Lourdes Portillo, the Mexican-born, Chicana-identified filmmaker who crafted nuanced film and video works that center the emotions and circumstances of diverse Latinx experiences, died on Saturday, April 20 at her home in San Francisco. She died peacefully, surrounded by her three sons and a younger sister, according to a friend.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures presented a 10-day major retrospective of Portillo’s work in 2023, highlighted by a screening of her 2001 documentary Missing Young Woman (Señorita Extraviada)

Portillo was an unconventional, artful talent who combined filmmaking and activism. Oscar-nominated for her documentary feature Las Madres – The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, “Portillo’s works defy categorization, slipping easily between docu-fiction, experimental video, and the melodrama of telenovelas,” as described by the Academy Museum’s interim director, film program, K.J. Relth-Miller.

Born on November 11, 1943, in Chihuahua, Mexico, she immigrated with her parents and four siblings to Los Angeles.

In a 2023 Deadline interview, she talked about her work and desire to bring aspects of her background to light.

“I live in San Francisco, so there’s a certain activism that goes on here. And in those years – in the ‘70s – there were a lot of immigrants from Latin America, from Argentina, from Brazil, from Mexico, and there was a lot of injustice being perpetrated on them. And I, of course, tried to help in any way that I could.

“So, it all began in that form – a form of protest. And being in San Francisco, you’re kind of protected by the population here, at that time. And so [it] enabled me to go forward. And, also, I had the sensibility that I wanted to help people and I wanted to do it in a very artistic way, in a way that was really easier to understand and more sympathetic visually, shall I say.” 

She added, “I have a variety of missions. I live in the United States, I experienced racism in a very ugly way. I don’t like that, it’s awful. So, I want to do something about it. I feel that cinema is a great tool. It’s a wonderful tool because it can be served as almost anything – as a documentary, as a feature. I’m passionate about art. I like making films that kind of break barriers, that express things that haven’t been expressed.”

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