What about these voices? First-time ‘Destinos’ theater fest has an answer

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A report by Kerry Reid for the Chicago Tribune.

Last month’s Emmy Awards may have represented a stride toward diversity for many artists of color. But as Patricia Garcia of Vogue (and many others) noted, “Where were the awards and nominations for the Latinos?”

Myrna Salazar, executive director and co-founder of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance (CLATA), may not be able to sway Hollywood, but she’s definitely putting Latino artists front and center this month through the first Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. Called “Destinos” (www.clata.org) the festival presents work across the city at venues large (Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare’s The Yard) and small (the new Back of the Yards Storyfront venue, founded by South Side native Ricardo Gamboa), as well as panel discussions on Latino political and identity issues.

The programming mix includes U.S and regional premieres from companies in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as longstanding local theater groups such as UrbanTheater Company, Aguijon Theater and Teatro Vista.

The latter co-presents the regional premiere of Tanya Saracho’s “Fade” at Victory Gardens. Saracho, who was born in Mexico but found her earliest playwriting success in Chicago, co-founded the all-Latina theater company Teatro Luna (who are also participating in “Destinos” with their new show, “Lovesick”). She has just been named showrunner for “Vida,” a new series on Starz featuring an all-Latino writing room. (Saracho’s other TV writing credits include “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Looking” and “Girls.”) “Fade” presents a behind-the-scenes look at the friendship between a Latina writer on a television show and the Mexican-American custodian in her office — the only other Latino in the workplace.

There have been Chicago festivals focusing on Latino work in the past. Goodman’s biennial Latino Theater Festival, curated by Teatro Vista co-founder and Goodman resident artistic associate Henry Godinez, was a highlight for several years beginning in 2003.

But, notes Salazar, what’s different about both CLATA and “Destinos” is that the impetus is coming from Latino-run organizations: the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago (ILCC at latinoculturalcenter.org), which also produces the Chicago Latino Film Festival and the Chicago Latino Music Festival; the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance (www.praachicago.org), producers of the annual “Cuatro” Festival; and the National Museum of Mexican Art.

“The person who really championed this project was Carlos Tortolero (president and founder of the National Museum),” says Salazar. “A lot of these longstanding (Latino) theater companies in Chicago started at that museum. So a lot of the support has been there.”

Ironically, Salazar wasn’t able to get support from the museum to present a piece by a young playwright she was championing a few years ago. But a few months after that abortive partnership, Tortolero did ask her to come on board for CLATA, which formed in 2016. Salazar, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, ran the multicultural talent agency Salazar & Navas for 24 years and has also done marketing for ILCC. She jumped at the new opportunity.

“My main focus in all this is the fact that I have worked so closely for these theater groups and theater artists for almost 30 years,” she says. (Saracho was once represented as an actor at Salazar & Navas.) “They are my major focus. I said, ‘That’s it.’ I wanted to be able to give support to Latino theater artists in Chicago.”

Gamboa received a Joyce Foundation Award to develop “Meet Juan(ito) Doe” with Free Street Theater, the city’s oldest multicultural ensemble-based company, where he is a resident artist. The show, co-directed by Gamboa and Ana Velazquez, focuses on immigrant and Mexican-American stories in Chicago.

“Chicago Latino theater is often transplant Latino theater,” says Gamboa. “Nowhere are the stories of the people who have lived and died here represented. Not on their bodies on stage, not in the voices.” He adds “One-third of the population of Chicago is Latino. Eighty percent of that is Mexican. I didn’t want to do some anthropological colonial thing where we just go and interview people. The important point was how we gathered the stories.”

To that end, Gamboa and his collaborators held “loteria” (or Mexican bingo) parties, along with karaoke nights and “drinking and writing” nights in Mexican-American neighborhoods. The events provided opportunities for people to share songs and stories that were important to them. “It’s not a transcription of interviews in an annoying docudrama format,” says Gamboa. “It’s like Cirque du Soleil in your grandmother’s house. It’s visual and movement-based, there’s sketch comedy like what you might see in Mexican variety shows or in John Leguizamo’s work.”

He notes that the monologues in the show are composites from the stories collected from the community. The new Back of the Yards Storyfront will, Gamboa hopes, provide “a sustainable space that we can use for the community” — particularly important in a city where, he notes, “70 percent of the arts funding goes north of Madison Street.”

For Salazar, aesthetic variety is also an important component for “Destinos.” Even somewhat familiar works will get a new twist.

For example, Aguijon, which performs entirely in Spanish, will present a Spanish-language version of Ariel Dorfman’s popular “Death and the Maiden,” about the aftermath of the Pinochet regime in Chile. “The Mirror,” from Cuba’s Ludi Teatro, takes the 1956 text of “El Peine y el Espejo” (“The Comb and the Mirror”) by queer Cuban playwright Abelardo Estorino and gives it a musical makeover. Arte Boricua from Puerto Rico presents a new version of “Medea,” created and performed by Marian Pabon out of interviews she conducted with incarcerated women. (All work performed in Spanish will have supertitles.)

Many of the festival’s shows are at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre (even though Aguijon does have its own storefront space on the Far Northwest Side). Putting the international and local artists in the same space was very much by design. “Sometimes the international groups on the marquee relegate the local groups. I’m not going to have anybody relegating my local groups,” says Salazar.

But she does want to create “the opportunity for our Latino artists to establish a relationship with a general audience,” says Salazar. “And also for those bigger audiences to experience (Latino) realities.”

She also wants to create a central Latino theater center for Chicago artists. Though CLATA hasn’t yet identified where such a venue might end up, Salazar says that “it’s time we have a complex where Latino theater artists and playwrights can come and talk about their work, and that can serve as an incubator, offer residencies, or send our groups to Latin America and the Caribbean.”

“Everything is a band-aid when it comes to our communities,” says Salazar. “Whether it’s immigration, whether it’s social services, whether it’s access to health care. Arts and culture at least builds a great scenario for people to be entertained. And then it helps the general economy. There have been studies about the amount of business it creates. We want to be able to tap into that as well.”

Looking back over her career as a talent agent and champion of Latino voices, Salazar says “When I started in 1983, when nothing was there for Latino artists, I said ‘I want to go through the big door. How do I go through the big door?’ ” She adds, “My god, how long is it going to take to have Latinos going up (at awards shows) to say ‘Thank you, Mom and Dad?’ ”

But with “Destinos” (a name Salazar chose as emblematic of the dual notions of “destiny” and “destination”), she and CLATA are opening doors for Latino artists in Chicago and beyond. “I’m not doing a festival today and then waiting four years to do another one,” Salazar promises. “I’m already looking for space for 2018.”

“Destinos” runs through Oct. 29 at multiple venues. Information and tickets available at www.clata.org/festival-schedule.

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