Trambley, Estela Portillo
Estela Portillo Trambley 1927-1998
American playwright, short story writer, novelist, and poet.
Portillo Trambley is viewed as a pioneer in Chicana literature. She is known for plays and fiction that portray women who rebel against male domination and affirm values traditionally described as feminine, such as nurturing and self-knowledge. Although she focuses on the plight of Chicana women in particular, Portillo Trambley attempts to place their problems in the context of universal human concerns, drawing upon a wide variety of images and symbols to enrich the meaning of her work.
Born in El Paso, Texas, on 16 January 1927, Portillo Trambley obtained her bachelor's degree in English from the College of Mines in El Paso (now part of the University of Texas) in 1956. She taught high school English for many years and hosted radio talk show and a Hispanic cultural affairs television program before becoming resident dramatist at El Paso Community College in 1970 and working as a high-school teacher for the homebound. Her first literary success came in 1971 with the publication of her play The Day of the Swallows; the following year she was awarded the Quinto Sol Award for her writing. In addition to several subsequent dramas, Portillo Trambley wrote poetry; a volume of collected short fiction, Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975); and a novel entitled Trini (1986). In 1995 she held the Presidential Chair in Creative Writing at the University of California, Davis. She died on December 28, 1998.
Portillo Trambley's short stories and plays are characterized by strong women struggling to transcend traditional gender roles and gain autonomy within an oppressive, patriarchal society. She described her protagonists as “angry women” whose rage stems from the conflicts between their own ideas and the orders imposed upon them by men as a result of gender stereotyping. For example, Josefa in The Day of the Swallows rebels against marriage—which she views as slavery—and eventually establishes a lesbian relationship with her roommate. When this relationship is discovered by a young boy, Josefa cuts out his tongue to silence him. When her secret is nevertheless about to be revealed, she drowns herself in a lake. Critics point out that although many of Portillo Trambley's women resort to violence, they do so because of a desperate need to assert themselves. They strive for freedom, in some cases choosing death over continued servitude. However, some of Portillo Trambley's female protagonists manage to rebel and survive to develop as complex, well-rounded individuals. Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, heralded as the first published collection of short fiction by a Chicana, features some of the same thematic concerns as her plays. For example, Teresa in “Paris Gown” is inspired by the courage of her grandmother Clotilde. As a young Mexican girl trying to avoid an arranged marriage, Clotilde had invited scandal and alienated her family in order to live an independent life in Paris. Portillo Trambley's novel, Trini, chronicles the story of a Mexican woman's fight for survival. The book explores several themes that appear frequently in Chicano literature: the struggle for financial security, family separation, the ties to traditional cultures, and woman's struggle for autonomy in a patriarchal society.
Commentators praise Portillo Trambley's portrayal of strong female protagonists who rebel against male-dominated society and strive to maintain independence and identity under cultural and religious pressures. Although Portillo Trambley usually does not deal with overtly political issues in her works, critics suggest that her depictions of the rebellion of women against tradition as well as the representation of their social marginalization is inherently political. Her work has been compared to that of Chicano author Rudolf Anaya, and critics often discuss her place within the tradition of Chicana literature.
The Day of the Swallows (play) 1971
Impressions (poetry) 1971
Morality Play (play) 1974
Blacklight (play) 1975
El Hombre Cosmico (play) 1975
Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (novella and short stories) 1975; revised as Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories, 1993
Sun Images (play) 1976
Isabel and the Dancing Bear (play) 1977
Sor Juana and Other Plays (plays) 1983
Trini (novel) 1986
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SOURCE: Lattin, Patricia and Vernon Lattin. “Power and Freedom in the Stories of Estela Portillo Trambley.” Critique 21, no. 1 (1979): 93-101.
[In the following essay, the critics investigate the treatment of women and power in Portillo Trambley's short fiction, asserting that many of her female characters “resist being merely a passive reflection of man's will and rebel against the unjust system of power and order that has enslaved them.”]
