Myrna Salazar changed Chicago theater stages for the better

Everyone should check out the Destinos International Latino Theater Festival in memory of Salazar to see how she helped grace Chicago stages with cultural richness and diversity.

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Myrna Salazar, co-founder and executive director of Chicago Latino Theater Alliance.

Myrna Salazar, co-founder and executive director of Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, speaks as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens during a press conference about “Open Culture,” a plan to bring back cultural events after they were cancelled to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Goodman Theatre in the Loop, May 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Before Myrna Salazar sat down last year to talk about the Destinos International Latino Theater Festival with us, we were told we’d be dazzled: “Just wait. You’re about to meet an amazing woman.”

And that we did.

The Puerto Rican native had a welcoming, commanding and regal presence as we made our way from The Goodman Theatre to Petterino’s. At the restaurant, Salazar passionately spoke about her decades-long mission — giving Latinos more representation in the arts — and the Latino theater festival’s contributions toward that goal.

“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,” Salazar told us.

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Without Salazar, audiences may never have had seen productions about female mariachi musicians fighting against machismo traditions, or a couple pondering the color of their unborn baby’s skin and how it could affect his or her life.

Salazar died Wednesday, days after celebrating her 75th birthday, leaving Chicago with a much more robust arts scene than when she came here as a 10-year-old girl from Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

The trailblazer will be remembered for shattering countless glass ceilings, uplifting Latino talent and fighting to ensure they had opportunities and incentives to stay in Chicago.

Salazar, who was crowned queen of the city’s first Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1966, was known for her sense of humor and for being “that old school Latina who doesn’t ever leave the house without full makeup on.”

Myrna Salazar circa 1982.

Myrna Salazar in 1982.

Sun-Times file photo

She was also most known for co-founding the nonprofit Chicago Latino Theater Alliance along with the National Museum of Mexican Art, the International Latino Cultural Center and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance.

But what many don’t know is she also once served on the Chicago Board of Education in the early 1980s, advocating for bilingual education and trying to curb the drop out rates of Hispanic students.

Because of Chicago Latino Theater Alliance’s Destinos International Latino Theater Festival, theater-goers have been able to glimpse the plethora of Latino talent here and discover productions by theaters based in Spanish-speaking countries.

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The festival isn’t tied down to the Loop theater district and North Side. The plays are taken to communities in Belmont Cragin, Wicker Park, Marquette Park, Pilsen and Humboldt Park.

The Latino festival returns on Sept. 14 and runs through Oct. 16.

We encourage everyone to check out the festival to see how Salazar helped grace Chicago stages with cultural richness and diversity.

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