Screening Resistance

A conversation between Lourdes Portillo and Rosa Linda Fregoso


Rosa Linda Fregoso: I first met Lourdes Portillo in Santa Barbara in 1987 when I had the honor of introducing her at the premiere of her film Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Since then, I have had the occasion to write about her work and to undertake readings of two of her films, Despues del Terremoto (After the earthquake) (1979) and La Ofrenda (The offering) (1990). (1) In my estimation, these two films enact what Chela Sandoval terms "differential consciousness. (2) More properly, they inscribe the tactical subjectivity deployed by U.S. Third World feminists since the 1960s. During the decade of the 1970s, feminist film criticism tended to view cinematic practices in terms of a series of binary oppositions: commercial versus independent, mainstream versus oppositional, documentary versus experimental, or narrative-driven versus avant-garde, non-narrative cinema. Lourdes Portillo's films resist such rigid binary constructions of cinematic practices. Her films are all narrative- driven; however, they are not straightforwardly didactic; a genuine mix of complexity, self-reflexivity, and a concern for the aesthetics of reception characterize them. Indeed, I have learned from viewing and reviewing Lourdes Portillo's films that each viewing unlocks a different textual door because her films enact the multiple articulations of race, class, and gender. Cultural conflict drives most of Portillo's projects, yet I would argue that she orchestrates an aesthetics of reception and an aesthetics of subtlety that make for polyvocal, multivalent, cultural forms. These cultural forms inscribe Third World feminists as their foremost spectators. Portillo's films are not, however, just about Third World, or, subaltern subjects, but are about subjectivities; her films position spectators on multiple sides and in various locales of conflict and engagement. (3)

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Let's begin with how you got started as a filmmaker in the Bay Area.

Lourdes Portillo: Well, it's a very long story. We don't have enough time to hear it and I don't have the patience to retell it after I've lived it.... I was always interested in film. I began working in film in Los Angeles as a camera assistant for an educational film company. At that time, I was studying political science and I realized that it was film that I could do best. There are moments in one's life when you find out that there are some things that you can't do—I couldn't type, well, not very fast—and there are other things that feel very natural to do. I realized I could work in a crew with a group of people. And I liked creating an alternate kind of reality. I stopped making films for a while when I got married and had children because I didn't have time to do the work. Instead, I studied film. Later, when I moved to San Francisco, I worked with a collective there called Cine Manifest, which was a group of Marxist filmmakers. I was getting two different kinds of education: a political education and a free associative filmic education. That's how I began working in film.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: You've done commissioned work, but you've stayed pretty much in the independent circuit. Tell us why you made that decision.

Lourdes Portillo: Coming from San Francisco and having children made me realize that I couldn't move to Los Angeles and try to make it in Hollywood. It was the 1970s and if I went to the offices of the funders, or to whomever was in charge, I'd probably look like their maid and they wouldn't trust me with a million dollars. So I decided I would make independent film in San Francisco where there was a lot of opportunity for me to grow and to make films. I think that's the real reason. The other reason I realized later as I made more films: I didn't want to compromise as much as one needs to compromise. It was a very big luxury to remain independent.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Can you elaborate a little bit more about the compromises?

Lourdes Portillo: After having worked in television, I realized that your voice is so manipulated to fit into the format they're used to that it is very deadening. I imagined that television was just like a small version of what Hollywood might be.

Despues del Terremoto

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Let's talk about your first film, Despues del Terremoto (1979), which is about a Nicaraguan woman who migrates to San Francisco after the Nicaraguan earthquake of 1976. You've mentioned to me that it is indicative of filmmaking at a particular historical moment. Could you give us some background on why you decided to do a film about a Nicaraguan woman in San Francisco and her desire to purchase a television set?