Malinalli Tenepal, called “La Malinche,” took her place in the “history of man” as the betrayer responsible for the Spanish conquest of the Indians, for she is said to have revealed important military information to Cortez. One must realize, however, that “La Malinche” was not a free citizen, having been first sold into slavery by her parents and then given to Cortez by her owner.1 Her position as slave to both Aztec and Spanish masters raises questions about the meaning of her “betrayal.” Did she as woman/slave owe loyalty to any of her masters? Was her act a rebellion against the social powers that made her a slave and concubine? As a victim of oppression, did she seek in the only possible way a form of individual freedom and expression? Ironically, the myth that makes her responsible for the conquest also makes her the mother of the first mestizo, whose descendants threw off the Spanish conquerors. As a woman, she is both Eve and...
(The entire section is 3483 words.)
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SOURCE: Vallejos, Tomás. “Estela Portillo Trambley's Fictive Search for Paradise.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 5, no. 2 (summer 1980): 54-8.
[In the following essay, Vallejos contends that the quest for paradise is a central thematic concern of Rain of Scorpions.]
Much Chicano fiction can be seen as a search for values in a world that is hostile to those values. In the case of the Chicana artist, the hostility is twofold. She is the target of both racism and sexism. It is no wonder, then, when a Chicana's literary expression is rooted in dissatisfaction. One outstanding case in point is Estela Portillo Trambley's collection of short fiction and drama, Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings.
One aspect of Portillo Trambley's writing which distinguishes her from many male Chicano writers is her criticism, not only of American society, but of some Chicano traditions and social structures as well. Dissatisfied with the inferior position of women advocated by many Chicano traditionalists, Portillo Trambley turns to ancient mythical structures as models of an ideal balance in the cosmos. This original balance, she seeks to inform her readers, precedes and excels the inequity she exposes in traditional Mexican customs and social structures that aggrandize men at the expense of women. She also uses this primordial model as a basis for criticizing American corruptions of...
(The entire section is 3861 words.)
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SOURCE: Rodriguez, Alfonso. “Tragic Vision in Estella Portillo's The Day of the Swallows.” De Colores 5, nos. 1-2 (1980): 152-58.
[In the following essay, Rodriguez discusses The Day of the Swallows as a tragic play.]
The literature on tragedy as an aesthetic form is very extensive. And although critics do not agree on which works are classifiable as tragedies, there seems to be a general consensus over those elements which reveal a sense of the tragic in a given work of art. Our comments are based on the assumption that there is a confluence of qualities which render a vision of the tragic in The Day of the Swallows (1969), a drama in three acts by Estella Portillo. Our intent is not to classify the play, for in order to do that adequately, we would have to test the play's impact on the readers (or the audience) with respect to the arousal of pity and fear, an element that Aristotle thought indispensable in a genuine tragedy. Rather we will isolate those features which interrelate to give the play its tragic vision.
The following is a definition of tragedy advanced by Marjorie Boulton, which helps us to place The Day of the Swallows in its proper context. Tragedy is:
a play with a sorrowful ending, usually of at least one death; the action and thoughts are treated seriously and with a respect for human personality....
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SOURCE: Ordóñez, Elizabeth J. “Narrative Texts by Ethnic Women: Rereading the Past, Reshaping the Future.” MELUS 9, no. 4 (winter 1982): 19-28.
[In the following essay, Ordóñez analyzes how Portillo Trambley's Rain of Scorpions and works by three other female authors become “both the means and embodiment of modifying and reshaping female history, myths, and ultimately personal and collective identity.”]
History and morality are written and read within the infrastructure of texts.
—“Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language
The consensus among many ethnic writers today is that the eighties will be a time to move beyond cultural nationalism, beyond dogmatism, and that readers will need to learn to read as they draw from the past to reshape the future. This essay will propose that the narrative text itself, if properly read and decoded, may indeed be a tool for accomplishing this goal, for as Borges has observed: “[Each] work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”1 This analysis will also address itself to some specific issues raised by a particular group of ethnic writers—women—who should by now be recognized and read as having produced a coherent and interrelated system of texts with its own observable characteristics.
