IN 1978, A YOUNG ACTOR fresh out of college got the role of her dreams. Rose Portillo ’75 was cast as Della Barrios in the then-new Chicano play Zoot Suit, written by one of her heroes, the father of Chicano theatre and founder of El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez.
Nearly four decades after her first audition for Zoot Suit, Portillo, now a lecturer in Pomona’s Theatre Department, found herself auditioning before Valdez one more time last year for the revival of this now-classic Chicano play, which ran from January to mid-March at the Mark Taper Forum.
“I auditioned in the same room I auditioned in 40 years ago with the same person I auditioned for 40 years ago and with the same person across the table from me from 40 years ago,” says Portillo. “So, you know, when I walked in the room, we just looked at each other and I said, ‘OK, I need to take a moment’—it’s very surreal.”
The play, written by Valdez, is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riots that occurred in early 1940s Los Angeles. The play tells the story of Henry Reyna and the 38th Street gang, who were tried and found guilty of murder, and their subsequent journey to freedom.
Zoot Suit premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in April 1978, and sold out in two days. The play debuted on Broadway the following year, and was turned into a feature film in 1981. Portillo, who played Della Barrios, Reyna’s girlfriend, was in every production. In this current run of Zoot Suit, Portillo will play the role of Dolores, Reyna’s mother.
Portillo was first introduced to Chicano theatre as a theatre major here in the early 1970s. “While I was at Pomona, I saw ‘La Gran Carpa de los Rasquachis’ that had a weekend performance at the Mark Taper Forum. It was a Teatro Campesino play and it resonated so deeply with me—it was one of those moments that you don’t know what you’re missing until you see it. So, I got on a committee to bring Luis Valdez—to bring El Teatro Campesino—to campus.” Luckily for Portillo, the committee’s efforts were successful and Valdez paid a visit to Pomona soon after.
Portillo, who is also the director of Theatre for Young Audiences, a program of Pomona College’s Draper Center for Community Partnerships, started writing and performing plays while still in elementary school. She was cast in everything that was produced on campus—from Tennessee Williams to the Shakespeare canon. And Portillo’s parents, who lived in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, came to see all of her performances.
It was at Pomona that Portillo first came to identify as a Chicana—a term her parents balked at in an era when the word had negative connotations for older generations like her parents, who rarely talked in-depth about their heritage. “On Parents Day, the Chicano Studies Department had a program and they read the poem ‘Yo Soy Joaquin’ and other Chicano poetry. I turned to my father, and he was weeping, and it was never an issue after that.”
Reclaiming her identity and finding her love for Chicano theatre helped Portillo as she built her career—giving her a voice when the roles for Latinas were nothing more than one-dimensional stereotypes.
When Portillo was cast for the role of Della in Zoot Suit, her agent let her know she wouldn’t be able to take the role because she had already committed to another project, a film.
Portillo’s response to her agent: “I told her, ‘That movie is a movie, and this is a dream. You’re not stepping on my dream. This is my dream. Make it happen.’ And she did.”
And her parents were right there beside her. Once the play moved to Broadway, her parents went to New York to accompany her, with her mother staying longer to soak in the city.
Fast forward to 2017, and Portillo’s mother will be there on opening night of the revival of Zoot Suit, nearly four decades after it first premiered in the same theatre in Los Angeles. “She’s 84. A lot of our parents are gone, but she’s still around. I think she would’ve killed Luis [Valdez] if I didn’t get the role.”
For Portillo, the opportunity to be part of Zoot Suit in 2017 is just as special as it was in 1978. “It’s very rare that you get to live a full circle within a play, but with such a piece of history—to be able to be part of that history again, there are just no words for it,” she says.
“It was timely when it happened. To see Mexicans on stage in original theatre doing a play about a Mexican-American story was earth-shattering and groundbreaking. We sold out before we opened, and to come back in this particular moment of our national history makes it all the more important again.”
“And personally, it’s so historic for me, to be able to be this age and, at this point in my career, to be able to physically and viscerally revisit this—wearing different shoes and being older and wiser, it’s just… It was a dream the first time; it’s a dream the second time.”