Lourdes Portillo: Despues del Terremoto was made at the beginning of the Nicaraguan insurrection. I was involved with people living in San Francisco who were involved in the insurrection, one of whom is my friend and collaborator Nina Serrano. We talked to the Sandinistas and told them that we wanted to make a film about what was happening here, not in Nicaragua, because it was very dangerous to go to Nicaragua at that time. They said, "Perfect. Do it. We support you." So we proceeded to get funding, including from the American Film Institute, on the basis of a script that Nina and I wrote. It was a script for a narrative film. If you remember, in the late 1970s, most political film, although there were some exceptions, were documentaries and we were proposing a narrative film. We came back to the Sandinistas and said, "Well, we got funded and this is the film we're going to make," and we showed them the script. They said, "Oh, sorry. We can't support you any longer. This is crazy. You have to do something that really expresses what we need expressed." And so that was a parting of the ways.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: You did a docudrama. What made you decide against the documentary format?

Lourdes Portillo: It was a practical decision. It was very impractical for us to go to Nicaragua then.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: But, you could have made a documentary about the immigrants' experiences or about the struggle of Sandinistas in exile. Instead, you made more of a fictional docudrama, a scripted narrative film, where you investigate sexual freedom and the freedom to consume within the context of North and Central American politics. Lourdes Portillo: We had a story in mind, so it was harder to find the subjects than just to recreate the story. That's how we came to that decision.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: There's a climactic scene in Despues del Terremoto I'd like to ask you about. The younger and older women have been preparing for the birthday celebration of the matriarchal elderly Latina. Different genders, generations, and ideological positions are depicted. People are dancing, eating, and celebrating. The scene culminates when Roberto, the protagonist Irene's boyfriend, who has just returned from Nicaragua, is asked to show his slides of the aftermath of the earthquake. In the first series of slides, Roberto provides general information about the earthquake, its effects on people, the casualties, the devastation of homes and schools, and so on. Roberto's tone and demeanor change from a neutral account of the events to a more political analysis of the corruption of the dictator Somoza and the repression of political activists. As we learn, Roberto was imprisoned for stealing food from the government and giving it to the poor. As Roberto voices condemnation of U.S. support for the dictatorship, one of the tamale-making t{as intervenes. As she stands up before Roberto, the slide show is transposed from the makeshift screen to her white apron, projecting images of Nicaragua onto her body. She says, “Stop this slide show. I don't want to hear anymore." I call this scene the moment of implosion; it's where all the narrative strands come together. But, interestingly, it reveals the kinds of contradictions or divisions that are always part of political communities. Is that what you intended?

Lourdes Portillo: Sure. We wanted to give the situation a human depth, to actually contextualize it the way it really was. We wanted to show that there are political concerns, there are contradictions, and there are oppositions. It wasn't just one-way, you know.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Like Roberto, who's just come from Nicaragua? He has a specific kind of revolutionary discourse, and he's young. You create a situation in which the women are much older. They have had to survive here and are a little more fearful than he: they know the realities. Why did you choose to focus on an older woman to convey these dynamics of the political community?

Lourdes Portillo: I think the women in the film represent the women of that time. They were very aware of what happened during the Somoza regime and that's the reason why they were in the United States. Youth is always much more idealistic and stronger in a certain way, but blinder too. We felt that the older women have traditionally filled that role of consciousness-raising in the community, so we were just representing that.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Do you believe that is why the Sandinistas didn't want you to do the film the way you proposed?

Lourdes Portillo: I think that the Sandinistas had an objective in mind. I don't think that was a bad thing; they might not have won the war without such single-mindedness. In a sense, and I don't mean a negative sense, we were a bit frivolous. At the same time, we were trying to do something that was meaningful beyond the single objective of winning the war and then discarding the film. One of the things that I find so interesting and important about the film is that gender is at the center of cultural conflict.

Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Lourdes Portillo is best known for her documentary film, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, about the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina. The film received twenty international and national awards. Meanwhile, General Rivera had suspended all civil rights. At bus stops, at work and in cafes. People were taken away. Disappeared . . .