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SOURCE: Portillo Trambley, Estela and Faye Nell Vowell. “A MELUS Interview: Estela Portillo-Trambley.” MELUS 9, no. 4 (winter II 1982): 59-66.
[In the following interview, Portillo Trambley discusses the portrayal of women in Chicano literature, influences on her work, and her love of writing.]
[Vowell]: Could we begin by talking about how you decided to become a writer?
[Portillo-Trambley]: I really didn't think about it seriously until after I married and had children and found out I had to do something besides raise children and teach school. The first bilingual theater here in El Paso was started back in 1968. A group of four people from the university and about three other people who were interested in writing were doing translations of American plays. Or we would take some old Spanish play and try to put it on, because we called ourselves bilingual. But during one of these very desperate, frustrating periods, we were all sitting around and someone said, “What we need is material, material! We have no material!” And all of a sudden I just said, “I'll write you all a play.” I don't know why. It just came out. So I set about and wrote the most atrocious play that you could ever imagine. It was put on, and it enthused the crowd. And it was a terrible play. But the bug bit me. This was going somewhere, being bigger than myself, this magnification...
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SOURCE: Salazar-Parr, Carmen. “La Chicana in Literature.” In Chicano Studies: A Multidisciplinary Approach, edited by Eugene E. García, Francisco A. Lomelí, and Isidro D. Ortiz, pp. 120-34. New York: Teachers College Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Salazar-Parr surveys the range of female characters in Portillo Trambley's fiction and drama.]
In the prologue to The Female Imagination Patricia Meyer Spacks states that “changing social conditions increase or diminish the opportunities for women's action and expression, but a special female self-awareness emerges through literature in every period.”1 She examines literature written in English during the past three hundred years to see if there are patterns in the female experience that are persistent ways of feeling, patterns that survive despite change. Although her investigation refers to the Anglo tradition, it identifies some elements characteristic of the “special female self-awareness” that are universal and that apply to other literary traditions as well.
If we were to examine literature written by women within the Hispanic tradition in a project as ambitious as the one undertaken by Spacks, we would recognize that throughout history women writers have voiced the same concerns from their female experience. It is this female perspective that makes a woman...
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SOURCE: Martínez, Eliud. “Personal Vision in the Short Stories of Estela Portillo Trambley.” In Beyond Stereotypes: The Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature, edited by María Herrera-Sobek, pp. 71-90. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Martínez asserts that Portillo Trambley's personal vision challenges traditional assumptions regarding the nature and function of Chicano literature.]
This book is designed to bring the sexes closer together, not to set them apart by placing one above the other. If in these pages the natural superiority of women is emphasized, it is because the fact has thus far received far too little attention. …
—Ashley Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women
In recent years, some Chicano writers have dealt increasingly in their works with larger realms of human experience, history, and knowledge. This expansion of artistic vision is reflected in the complex narrative styles, language, forms, and techniques which Chicano writers employ and which are to be found in world literature of the past and the present.1 Consequently, contemporary Chicano literature may be said to have broken its artistic limits; challenging new directions for our present and future writers are everywhere. Chicano writers, men and women, seem to realize now that they are, as...
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SOURCE: Parotti, Phillip. “Nature and Symbol in Estela Portillo's ‘The Paris Gown.’” Studies in Short Fiction 24, no. 4 (fall 1987): 417-24.
[In the following essay, Parotti identifies nature as the controlling symbol of “The Paris Gown.”]
