Destinos al Aire brings Latinx culture to the drive-in

Their annual festival is on pandemic pause, but CLATA still celebrates the diversity of local theater companies.

A report by Catey Sullivan for The Chicago Reader.

When Myrna Salazar founded the Chicago Latino Theatre Alliance (CLATA) in 2016 and presented the first Destinos International Latino Festival in 2017, the longtime artist-activist-entrepreneur launched both a new brand of must-see fall theater and a platform to amplify the voices of Latinx artists. 

Last year’s Destinos built soundly on the first two, with dozens of artists flocking to the sponsoring Goodman Theatre and other venues for a six-week series of performances from local, national, and international companies that drew hundreds of audience members.

This year? “Well,” said Salazar, “We wanted Destinos to showcase Latinx talent, and for years, Destinos did that. Then, COVID. So now what?”

Now, Destinos is going drive-in. Destinos al Aire takes place on Thursday, September 17 at Pilsen’s ChiTown Movies. The evening will include an open-air screening of the Mexican rom-com American Curious (directed by Gabylu Lara and set in Chicago and Mexico City), preceded by performances (both live and taped) from the Chicago artists of UrbanTheater CompanyAguijónRepertorio Latino TheaterTeatro Vista,  and the Cielito Lindo Family Folk Music ensemble. WGN reporter Ana Belaval and comedian Mike Oquendo will emcee. 

Tickets are $30 per car for the event spearheaded by CLATA, (still) sponsored by the Goodman, and in collaboration with the National Museum of Mexican Art, the International Latino Cultural Center, and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance. Attendance will be capped at 140 cars, Salazar said. (The $30 fee covers up to six individuals, regardless of how they arrive.)

“It’s unique in that you can watch everything from the security of your car, or bring a mask and lawn chairs and watch that way. You can ride your bike up if you want to. As long as you’re wearing a mask,” Salazar said. 

The starry alliance of local Latinx theater companies kicking off the evening speaks to the fact that while Destinos’s performances are rich with drama, music, and beauty, they are about far more than just entertainment. 

Diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism may be at the forefront of a national conversation this year, but Destinos has been all about that conversation for far longer. Like the artists and companies it spotlights, Destinos shows the limitations of the Eurocentric artistic foundation that many (if not most) Chicago theaters have drawn from since Joseph Jefferson was a tyke. 

Consider, for example, UrbanTheater Company’s ¡Dimelo Cantando! The piece by Ivelisse Diaz uses bomba music to tell a story of resistance and rebellion, said UTC artistic director Miranda González. The traditional music is rooted in Yoruban culture, the lifelong Humboldt Park resident noted. 

“A lot of what UTC is about is decolonizing art and challenging what the Eurocentric ideas of art are and how they dictate making art,” González said. 

“We’re dealing with dual pandemics in our community—the plague of Black bodies dying at the hands of police and systematic racism on top of an actual plague. Now, more than ever, we have to root ourselves. Connect to the spiritual and stay grounded.

“Ivelisse speaks on that level—her work is vibrational. I’m not sure how else to describe it. There is an ancient sound that only our souls know.

“Though it may be one person up there on stage, you can tell there are many, many people—ancestors—there with her. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It’s otherworldly,” Gonzalez said.

As co-artistic directors of the oldest Latinx theater company in Chicago, Aguijón’s Marcela Muñoz and her mother, Rosario Vargas, are celebrating their company’s 31st year. They are bringing La Gran Tirana: Descarga Dramática to the Destinos stage. Muñoz describes the work as “a seam of sound and color,” exploring what it’s like to be an artist in exile. 

“It’s about how important it is at this time to make sure we’re creating and holding spaces for Latinx artists.” The show uses the sounds and music of the Caribbean to delve into the experiences of immigrant artists, and the impact leaving your homeland can have on your art. “The piece is about finding that artistic aspect of yourself when you’re in a new, strange place away from your motherland,” Muñoz said.

With COVID upending almost every aspect of life—economic, familial, spiritual, artistic—Destinos is more important than ever, Salazar said.

“The arts drive the economy but they also infuse your spirit,” she said. “I had a talent agency for 25 years. Now, I want to pay it forward. Support the artists, and get others to support them as well. Will we do this again? What’s to stop us? Nothing.”

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