Meet Sandra Delgado: The Actress and Playwright Who Wants to Change the Immigration Narrative

BELatina Sandra Delgado
Photo Courtesy Sandra Delgado / Credit Joe Mazza

Chicago has often been known for its rich culture and arts. Many big names have derived from this colorful city and now we are getting other names that are on the rise. Among these names is Sandra Delgado. She is a Colombian-American actress, a playwright, and producer who has continuously pushed the limits for the Latinx community. She recently resurrected a once popular Chicagoan nightclub for immigrants — most of whom were from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Colombia — in a Teatro Vista and Collaboraction Production play La Havana Madrid. Ms. Delgado appreciated the fact that La Havana Madrid was instrumental to Latin-American history in the United States and needed to awaken its legacy. I had the pleasure to briefly speak with Sandra Delgado, so I’ll let you in on some of her thoughts momentarily. 

Sandra Delgado’s life revolved around the arts from a young age. Even though she was born in Chicago, her Colombian-born parents instilled in her the love for Colombia and her culture through the arts. At around age six, she was placed in folkloric dance tribe with her cousins and attended happily. She remembers the colorful costumes and how they made her feel. At that time, she only saw it as a fun pastime, but now she sees that it was one of the times she was representing her culture and the importance of it. With her parents support and her receptiveness to learn about the arts and her culture, she began a journey that will lead her to be a highly regarded woman.

La Havana Madrid Sandra Delgado BELatina
Photo Courtesy Sandra Delgado

Delgado’s motivation to write La Havana Madrid originally started with her parent’s story, who immigrated from Colombia in the mid-sixties. While speaking to them about their prized recollections, they briefly mentioned dancing at the Lakeside club, which fascinated Delgado. La Havana Madrid had been located at the corner of Belmont and Sheffield in the sixties and seventies. In actuality, she had grown up less than a mile west of where this popular club housed its memorable rhythms and did not seem to remember it. However, visiting the nightclub was no longer an option since the space where it formerly resided is now divided into various salons and a fitness center. Nonetheless, Ms. Delgado understood that the value of La Havana Madrid should not be diminished to a muted memory of those who lived it. She knew this nightclub’s history needed to be witnessed by the present era. As soon as she was inspired by La Havana Madrid, she went ahead and started researching anything she could find on it. That should have been easy, but that was not the case. 

She looked all over for any piece of information on the club, but kept hitting dead ends. The Chicago Tribune, Chicago’s most-read daily newspaper since 1847, did not bring back much pertaining to La Havana Madrid. That was frustrating because that meant a chunk of Latin-American history that developed in Chicago was missing. This is something that is already too common throughout Latin-American history all over the United States. She was able to find a classified ad and a small news piece on it, but nothing she found highlighted the significance of this social hub for immigrants. Delgado eventually found a lead that would help her uncover some history on this scintillating place. It just so happened that her first talent agent, Myrna Salazar, was a prevalent figure in Chicago in the 1960’s. She even headlined as the queen of the first Puerto Rican Day Parade. Delgado decided to call her to find out if she knew anything about La Havana Madrid. 

To Sandra Delgado’s delight, Myrna Salazar had a lot of information on this Latino-inspired spot. 

Ms. Salazar had her wedding shower at La Havana Madrid. So, her steps glided through the floors of this immigrant-driven nightclub plenty. She helped Ms. Delgado sculpt her play by sharing echoes of her experience. She also helped her get connected with Tony Quintana, the second owner of La Havana Madrid, which was the best man of her now ex-husband. The rest of the information Ms. Delgado was able to obtain was through social media and other connections through her network. At long last her play was coming to life. 

Sandra Delgado BELatina
Photo Courtesy of Sandra Delgado

La Havana Madrid was Ms. Delgado’s first play and without a doubt, she poured her heart into it. She wanted to give the Latinx audience the opportunity to feel identified by what they watched. In some sense, the view of history that the media so often forgets to include. Rather than having the history of immigration that is consistently depicted by brown and black bodies reliving their demise, she wanted Latinas to see something else. Ms. Delgado wanted Latinas to know that it was possible to recreate history that does not reflect the common narrative that is usually shown. Her objective has always been to change the Latinx immigration narrative to something more realistic. “La lucha sigue y va a seguir,” Ms. Delgado says, and I couldn’t be prouder that she’s on our side. 

Ms. Delgado’s play ended up including stories from her parents and Tony Quintana’s,  which is one of her favorite stories from the play. Tony Quintana, who was one of the owners La Havana Madrid had, talks about how music saved his life. 

She told me this story is one of her favorites because it resonated deeply with her. “Music is love, just love, no color, no class, just love,” she says. Though she loves all types of arts, she believes music is the best art form. “I love how music can lift you up and bring you into movement, despite what’s happening around you. Music travels with you, no matter what, and that’s why it’ll always be special to those in any moment of one’s life, including trying times,” she said. By shining light on the significance of music for Mr. Quintana, she was able to expose how music is a timeless coping mechanism. This was yet another way Ms. Delgado was able to capture the many layers that embody the immigration journey.