Estela Portillo de Trambley's short story, “The Paris Gown,” is a crafted fiction which develops its theme through masterful manipulation of traditional literary devices. The work is, certainly, other things as well. Charles M. Tatum has called attention to the story's liberation theme and declared its sensitive, feminine thrust.1 Judy Salinas has suggested that the piece emphasizes the “humanness” of woman “through an understanding of her role in Chicano society and in all society and how it restricts or frees her.”2 Finally, Bruce-Novoa writes:
“The Paris Gown” offers a less violent, but certainly equally positive tale of female liberation. Besides the open attack on anachronistic machismo and the creation of a strong, interesting female protagonist, the story proposes the need to shift from a rigidly defined, intellectualized aesthetic to a fluid, sensual one, what Susan Sontag calls the movement from the hermeneutics to the erotics of art, or what Portillo would call the victory of the Dionysian principle over the Apollonian. When the metaphor of aesthetics is expanded to its...
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SOURCE: Schiavone, Sister James David. “Distinct Voices in the Chicano Short Story: Anaya's Outreach, Portillo Trambley's Outcry, Rosaura Sánchez's Outrage.” The Americas Review 16, no. 2 (summer 1988): 68-81.
[In the following essay, Schiavone contrasts the short fiction of Rudolfo Anaya, Portillo Trambley, and Rosaura Sánchez.]
A new vitality, both stylistically and thematically, is evident in the contemporary Chicano short story through the distinctive voices of Rudolfo A. Anaya, Estela Portillo Trambley and Rosaura Sánchez. Energetically diverse writers, who distinguish themselves in exhibiting a clearly-defined commitment to artistic craftsmanship, they have demonstrated great individuality in modes of narration, structural organization and thematic concerns. Each writer has brought a unique tone to the short story: Anaya's persevering expression of outreach, Portillo Trambley's persuasive outcry for freedom, and Rosaura Sánchez's penetrating outrage.
In examining the work of the authors, certain discoveries present themselves. Anaya's outreach is toward man's sense of place, a sense of belonging. It is always seeking a harmony, a fusion between man and his landscape: a specific piece of land that assists man to know himself and, by extension, to communicate this sense of belonging to other men. Anaya claims, “We have to come out of our experience, our own tradition,...
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SOURCE: Dewey, Janice. “Doña Josefa: Bloodpulse of Transition and Change.” In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, pp. 39-47. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Dewey places The Day of the Swallows within the Chicano literary tradition.]
An analysis of Estela Portillo Trambley's Chicana drama, The Day of the Swallows (1971),1 presents numerous ambiguities that surround the unifying theme of woman in relation to her psychocultural and physical environment. These ambiguities become clarified through the interpretation of the central character of Doña Josefa, the town high priestess of charity and love. A declaration is made for the theater-going public in general and the Chicano community in particular; any human being stifled in the natural unfolding of her/his life can either rebel or submit. Though the dramatic circumstances of the play are at best shocking and mystifying, Doña Josefa represents an explosive interruption, variance, and change in the midst of temporal and cultural uniformity. Her acts are apparently evil, her ultimate suicide the final unmasking, and yet the dialectical undercurrent of ritualized good behavior (as opposed to ritualized bad) works effectively to expose the central thesis of woman trapped...
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SOURCE: Daghistany, Ann. “The Shaman, Light and Dark.” In Literature and Anthropology, edited by Philip Dennis and Wendell Aycock, pp. 193-208. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Daghistany examines the shaman archetype in Trambley's “The Burning” and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.]
Anthropology, myth studies, and comparative literature all look for—and find—in their respective subject matters recurrent images of forms and aspects of human life and of its environing forces, factors that condition and shape it. The term archetype is used widely to signify such images. I assume here that such images are not simply made up by individual persons, but are given by society and have, moreover, the power of acting upon individuals in various ways. This assumption provides a basis for understanding how anthropologists, comparative mythologists, and students of literature can be regarded as having something important in common: if such images and their relationships to the persons whose lives they shape and whose experience they inform are in this sense objective, they are subject to descriptions that can be more-or-less accurate, penetrating, or comprehensive.
Let us consider the case of the shaman archetype. Anthropologists have described shamanism in many different cultures, and the shaman figure seems to be of more than local interest....
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SOURCE: Niño, Raúl. Review of Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories. Booklist 89, no. 15 (1 April 1993): 1411.
