 12 at St. Ita Catholic Church, 5500 N. Broadway.