Estela Portillo Trambley Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Patricia Lattin and Vernon Lattin (essay date 1979)

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 Serpent, created by men who failed to see history from the woman's point of view.

In 1975 a mestizo descendant of “La Malinche” added the voice of la mujer Chicana to American fiction, publishing Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, the first book of fiction by a Chicana. Not surprisingly, one of the central themes of the collection is the relationship between freedom and power as these forces affect women. Examining the cosmic, social, and psychological dimensions of women's struggle to be free in a power structure that has historically oppressed them, Estela Portillo Trambley takes the reader back to the Garden of Eden to rediscover not the American Adam but la mujer living in her own garden, cultivating her flowers, and seeking her own sun.

Cosmically, Trambley sees a world in which the human spirit, unwilling to accept a universe of mere stasis and repetition, challenges the “tried pattern” of existence. Meditating on the night sounds, the narrator of “Duende” considers Chance itself as merely the substrata of “a careful calculation” but then rejects such a view, believing that acts of will, the assertion of human feeling, and the individual spirit of duende defy a fixed order and fate. As her vision clears, she sees man “standing alone” and calls this “good.” She recognizes, however, that freedom has been only for man: “And woman? Each woman sadly waits.”2

Throughout the ten stories Trambley shows us many waiting women who have no gardens to cultivate, because they have no freedom to participate in their creation. Most of these women form a social backdrop to the fiction: nameless, faceless people playing secondary roles in life, day by day ground down by the male power-structure. Such were the women of Cetna (“The Trees”) before Nina came, women who “followed in silent steps, fulfilled in their women ways. … The lives were well patterned like the rows of apple trees and the trenches that fed them” (13). The image suggests that the women are like the apples, used and cultivated, but never themselves the Adamic cultivators. Juana in “Pay the Criers,” defined as “among the vanquished,” seems to spend all her time waiting for her husband, Chuco; he, who can “do as he wished,” beats her when she resists his taking her mother's burial money, part of which he uses to visit prostitutes. Without freedoms to nourish them, such women of the barrio become what Triano sees in “Duende”: “worn-faced women with fringes and traces of dreams,” trapped “within a cubicle that makes small demands, but that kills with that same smallness” (56).

Many of Trambley's women resist being merely a passive reflection of man's will and rebel against the unjust system of power and order that has enslaved them. These heroic women express a value system that honors freedom, instinct, wholeness, feeling, and primitiveness against slavery, barbarized reason, tradition, civilized order, and inequality. In the image of the wild, untamed garden Trambley sees the symbol of women's freedom, while in the ordered, symmetrical garden she sees the patriarchal traditions that have limited and tortured women.

In “The Paris Gown” Clotilde Romero de Traske is “a liberated form from civilized order” (2). Reared at a time when women “had small freedoms” (1), she seized freedom many years ago by daring to come down the stairs naked, in the middle of the party where her father was to announce her coming arranged marriage to a repulsive elderly man. Significantly, the idea for rebellion had come to her as she viewed a symmetrical, manicured garden with swans in a pond and “flowers arranged by species” (6). A small child playing in this patterned world spontaneously removed his clothes and waded into the water, prompting a spanking from his nurse. From this innocent rebellion against order and orders, Clo saw a model for escaping the “overwhelming, unfair tradition” (3) that gave woman the role of sexual servant in a marriage which was often “a patterned, strict garden of dead things, poisoned things” (4).

Clo of the present is a sophisticated woman of the world who has found in Paris her own freedom and also developed a strong hope that others can know a similar freedom. Rejecting Greek thought in favor of Romanticism, she sees reason as a “boxed-in circumstance” that has been violent against human beings and has produced “barbarism”; in contrast, she presents instinct as the saving element in life, “an innate law without barriers,” “a part of what gathers a wholeness.” More specifically, she expresses to her granddaughter the belief that although “overwhelming, unfair tradition” has reigned for many years, surviving in each person is “the instinct that respects all life, the instinct that understands equality.” Such instinct, she believes, can eliminate “the violence of men against women” (3).

Key elements of Clo's optimistic view of human possibility appear in her description of Gaudier-Brzeska, the sculptor whose works express the values by which she has tried to live: “Gaudier was a man of great passion; many consider him a primitive. He plunged into the instinctual and emotional to surface with an energy, a feeling, an ability free of barbarism” (2, emphasis added). Reinforcing the image of Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture, which Clo touches “reverently,” is her garden which she and Teresa see outside the window: “It had no symmetry, no pattern; the lawn and trailing vines, the cypress trees and profuse flowers had only been given a kind of order, only to free the life from complete chaos. Everything reached for the sun in its own way” (3-4). Thus Clotilde's energies, once destined for a dead garden, have created a free, larger Edenic existence.

Significantly, Trambley has taken the romantic myth of the regeneration and rebirth of human kind, the return to a golden age by way of instinctive, free-feeling, child-like innocence and rebellion from restraint, and has transferred the hope for the New Millennium, the New Jerusalem, into the hands of women who can break the pattern of oppression. Her optimism parallels that expressed by writers in the decade following the French Revolution, a belief in the indestructability of the human spirit of freedom. For Trambley, however, the future even of men lies in the hands of women who can change the enslaving tradition.

Trambley presents a static but complete illustration of the kind of woman who can free others when she creates Elsa of “The Secret Room.” Since she is not the main character of the story, Elsa does not take an active, revolutionary role, but her natural freedom and ability to give love without seeking power over the loved one form the catalyst that frees Julio (Julius Otto Vass Schleifer). Sweet and childlike but also passionate and wise, she has given herself freely to Julio, but she makes...

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Tomás Vallejos (essay date summer 1980)

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,...

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Alfonso Rodriguez (essay date 1980)

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...

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Elizabeth J. Ordóñez (essay date winter 1982)

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...

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Estela Portillo Trambley and Faye Nell Vowell (interview date winter 1982)

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...

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Carmen Salazar-Parr (essay date 1984)

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...

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Eliud Martínez (essay date 1985)

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...

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Phillip Parotti (essay date fall 1987)

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...

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Sister James David Schiavone (essay date summer 1988)

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...

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Janice Dewey (essay date 1989)

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...

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Ann Daghistany (essay date 1989)

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...

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Raúl Niño (review date 1 April 1993)

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...

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Louise Detwiler (essay date May-August 1996)

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...

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Annie O. Eysturoy (essay date 1996)

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.

—Rachel Brownstein

Trini (1986), by Estela Portillo Trambley, is perhaps the most conventional of the Chicana Bildungsromane under consideration in...

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Stacy Southerland (essay date 1997)

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,...

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Michael Hardin (essay date 1999)

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...

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Cordelia Candelaria (essay date 2002)

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...

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Further Reading


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.


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