[In the following review, Niño offers a favorable assessment of Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories.]
In this impressive collection [Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories] Portillo Trambley weaves the fabric of joy and sorrow, life and death from the richly hued strands of her characters' lives. The novella-length title story is an inspiring tale of earthly wisdom and the human search for meaning and a center to life. Papá At, the wise old man of a small town, listens to the breathing of the earth, the air, and all the creatures. He tells the stories of Gotollama, the creator, inspiring a group of boys to undertake a journey that leads ultimately to deeper understanding of themselves. The other, shorter stories include the tragedy of what happens to those who don't conform to society's norms (“The Burning”) and the comedy of a young woman's escape from her chauvinistic father (“The Paris Gown”). They include the mystery of the human heart, too, as when Beatriz, the heroine of “If It Weren't for the Honeysuckle,” justifies her actions with these all-too-true words: “Yes, there's a wildness in me from all the things that have happened in our lives, the sadness, the loneliness, the violences. They grow inside us—mix—and become something I cannot explain.” A welcome...
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SOURCE: Detwiler, Louise. “The Question of Cultural Difference and Gender Oppression in Estela Portillo-Trambley's The Day of the Swallows.” Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe 21, no. 2 (May-August 1996): 146-52.
[In the following essay, Detwiler underscores the role of cultural difference as it pertains to gender oppression in The Day of the Swallows.]
Estela Portillo-Trambley is most noted for her two dramas, The Day of the Swallows and Sor Juana, and is also praised for her collection of short stories and plays entitled Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings. Born in El Paso, Texas, the writer has expressed on one occasion that “I think I have the feel, the earth-roots, the historical consciousness of a Mejicana, enough to re-create the authentic experience” (Vowell 59). While her Chicanaism is clearly reflected by these words, Portillo-Trambley's identification with feminism appears somewhat ambiguous on another occasion: “Algunas reseñas de Rain of Scorpions dicen que yo soy feminista, cosa que yo no había visto; pero cuando miro toda mi obra, bueno, qué te parece, sí lo soy” (Bruce-Novoa 37-38). Portillo-Trambley did not begin to devote herself to writing until later in life when she realized that she “had to do something besides raise children and teach school” (Vowell 59). The Day of the Swallows, the first published work of this...
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SOURCE: Eysturoy, Annie O. “Trini: A Chicana Quest Myth.” In Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel, pp. 57-84. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Eysturoy views Trini as a Chicana bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story.]
Female, a Quixote is no Quixote at all; told about a woman, the tale of being caught in a fantasy becomes the story of everyday life.
Trini (1986), by Estela Portillo Trambley, is perhaps the most conventional of the Chicana Bildungsromane under consideration in this study. Its narrative pattern is essentially chronological, showing a continuous development from childhood to maturity, much in keeping with the linear structural paradigm of the traditional male Bildungsroman. The story of the protagonist, Trini, is told in third person by an omniscient narrator and conforms to the convention of tracing the development through different stages of the heroic quest for identity, but with the essential differences social and cultural conditions generate in respect to female development. Like many narratives that cover the development from childhood to maturity, Trini carries, to use Annis Pratt's phrase, “the undertones of the mythic” (1981, 13). Employing the motif of the journey, an...
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SOURCE: Southerland, Stacy. “Subverting the Silence of Desire: Sacrificial Acts in Estela Portillo-Trambley's The Day of the Swallows.” RLA: Romance Languages Annual 9 (1997): 704-09.
[In the following essay, Southerland contends that sacrifice is a central thematic concern in The Day of the Swallows.]
Representations of sacrifice pervade Latin American literature and culture, dating back to the ritual offerings of self and others in ancient indigenous cultures. The Aztec, Inca, and Maya civilizations deemed sacrificial offerings honorable and crucial to the preservation of their race. It was only with the advent of Christianity that the sacrificial act, especially in the self-referential manifestation of suicide, came to be regarded negatively. This is despite the fact that the Bible “nowhere proscribes suicide” and is, in fact, replete with examples of it that are not condemned (Droge xi).
