Sandra Delgado originally had hopes to write a play dedicated to her parents, but in researching soon realized how much of Chicago's Latinx history has been erased. “We are not being counted in the history of the city, which really is like a microcosm of Latinos not being counted in the history of this country," she shares with CHICA.
Plays by women of color make up only six percent of all plays produced in the country, so one can only imagine how much smaller that slice is when you narrow it down to plays written by Latinx women. Sandra Delgado is one of those few successful Latinx playwrights, and her play “La Havana Madrid,” which tells the story of a forgotten nightclub that served as a Caribbean hub and safe space in 1960s Chicago, is garnering well-deserved attention for an underrepresented corner of the theater world. “This play even existing is sort of a minor miracle,” Delgado, who also stars in the play, tells CHICA. Considering that Latinx characters make up only seven percent of theater roles nationwide, she’s not exaggerating.
Best known for her role as Jocasta in the Public Theater’s “Oedipus El Rey,” Delgado, a Colombian-American Chicago native, understands that lack of representation can discourage Latinx artists from pursuing a career in theater, and it’s something she takes quite seriously. “I see it as a mission and a responsibility to be as visible as possible,” she explains, “so other Latinas can do this. It’s so important for us to be content creators, to not just be the actor in someone else’s play.”
Set during the civil rights era, “La Havana Madrid” explores the Latinx history of Chicago, which has over time been erased due to lack of recordkeeping and coverage. Delgado originally planned to write about her parents, who migrated to Chicago from Colombia in the ’60s and settled in the Lakeview neighborhood, at the time populated by predominantly black and brown families. It was her father, however, who led her away from her original idea for the play. “I was talking to my dad about his early days in Chicago, and he mentioned this nightclub, La Havana Madrid, which was just down the street from where they lived when they first came to the city,” says Delgado.
The playwright was baffled that a Latinx club existed right down the street and she had never heard about it. “I was like, ‘What? There was a Latinx nightclub there?’ I grew up in that neighborhood, just west of where La Havana Madrid was by maybe about a mile. In the summertime, we would walk past the club on the way to the lake, because we would walk to the lake all the time and have our asado.”
La Havana Madrid’s stage served as a home for salsa acts like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, and the Fania All-Stars, but by the 1980s, the neighborhood had evolved into a more of a punk scene—tattooed young folks who wore leather jackets and rocked mohawks filled the streets. Recalling these transitions sparked Delgado’s curiosity about the club. Despite La Havana Madrid being an important staple in Chicago’s Latinx culture, she couldn’t find any newspapers, music journals, or libraries that had information on the club. It was then that Delgado realized the importance of this story, and became motivated to explore the club’s importance to Chicago’s Cuban, Colombian, and Puerto Rican–American communities.
“I found this book called Chicago Music of the 1960s or something like that, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is great. I’m going to find some leads here.’ And in this book of 200-some pages, there was not one Latino name,” says Delgado. The project then shifted for her, becoming what she calls “an act of anti-erasure—a personal mission with the purpose of uncovering the Latinx history of the neighborhood and other Latinx neighborhoods in Chicago.”
“We are not being counted in the history of the city, which really is like a microcosm of Latinos not being counted in the history of this country,” Delgado continues. “We are not in history books the way we should be. We aren’t yet consistently portrayed in movies and television as fully formed, three-dimensional people with many, many different stories to tell. We see the same thing over and over again.”
Crediting Facebook for all her early findings, Delgado met with people who helped her find information and contacts for people involved in the scene. This led her to Carlos Flores, a Puerto Rican photographer who came to Chicago in the ’50s as a young man and has been taking photographs of the Puerto Rican community there since. As Chicago’s de facto Puerto Rican historian, Carlos was able to provide photos and information from past events and interviews.
Delgado kept in touch with Carlos over the course of a year, requesting coffee meetings while he just kept sending more photos. “It was like the artistic equivalent of an old-fashioned romantic courtship, where all you’re doing is writing letters back and forth,” she says.
A photo of the first Puerto Rican parade led her back to her first talent agent, Myrna Salazar, who served as the parade’s first queen. Salazar attended the club in the ’60s and knew Tony Quintana, the second owner. Through the information acquired from these sources and many others, Delgado was able to create the perfect storylines, even creating characters inspired by Carlos and Myrna’s lives.
“La Havana Madrid” premiered in 2017 at the Steppenwolf Theatre and is comprised of a series of six vignettes woven together with music. Though the play is set more than 50 years ago, Delgado notes that the stories still resonate with attendees of all ages, partly because the tension and discrimination of that period is still visible today.
Following the success that “La Havana Madrid” has had in Chicago, its production at The Den Theatre’s Heath Mainstage has been extended an extra week, which will bring its run through the end of this month. Following that, Delgado hopes to visit a city near you. “I have such big dreams for the show, to take it outside of outside of Chicago,” she says. “New York and Miami would be incredible just because of the big Cuban and Colombian and Puerto Rican populations in those cities. But really any city with a big Latinx population—I think people are really gonna love it.”