For over 30 years, Lourdes Portillo’s award-winning films have explored Latin American, Mexican, and Chicano experiences and social-justice issues. She has produced and directed over a dozen works in her signature hybrid style as a visual artist, investigative journalist, and activist. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, Portillo studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s and 1980s, where she was immersed in Chicano and avant-garde cinema, social-issue documentary film, and feminist and Latin American politics.
After the Earthquake, her first film, made with Nina Serrano In 1979, is a narrative short about the experiences of a young Nicaraguan woman immigrant to the United States. This was followed by Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (1985), an Academy Award–nominated documentary about the courageous Argentinean mothers’ movement that spoke out for that country’s desaparecidos. La Ofrenda (1989) brings to vivid life the Day of the Dead ceremony celebrated in Mexico, and its revival by Chicanos in the U.S. Her dedication, insights, and courage in exploring Chicano and Latino identity on film continues to the present with her most recent film, Al Mas Alla, about drug trafficking on the Mexican coastline. Her films have been widely influential for younger generations of filmmakers, particularly Latina women interested in the expression of their culture.
Mexico-born and Chicana identified, Portillo’s films have focused on the search for Latino identity. She has worked in a richly varied range of forms, from television documentary to satirical video-film collage. Portillo got her first filmmaking experience at the age of twenty-one when a friend in Hollywood asked her to help out on a documentary. Portillo says: “ I knew from that moment what I was going to do for the rest of my life. That never changed. It was just a matter of when I was going to do it.” Her formal training began several years later. An apprenticeship at the San Francisco NABET (National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians) led to a job as Stephen Lighthill’s first camera assistant on Cine Manifest’s feature Over, Under, Sideways, Down. In 1978, after graduating from The San Francisco Art Institute, Portillo used American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Award monies to create her internationally praised narrative film After the Earthquake/Despues del Terremoto, about a Nicaraguan refugee living in San Francisco.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the result of a three year collaboration with writer/director Susana Munoz, was a pivotal film in Portillo’s career. Its nomination for the Academy’s Best Documentary in 1985, and the twenty other awards it received internationally earned Portillo the PBS funding she needed for her next film, La Ofrenda :The Days of the Dead. Completed in 1989 and greeted with widespread critical acclaim, La Ofrenda was Portillo’s most serious attempt to date to challenge the notion that as she says “documentary is always associated with injustice.” In it she portrays in loving color a Mexican and Chicano holiday – the celebration of “the days of the dead” – and initiates the dream-like structure that has become a hallmark of her recent work.
A grant from the NEA Inter-Arts program allowed Portillo to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in her own ironic fashion. Her 1993 film, Columbus on Trial showed at the London and Sundance Film festivals as well and was selected for the 1993 Whitney Museum Biennial. In 1994 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in recognition of her contributions to filmmaking. All of her work is widely shown in classrooms and academic circles and integrated into curriculum studies.
Portillo has collaborated extensively with noted directors Susana Muñoz and Nina Serrano and with Academy Award-winning editor Vivien Hillgrove. Working with other women artists has helped Portillo break down the proscriptions of traditional documentary making because “women, and women of color in particular, often come into filmmaking with a different set of objectives than their male counterparts.” Portillo’s films have received high praise at more than ten international women’s film festivals.
In The Devil Never Sleeps, Portillo continues her effort to explore the Mexican psyche, and broaden the spectrum of screen representation of Latinos and Chicanos. Her tireless creative impulses are meanwhile driving her in new directions.
Currently in production is a narrative feature about a modern day Don Quixote: a filmmaker whose life and art become a beautiful hallucination and in her quest for the perfect film she gets lost along the way. The journey itself becomes her redemption and eventually her transformation. Ms. Portillo is also the executive producer for a low-budget comedy set in the urban underworld of cockfighting. (lourdesportillo.com)
La Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (1986) La ofrenda (The Days of the Dead, 1988) El diablo nunca duerme (The Devil Never Sleeps, 1994) Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (1999) Señorita extraviada (Missing Young Woman, 2001)
How is there not more information about Lourdes Portillo on the Internet
This woman is a genius. She is brilliant. I cannot watch her work without crying. Señorita extraviada and Las madres de la Plaza de Mayo are stunning, intellectually and visually, and her work is just so compelling.
Summer goal: watch every documentary Lourdes Portillo has ever created.