BALTIMORE (AP) — At East Preston Street, Divine watches over Midtown-Belvedere, her eyes daring with cat-like eyeliner as brushes of blue pop behind her. The “Hairspray” star stares back confidently, her hair reflecting colors of the sunset, lips puckered in a shade of rouge and with bold golden earrings.
“I’m So Beautiful,” the mural reads.
Jesse Salazar and his husband, Tom Williams, commissioned the artwork three years ago, asking Baltimore-based artist Gaia to bring the drag queen to life on the wall of their three-story house. They hoped to bring some joy and pride to the queer community, reminding them of an icon who was from Baltimore.
For months after the commission, the future of the mural was uncertain. Salazar and Williams did not seek authorization from the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation for the artwork, which is in one of Baltimore’s historic districts. Ultimately, the commission approved the mural retroactively.
Salazar, 38, is the highest-ranking Latinx gay civilian employee at the Pentagon. Spanning a career mostly based in Washington, D.C., he has worked for the government, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations, universities and the corporate world.
A son of a Peruvian immigrant and raised in Dalton, Pennsylvania, Salazar arrived in Baltimore in 2014 and began investing in local theater and renovating homes in Mount Vernon and Station North.
“The city’s culture is one that enriches people,” he said. “And helps people to feel like they’re part of the community.”
Salazar got his bachelor’s in European history at the University of Pennsylvania and his masters in economic history at Princeton University before working with the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.
“Mentoring Jesse Salazar is like coaching Michael Jordan,” said Kevin Jennings, who worked as Obama’s LGBT finance chair for the campaign. “I more just kind of watch in awe and cheer.”
Years later, Salazar worked at the Council on Foundations, a nonprofit that promotes philanthropy for organizations in the United States and abroad.
In 2016, when the organization hosted a conference on the theme of identity, Salazar was determined to include queer voices and perspectives. He asked Jennings, who is gay, to moderate a discussion with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a New York University philosophy and law professor.
“It just had never been done before,” Jennings said. “This very large, somewhat staid organization, stepping out and having a gay trustee interview an openly gay man of color at its opening session.”
In 2018, Salazar joined Baltimore Center Stage’s board, where he had a leadership role on the strategy committee. Stephanie Ybarra, the country’s first Latinx artistic director of a major theater, felt instantly connected to Salazar when they met during her job interview for the position at Baltimore Center Stage.
“The way he shows up in every space, whether it’s Baltimore Center Stage or his former role at McKinsey ... he shows up as himself every time,” Ybarra said. “And that kind of authenticity impacts people wherever he goes, myself included.”
But Salazar also has been at the forefront of championing the institution as a whole, she said. He is a great connector, she said, and has brought many community members and artists to Center Stage. More recently, Salazar invited Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina and woman of color in the court, to Ybarra’s first production, “Miss You Like Hell.”
“Not only did she come, she stayed to take photos with the cast and crew,” Salazar said. “It was an extraordinary act of support that showed we were doing something really special at Center Stage.”
Salazar and his husband also have taken a liking to renovating historic houses in Baltimore. Since they’ve moved to the city, they have renovated three houses in Mt. Vernon and Station North.
“You never really own these historic houses; you are stewards of their long history,” he said. “We hope to protect their historic character for future generations to enjoy.”
Last December, Salazar was part of then-mayor elect Brandon Scott’s transition team, taking the lead on developing recommendations for mandatory ethics training and better technology for tracking conflicts of interest.
Now, Salazar is shifting his civic engagement to a national level. In February, he began working at the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy.
Over the past few months, he has worked on securing supply chains and improving domestic manufacturing and industrial production to supporting and protecting war fighters from cyber attacks and predatory business practices.
It’s difficult to say where Salazar will go next. He is passionate about the role industry and business can play in countries and cities, said Jamie McDonald, who first met Salazar when he worked at the Council of Foundations seven years ago. But for those who know Salazar, they can guarantee one thing.
“Whatever he does, he will surely be somebody who will be making a mark on our city and our country,” McDonald said.