“I am an open book,” she said.
As I sat across from Myrna in a little coffee shop in 2015, just blocks away from Humboldt Park, the epicenter of Puerto Rican life in Chicago, she began to tell me her life story: her triumphs, her regrets, her loves, and the enduring power of music in her life.
Many moons before, Myrna had been my first talent agent in Chicago. In fact, her agency, Salazar and Navas, was the first stop for a whole generation of Latine actors in 1990s Chicago, back at a time when our headshots languished in the “other” pile in casting director’s file cabinets. From the very beginning of her career in the arts, Myrna fought hard to get us opportunities, launching the careers of countless actors, including Justina Machado, Aimee Garcia, and many a veteran of Chicago stages.
Years later, as I was doing research for my play La Havana Madrid, inspired by the long gone 1960s nightclub of the same name, I was having an impossible time finding any information about the music venue or Caribbean Latine life of the era, when I happened across Mryna’s name in the archives of the Chicago Tribune. It was in a short article covering the very first Fiestas Puertorriqueñas, and when I read that Myrna had been crowned as La Reina, the Queen, my heart skipped a beat.
All of which led to our meeting at the coffee shop near Humboldt Park.
“Sandrita, I used to go to La Havana Madrid! I had my wedding shower there, and the owner Tony is the godfather to one of my daughters,” she told me when I reached out to her. She was immediately on board, connecting me with others who were around at that time, showing me pictures of the coronation and of her in the infamous one-shoulder white dress that almost got her disqualified. When Myrna became part of the DNA of this project, everything broke open in the most beautiful, magical way.
Over the course of many conversations, as we bonded over music from Los Panchos to La Lupe to El Gran Combo, over motherhood, over her memories from Dominguito, P.R., to Chicago, Myrna and I became something else: friends. At the very first reading of the play at the Goodman Theatre, Myrna sat in the front row. To say I was nervous was an understatement. Would the character that Myrna inspired be up to her standards? Myrna was a truth teller; there was no sugar coating with her, and I can’t imagine it’s easy to see a version of yourself up onstage. I couldn’t help but keep looking at her throughout the course of the reading to gauge how she was taking it all in. She wept, she sang along with the songs, and afterwards, with arms outstretched, she grabbed me and whispered, “Sandrita, how did you do that?”
Myrna championed my transition from actor to writer like no one else, bringing countless people to the show over its many runs, always front row and always with a running commentary (during the show, ha!) to her guests about which parts of the play were real and which were fictionalized. She most certainly did not do the “beauty queen wave” to her adoring fans in real life. It was a delight to announce to the audience during curtain call that the real Myrna Salazar was in attendance. She brought the house down every single time.
Myrna’s heart knew no bounds. She loved and believed in us all. We knew it because she told us, every chance she got. At openings, at workshops, at parties. She supported new artists, veteran artists, small storefront companies, established companies, theatre works across all genres and aesthetics, plays in English and Spanish, local and international. What was most important to her was that Latine artists were getting the opportunities and resources necessary to solidify us in the public’s consciousness as a valuable, exciting, and necessary part of the artistic landscape in the US. For us to do what we were born to do. Her crowning achievement and enduring legacy is the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance (CLATA), a Latine theatre artist advocacy and producing/presenting institution, which she founded at an age when most people were years into their retirement.
Myrna was disarming, enchanting, and utterly persuasive, lighting up rooms from Puerto Rico to Chicago, making friends wherever she went. Family was important to her. She called her mother first thing in the morning every single day. She doted on her daughters and grandchildren. That feeling of family is something that she brought into her work with CLATA, in the honesty with which she spoke to us, in the tenderness that she gifted us, in the feeling that we must all work together. She was our Madrina, our godmother, pounding the pavement and knocking on foundation’s doors exalting our communities’ talents and demanding well-deserved money to support our work—money to go straight to the Latine arts community instead of being filtered through predominantly white institutions. And they listened to her. They really had no choice. It was almost impossible to say no to Myrna. Scratch almost: It was impossible to say no to Myrna. Not that you actually wanted to; when she asked for something, it was not for herself but for the artists that she believed in. She dreamed of opening a building solely dedicated to highlighting Latine artists in Chicago. I hope that dream comes true.
Up to the very end she used her life force to illuminate and advocate for Latine theatre artists. The last time I talked to her, just days before her sudden death, she was speaking passionately to me about a play she was bringing from Uruguay as part of CLATA’s Destinos Festival this fall. She was thrilled that audiences would be seeing a local actor do something he had never done before. She truly was our biggest fan and loved watching us grow.
Rest in power, mi Reina. Your energy and spirit lives on in all who were blessed to know you. In the words of one of your favorite songs, the one you would sing at the end of the night at La Havana Madrid: “Te veo luego.” I will do everything I can to make you proud and preserve your legacy of generosity, vision, and love spiked with grit, passion, and the truth.
Sandra Delgado (she/her) is a Colombian American writer, actor, singer and producer born and raised in Chicago.
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