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estela
portillo
trambley

“I’ve always been at the peripheries of the Chicano Movement because the Chicano world does not consider me Chicana enough. They, however, respect me as a writer…“—Estela Portillo Trambley

Estela Portillo Trambley was a native El Pasoan who was a poet, educator, novelist, talk show host, and playwright. Being one of the first published Mexican American female writers, she is credited for being a pioneer in Chicana literature. 

 

A pioneer in feminist Chicana literature, Estela Portillo Trambley challenged patriarchal expectations in Mexican American families while giving voice to indigenous and lesbian identities through her varied works. An educator, dramatist, talk show host, and poet, Estela Portillo Trambley was ahead of her time giving inspiration and space to Chicane feminists that followed her. 

Born in 1926, Estela Portillo Trambley was the eldest child of Mexican immigrants Francisco and Delphina Portillo. Growing up in El Segundo Barrio with her grandparents, Portillo Trambley graduated from El Paso High School with a passion for reading. Married in 1947 at 17, she earned a BA and a Master’s Degree in English from Texas Western College (now known as the University of Texas at El Paso) while raising six children. 

Before pursuing writing as a life-long career, Portillo Trambley taught at the high school level and would lead the English department at the El Paso Technical Institute. In 1973, Portillo Trambley guest-edited an issue of El Grito, a journal dedicated to Mexican American thought and identity. The issue featured works by contemporary Chicana writers and would offer readers a window into Portillo Trambley’s social politics.  While working as the resident dramatist at El Paso Community College, she also hosted Stella Sez, a radio talk show tackling current events, and championed progressive Chicane ideas in a time where such politics weren’t discussed on the El Paso airwaves. She would then host Recumbres, an arts and culture television show on KROD.

It wasn’t until the death of her youngest child that Portillo Trambley began to write in earnest. Channeling her grief, she wrote Impression of a Chicana, a book of poetry, and co-founded El Paso’s first bilingual theater, Los Pobres in 1968. There, she wrote Morality Play, the first musical written by an American Latina.  She would gain cultural recognition after writing the groundbreaking play The Day of the Swallows in 1971. Though not part of the LGBTQ+ community herself, Portillo Trambley created Doña Josefa, a lesbian protagonist who rejected marriage and patriarchal tradition. The Day of the Swallows not only offered one of theater’s only Chicana lesbian characters (if not the only) but featured Chicana characters with deep interiority, a revolutionary feat unheard of in Chicane theater at that time. The play also mixed Catholic and Native mythos into its narrative and would earn the Quinto Sol Literary prize later that year from El Grito. 

Portillo Trambley’s work would continue to feature female protagonists that challenged cultural and gender expectations. In 1975, she became the first Chicana author to publish a short story collection in the United States with Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings that earned her the Quinto Sol Award. But it wasn’t until the publication of Sor Juana and Other Plays that established Portillo Trambley as a renowned playwright in the US and rooted her work as part of the Chicane literary canon. In 1986, she published Trini, her only novel, whose main protagonist, a Tarahumara woman, crosses into the Borderland to find independence and her own land. Again, Portillo Trambley explores identities beyond herself to give voice to a community often ignored. 

Estela Portillo Trambley died in 1998. She was inducted into the El Paso Women’s Hall of Fame and named Author of the Pass by the El Paso Herald-Post. The Chamizal National Memorial, home of many of her plays, constructed a historical marker in her honor in 2018, and her works and biographical information are now part of the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

Published Works

Poetry

  • Impressions, El Espejo Quinto Sol, 1971.

  • (Editor) Chicanas en literatura y Arte, Quinto Sol, 1974.

  • Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (short stories), Tonatiuh International, 1976 

Novel

  • Trini, Bilingual Press, 1986 

Plays

  • The Day of the Swallows, El Espejo Quinto Sol, 1971.

  • Morality Play (three-act musical), first produced in El Paso, Tex., at Chamizal National Theatre, 1974.

  • We Are Chicano, Washington Square Press.

  • Black Light (three-act), first produced in El Paso at Chamizal National Theatre, 1975.

  • El Hombre Cosmico, first produced at Chamizal National Theatre, 1975.

  • Sun Images (musical), first produced at Chamizal National Theatre, 1976.

  • (Contributor) Roberto Garza, editor, Chicano Theatre (includes The Day of the Swallows), Notre Dame University Press, 1976.

  • Isabel and the Dancing Bear (three-act), first produced at Chamizal National Theatre, 1977.

  • Sor Juana and Other Plays, Bilingual Press, 1983 

  • Autumn Gold (three-act comedy)

  • Broken Moon (three-act play)

  • Los amores de Don Estafa