Few things excited Miriam Colón more than seeing a new play come to life. It didn’t matter if it was from a seasoned playwright or a green one. What mattered was that it was new. She would measure the pile of new plays submitted to her, stacked by her favorite table at home. “Up to here,” she’d say, pointing at her waist. “That’s how many scripts I have yet to read.”
The incoming flow of scripts from playwrights from around the country signaled the hope and reverence of countless writers, their eyes set on a production at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. But not all were playwrights. One my favorite stories is about her interest in Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri (1944-2004). “People couldn’t imagine purchasing a ticket for a poetry performance-turned-theatre,” she would say. At the thought of it she would raise her voice, filled with angst and ire—and then a sigh and a loud laugh: “But we won everyone over.” Yet she never gave any indication that it was her giving our famed poet a shot had anything to do with his success. He was brilliant in his own right. And Miriam Colón knew brilliance when she saw it.
I first met Miriam around 1977, having moved to New York City from Puerto Rico just four years earlier. Feeling my way around New York City in the ’70s, I became familiar with the Association of Hispanic Arts (AHA), which provided services for Latinx artists and organizations. I worked part time at AHA while slowly advancing my acting career. At AHA one of the most uttered names was “Miriam,” and with good reason. Miriam Colón was about to open the doors of the new Puerto Rican Traveling Theater; she had first founded PRTT 10 years earlier as a traveling company but had craved a permanent home. So she led efforts to convert a former NYC firehouse into a theatre, just blocks away from the Broadway theatre district. And working with Allan Davis III, the PRTT created its popular Playwrights Unit. Not wanting to call attention to herself, Miriam would always remind us that she did not do it alone. “Hundreds of supporters, community leaders, friends and city officials joined forces,” she said often. But I would nod and remind her that none of it could have happened without her leadership.
By 1979 myself and two colleagues created Pregones Theater, our own small traveling collective. The Latinx theatre scene was buzzing in New York, and I was working in various theatres while growing Pregones at the same time. When Miriam learned of our new little company, she urged me to give it my full attention. I perked up. After all, here was a big movie star: a friend of Brando’s, Al Pacino’s mother in Scarface, the first Latina to have studied at the Actors Studio, the producer of The Oxcart. You always knew she was paying attention when her right eyebrow moved up sharply—a sort of secret code which I learned to decipher over the years.
Her most admired—and sometimes feared—quality was her unwillingness to compromise. Her commitment to the Puerto Rican community never wavered, while her arms stretched wide to welcome a broad diversity of artists from throughout the Americas. She was a fierce advocate for free access to arts training, public support for the arts, and whenever possible free access to performances. The annual summer tours through New York City parks ensured the connection between community and theatre. Miriam believed that language could not be a barrier in any way, shape, or form, instituting a bilingual approach to creating theater at the PRTT.
When Pregones opened our first permanent theatre in the Bronx, we honored Miriam. Alvan Colón Lespier, one of Pregones’ associate artistic directors, had worked with Miriam in the early years of the PRTT. As years went by we talked about collaborating, perhaps even creating together. A more serious institutional courtship brought us even closer, until it became evident that Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and Pregones belonged together for good. Our merger was finalized in 2016, 39 years after this young Puerto Rican aspiring actress met Miriam Colón for the first time.
Last Spring Miriam came to visit one of the sessions of Pregones/PRTT’s Raúl Training Unit. The students were 15-17 years of age. To a circle of students she spoke beautifully about her life. They asked about her secrets and anecdotes. They took selfies and group pictures. As she was walking out she turned and said, “Thank you for making theatre a possibility in your lives.” I am pretty sure these students will never forget that day. I know I won’t.
We join Fred Vale, her husband of 40 years, in expressing our gratitude for having had Miriam in our lives. And I’m honored to share two quotes I collected about her legacy:
Miriam Colón was my first acting coach, way before I got to be known as an artist. I’ll never forget the first time we met at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. From the first moment I met her, I knew I was in the presence of a great woman and a figure of history. She welcomed me with open arms, and I remember leaving our first meeting with many assignments, books, works to read. From that moment on she became “Mama Miriam.” A few years ago, when I did the TV series “Hawthorne,” I had the honor of working with her as an actor; she played my mother. Her presence was larger than life. Her contributions to art, her values, and her legacy will always remain with us all. May you rest in peace, Mama Miriam.
At a time when Puerto Ricans and Latinos were invisible in the entertainment world, no one opened more doors than Miriam Colón. From acclaimed and memorable performances on film, television, and the stage to her visionary efforts as an actress/producer, the founder of a Latino/bilingual theatre movement and an institution that continues to thrive today, she excelled, provided opportunities, and inspired thousands of emerging and established artists, and audiences of all backgrounds. Doña Miriam, as we respectfully called her, will be deeply missed but we will never let her legacy be forgotten. Bendición.