The theme of sacrifice provides the foundation for Estela Portillo-Trambley's The Day of the Swallows (1971) whose plot revolves around a town's preparation for a festival celebrating the institution of marriage and one woman's attempt to deny her beliefs and participate in the festivities. This celebration consists of a procession led by an “‘honored member’ of the church” to the Lago of San Lorenzo where the town's virgins bathe in order to ensure a good...
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SOURCE: Hardin, Michael. “Coatlicue on the Loose: Encompassing the Dualities in Anzaldúa, Portillo Trambley, and Cisneros.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 26, no. 1 (1999): 83-96.
[In the following essay, Hardin explores the use of the archetype of the Aztec “creator goddess” Coatlicue in the work of Portillo Trambley, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Sandra Cisneros.]
In Mexican and Mexican-American traditions, women are provided with very narrow and limited cultural models and patterns. For the most part, these roles are defined by the woman's relationship to an other: as mother, her identity is based on her relationship to her child(ren); as whore, her identity is based upon her having sexual relationships with men. The paradigms in the culture are more complex than merely mother and whore, but these serve as the bases for most of the female models. Gloria Anzaldúa writes that there are three archetypal mothers in the Mexican-American culture: la Malinche, la Virgen de Guadalupe, and la Llorona. Chloe Furnival suggests that there is a fourth potential role, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her role is traditionally not defined by a relationship as such, but instead by the absence of one; she is a nun, cloistered in a convent. These four cultural models serve in the patriarchal society as a means to split the psyche and fragment the self to the extent that it can be argued that a self does not even exist in...
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SOURCE: Candelaria, Cordelia. “Engendering ReSolutions: The (Feminist) Legacy of Estela Portillo Trambley.” In Decolonial Voices: Chicana and Chicano Cultural Studies in the 21st Century, edited by Arturo J. Aldama and Naomi H. Quiñonez, pp. 195-207. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Candelaria considers Portillo Trambley's legacy as a feminist, provides an appreciation of her work, and assesses her place in Chicana literature.]
When she died in 1998, Estela Portillo Trambley, a native of El Paso, Texas, left a public legacy of writing, storytelling, and several decades of teaching influence that I admire greatly and find solid as cuentos and important as cultural artifacts. At the same time I find her literary legacy ideologically complicated and complicating, as important legacies often are.1 It is this tension between respect for Trambley's obra and my struggle with some of the thematics and signification of some of her representations that in part first drew me to this collection's theme of “millennial anxieties” for, after nearly three decades of working to promote appreciation for raza letters, I find that the notional possibilities associated with “The Millennium” as an idea offer a timely opening for the kind of reconsiderations and appraisals that are associated with the genre of homages, which is one aim of...
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Fernández, Roberta. “Abriendo caminos in the Brotherland: Chicana Writers Respond to the Ideology of Literary Nationalism.” In Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 14, no. 2 (1994): 23-50.
Surveys Portillo Trambley's work for the journal El grito.
Ikas, Karin Rosa. “Estela Portillo-Trambley.” In Chicana Ways: Conversations with Ten Chicana Writers, pp. 205-13. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002.
Interview, conducted in 1997, in which Portillo Trambley discusses influences on her life and work, her role in the Chicana literary movement, and her writing process.
Kempf, Andrea Caron. Review of Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, by Estela Portillo Trambley. Library Journal 102, no. 1 (1 January 1977): 128.
Negative appraisal of Portillo Trambley's collection.
Motian-Meadows, Mary. “Chicana Literature: Transformations at the Border.” The Bloomsbury Review 13, no. 5 (September 1993): 5.
Favorable assessment of Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories.
Salazar-Parr, Carmen and Genevieve M. Ramírez. “The Female Hero in Chicano Literature.” In Beyond Stereotypes: The Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature, edited by Maria Herrera-Sobek, pp. 47-60. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Bilingual Press,...
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