Lourdes Portillo:The story of the mothers is so poignant and painful that the film sort of made itself in many ways. I mean, there was nothing to do but to record what happened and that was sufficient.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: How was it received in Argentina? Lourdes Portillo: They loved it. They loved the film because we brought it to the Cultural Center in San Martin to screen after the dictatorship had fallen. There was a line nine blocks long to see the film. They wanted to see the truth. They hadn't been told the truth for a long time and this was the first exposure that they had to it. They had never seen on the screen a representation about the disappeared and the struggle of the mothers.

Mirrors of the Heart

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Let's turn now to a commissioned work about identity in Latin America, Mirrors of the Heart (1992). Could you share your thoughts with us about this film?

Lourdes Portillo: I wanted to make a film about identity from my experience as a Mexican. I was born in Mexico. The Indians in Bolivia had a similar experience and it was their experience I wanted to translate to the screen. The film is about ethnic identity, how the indigenous people of the Americas have defined themselves and how the colonizers define them. It is about the conflict around those two definitions. This film was an Annenberg project, which involved ten, fifteen—I don't remember exactly—academics who were to tell me whether I was correct or not about what I was perceiving, or if it fit within their theories of what identity was. I had a lot of problems with them. This is my vengeance now.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: What did the academics tell you identity was?

Lourdes Portillo: They insulted me. They called me an essentialist, which I took as a compliment. In one important scene, we hear Raul Julia reading a stilted narration that I fought over for months and months and never really won. I would win two words and they would win thirty, and it went on like that forever. Does this man choose to have his hair curled because he wants to be up-to-date, or because he wants to seem less indigenous? From my research and from who this man was, he didn't want to be indigenous. He wanted to fit into the urban setting of La Paz. He had come from the country and to be an Indian in La Paz is not a nice thing. Anything one can do to hide that, he will do. He did look better with a perm, though.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Can you say more about shifting identities?

Lourdes Portillo: Yes. One particular scholar from Princeton—I won't name any names, but someday you may find out who she is—had this theory, a theory I think a lot of you also share. This theory says that identity is fluid. From my experience, I don't believe that identity is fluid. Perhaps over a series of generations you can change aspects of yourself or aspects of your children will change; maybe your children will be whiter, or maybe they will look indigenous. But when an indigenous person moves from the country to an urban setting, he is undoubtedly indigenous. The Criollos, or descendants of the Spaniards, will never mistake him for anything other than an indigenous person. The theory implies that if you come to the city, get a perm and a job in which you do somewhat well, and call yourself a Cholo, a mestizo, or a mixed-blood person, then you've changed your identity. In fact, in the eyes of the people around you, your identity has not changed. And this was the argument that went back and forth between myself and this particular scholar. She had curly blond hair, in case you ever recognize her, and she said that during the 1970S she had an Afro. I was appalled. I just gave up. I said, "No, I can't do this anymore. I'm going to quit. I don't care." She had an Afro. You know, she's crazy.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: A point to emphasize is that some people, because of their skin color, have the privilege of being able to slip and slide in categories whereas other people do not have that ability.

Lourdes Portillo: Exactly.

Rosa Linda Fregoso: A Black man walks into a ritzy store in San Francisco and the electronic cameras go on just because no matter how well-dressed he may be, he still wears his race on his body.

Lourdes Portillo: I also think that it's easier for a white person to feel like he or she can be indigenous, as in the film Dances with Wolves, you know? But an Indian can't be white. That was the argument in very simplistic terms. I am kind of a simple person. No, I mean I like to simplify things. That's why they call me an essentialist.

The Trial of Christopher Columbus

Rosa Linda Fregoso: Lourdes's newest film is called The Trial of Christopher Columbus (199~) and stars the Chicano comedy troupe Culture Clash. History has found Columbus innocent, but Portillo has not in this film. Why did you choose comedy for this film?