From what has been learned of La Havana Madrid, it seems as though it may have been essential in providing some peace of mind. La Havana Madrid may have previously served as a safe haven for Spanish-speaking immigrants to de-stress by releasing their vigorous dancing skills to well-known Latin and Salsa bands. Tito Puentes and Celia Cruz were some of the artists that graced the stage of La Havana Madrid during its prime time. Surely, it should be of no surprise that such a place existed then. Immigrants or those who have been exiled from their previous comfort zones are always looking for something that may reflect what they once knew. La Havana Madrid most probably gave their guests, who were predominantly Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Colombian, the chance to unite through music they were fluent in and moves they all understood. 

To try to emulate the original vibe of La Havana Madrid, the audience enjoyed this vibrant play sitting at cabaret tables with the option to enjoy a drink as they watched it. Almost immediately after debuting the show, it became evident that the love for La Havana Madrid wasn’t only felt by  Ms. Delgado. The outcome of Sandra Delgado’s first full-length play went on to gain immense victory. It played to sold out houses at both Steppenwolf and The Goodman Theater making it Teatro Vista’s best-selling show in 25 years. It later went on to be recognized as one of the best plays of 2017 according to New City and Time Out Chicago

In the long run, it served its purpose to unite many people of different walks of life and that in itself epitomizes success.

Aside from being a playwright, she has also gained a lot of recognition for her acting. Her latest performances include Joscasta in Oedipus El Rey, the five-hour long 2666 at the Goodman Theatre, her role as Veronica in Motherf**ker with the Hat at The Steppenwolf Theatre, and Mojada at Victory Gardens Theatre. She has earned acclamations for her appearances in television too. Her television appearances include Chicago PD, Law and Order:SVU, Chicago Justice, Empire, Exorcist, Chicago Fire and Mind Games

Continuing her own trend to create a dent in the arts community, she has been known for her work as a producer as well. She made headlines when she presented YO SOLO Festival of Latino Solo Shows in 2012, and for her co-curated series in SteppenWolf, LookOut. As per usual, she attempted to construct a space that was inclusive, especially for Latinx Chicagoans, and excelled. 

After all her hard work, Sandra Delgado is currently a walking legacy in Chicago. Her popularity in Chicago is so significant that she is among 20 women represented in Kerry James Marshall’s mural, RUSH MORE, which shines light on the crème de la crème of Chicago’s arts society. You can find Sandra Delgado painted next to Oprah Winfrey and Sandra Cisneros, so you just know that she is a big deal. Another stamp of approval was given to Ms. Delgado by the 3Arts. The 3Arts is a nonprofit that advocates for any artist that may be considered a minority. Every year they grant $25,000 that can be used by however the winners like. This large sum of money is awarded to the ten artists they feel most deserving of this award. In order to be considered for the award, the artist must be nominated and Sandra Delgado was nominated five times. She was filled with excitement when she found out that after many years and various nominations she had finally won the prestigious award. 

Having all these accomplishments hasn’t come easy to her, but that’s the norm, especially for a Latina. It is already a known fact that the entertainment world is highly male-dominated and white-washed, so we can expect some injustices here and there (ridiculous, I know). Yet, that never discouraged Sandra Delgado. She says that if something didn’t turn out the first time, she would try to jump over it a second time, or how many ever times it took. That’s freaking resilience and we should all carry some of that within us. Evidently, she’s made it past many obstacles and has gained her success because of her perseverance. However, she knows that the struggle won’t stop, even at her position. 

Sandra Delgado Chicago Belatina
Photo Courtesy Sandra Delgado / Credit Joe Mazza

According to her, the best way to counteract the injustices in the entertainment world, or anywhere for that matter, is to strive to become the content creators, producers, investors, or anyone that will be needed by those who have made life difficult for the community. We can manage to be the ones with the power, which would come in handy to help others of the Latinx community. She emphasized that last part too — if you make it, help your community come up as well. To her, there’s no need to be in competition with anyone. There is room for everyone. 

Together we rise,” she said and I was just so impressed at how much passion was behind these words. Her ongoing goal to help the Latinx community thrive remains. Exclusive information was given to me by the very own Sandra Delgado that she will be starting a folkloric Colombian project around August or September. So, keep an eye out for that. How exciting! She also said we can expect La Havana Madrid to make its way around other cities in the United States sometime in the future. As for now, we should continue sending all the best vibes to Sandra Delgado, so that she can continue making her way through the industry. This world needs her voice. 

Speaking about voice, she ended our conversation with the following inspiration: “We have to keep raising our women. Get our sisters together and continue being completely ourselves. Unfiltered and unapologetically ourselves. Y dejen la pendejada,”  and after this statement of hers, I’m sure all the mics in the world dropped.

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