Estela Portillo Trambley Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.