Cinema Chicana: An Interview with Lourdes Portillo
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Cinema Chicana:
An Interview with Lourdes Portillo

As a young girl in rural arizona, I attended rodeos where the majority of the cowboys were Indians from the nearby reservations or Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Hearing both Spanish and English in my family, my child’s mind believed all Spanish speakers to be Mexican. A few years later, I moved to the Midwest, where I was introduced to the Sunday afternoon matinee on television. During a broadcast of a John Wayne movie, I was surprised to see John Wayne as the cowboy and the Indians and Mexicans as the bad guys.

One other Sunday afternoon, I watched West Side Story (1961), and I was delighted to be introduced to Puerto Ricans and find that Mexicans were not the only Spanish speakers in the world. This film offered two beautiful Puerto Rican women singing and dancing, and Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno became my heroes, until I found out that Natalie Wood was not Puerto Rican at all, but merely painted to appear so. Even in elementary school, I began to theorize about portrayals of Latinos in film and to notice their apparent absence.

As I grew older and moved around the Midwest, as well as worked on a farm in the summers in southern Georgia, I quietly observed the way people treated me and each other when it came to issues of race. Having been at the end of some of this mistreatment, I began writing as a way to escape from it. I also plunged headlong into any book or movie I could get, always searching for the existence of Latinos and Native Americans, anything to validate my earlier experiences from my hometown in northern Arizona. I made it my mission to document these portrayals and to become a writer who would tell the truth about living Latina. While I was in junior high school, I announced to my dad that I wanted to get into movies. At the time he was working construction, building sets for Universal Studios. I told him that it would be my mission because there were no Mexicans in the movies. His response was, “Aye, M’ija! Who do you think is building all of the sets?”

As a young college student I grew increasingly inspired by independent filmmakers. The ability to live outside the conformity and formula of Hollywood and make films that portrayed the things mainstream America prefers to overlook was a kind of rebellion that spoke deeply to the kind of artist I believed I was becoming. Again, I was overwhelmed with the goal of discovering the thin existence or nonexistence of Latinos in these genres. Although a few Latino men began to appear in Hollywood with hit movies, such as Gregory Nava and Luis Valdez, women were still only marginal characters, a side dish to the male filmmaker. I then discovered a filmmaker who renewed my faith.

I first came to know the work of Lourdes Portillo during a Chicano film course at Colorado State University in the late 1990s. I do not remember which film I saw first. I just remember feeling an intense desire to consume every film she had made. Her unique perspective and the [End Page 23] way she blurs genres in film that attracted me; her intense independence, experimenting with form and narrative; her use of both Spanish and English—all of this captivated me.

Photo 1. Portillo captures the angst and passion of the struggle endured by Argentine mothers in her film .
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Photo 1.

Portillo captures the angst and passion of the struggle endured by Argentine mothers in her film Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (1985).

Growing up Latino/a in America often places one in a position where the person must either define him- or herself or be defined. This is also true in most art. The pressures of society to define yourself and your genre can bear down so hard that many artists and filmmakers get rooted in one kind of work, or at least are expected to produce a certain kind of film. Blending of cultures, artistic form, and remaining outside of the grasp of Hollywood are what shape Lourdes Portillo. Her ability to defy definition...