Lourdes Portillo: That is the medium I'm using to try to synthesize my political thinking and my emotional state to bring you some sort of spectacle all at the same time. I thought a mixture of political satire, humor, and experimentation with video would bring something new to the argument. I like to laugh. I really think it makes me feel good. You know, after I laugh I feel better. Maybe I won't get a heart attack after all.

List of Completed Works by Lourdes Portillo

The Trial of Christopher Columbus (1992) 18-minute video. A political satire with Culture Clash, the comedy trio. verbal satire, physical comedy, and state-of-the-art video techniques are d to dramatize a faux-trial of Columbus in a present-day courtroom.

Mirrors of the Heart (1992) one-hour documentary for WGBH in Boston for The Americas, a ten-part series on Latin America broadcast in 1993. Mirrors of the Heart explores the notions of ethnic identity, and was filmed on the island of Hispaniola and in highlands of Bolivia.

"The Aztec Myth of Creation" (1991) screenplay for an animated feature for animator Patricia Amlyn. Funded by e National Endowment for the Humanities. It is presently in production.

Vida (1990) short narrative film for AIDSFILMS that depicts the struggle of a young Latina woman in New York coming to terms with the dangers of AIDS. Recipient of a Gold Award at the International Film and TV Festival in New York City, a Golden Eagle, and a Silver Apple at the National Educational Film Festival. Vida received an honorable mention at the San Antonio Film Festival.

Ofrenda (1990) Lyrical, 16mm documentary film that portrays the attitudes that Chicanos Id Mexicans have toward death. The film has received several awards, including a Blue Ribbon from the American Film and Video Association, as ell as honors from the Independent Documentary Association and the Latino Film Festival in San Antonio, Texas.

Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1986) one-hour documentary depicting the story of the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina. The mothers forced the military regime into an accounting for their disappeared ones. Recipient of twenty national and international awards, including a 1986 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and an Emmy nomination.

"Chola" (1982) original screenplay, commissioned by American Playhouse, about a teenage Salvadoran refugee in San Francisco, an orphaned girl who has come to live with her grandmother in the United States.

Despues del Terremoto (1979) A 16mm, half-hour narrative about a Nicaraguan maid trying to adapt to America and her dilemma over her impending marriage to a Nicaraguan revolutionary. Recipient of awards in Poland and Cuba.

All films distributed by Xochitl Films, 918 Esmeralda, San Francisco, CA 94110.


1. See Rosa Linda Fregoso, "Nepantla in Gendered Subjectivity:' in The Bronze Screen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

2. Chela Sandoval, “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World:' Genders 10 (spring 199l).

3. I occupy a particularly complicated role as spectator and critic. I have established a friendship with Lourdes Portillo and I was very ambivalent about that friendship because I had to resolve how to separate my critical work from my subjective enthusiasm and admiration for her as a mother (she has been a single mother of three sons; I was a single parent at a very young age). I had to separate this personal human feeling and connection I have with Lourdes from a much more objective assessment of her work. As much as I realize the impossibility of separating the subjective from the objective, it has nevertheless been a problem I have taken very seriously. Those of us who do literary criticism can certainly agree that it is much less conflicting to offer a negative critique of a text written by an author long dead than by one who is living. A nineteenth-century author can be criticized without the danger of retribution. The author won't not talk to you, and she or he won't respond to negative reviews of your book or deny permission for citations. I have always been suspicious of the kind of compromises inherent in befriending one's object of analysis. For example, I had some problems with a scene in Lourdes's film La Ofrenda about a cross-dresser. I felt I had to write about its contradictions, but I also felt that I had to talk to Lourdes about it and tell her I was going to do this. My hunch was that she would tell me that I had it all wrong and that I didn't understand what she was trying to do. When I told her how disturbed I was about the scene, she blew me away with her response. She said, "That's fine. Write about its problems and contradictions. I don't have any problem with being contradictory. Rosa Linda, I don't claim to be politically correct.”