Rose Portillo ’75 Takes Final Bow at Pomona College

Rose Portillo '75 sits on a bench

Rose Portillo ’75 is many things—renowned thespian, writer, director, professor.

She portrayed the character Della Barrios in Luis Valdez’s 1978 Chicano play and subsequent film Zoot Suit, and she voiced Señora Guzmán in Disney’s 2021 film Encanto. (She also helped developed the role of Abuela Alma.)

And on this recent weekday, following an intense rehearsal, “Rose is tired,” she says.

A lecturer in Pomona College’s Theatre Department for 17 years, Portillo has earned her break, and at 70, “I have limited time on the planet,” she says, “and I still have things I want to accomplish in other areas of my life. I’m still healthy and I’m still energetic.”

“I need to take advantage of that and not wish I had.”

Portillo—whose career in theatre, film and television spans 40 years—retired from Pomona at the end of the school year, closing the book on a part of her life she’ll always hold dear.

At the advent of the Draper Center 17 years ago, Portillo was approached with an idea to introduce area youth to the performing arts. Rather than teach an acting class at Pomona, the alumna developed Theatre with Young Audiences, a course where Claremont Colleges students visit Pomona Unified schools to introduce teens to the performing arts.

As Draper’s first community engagement course, Theatre with Young Audiences provided college students “an authentic experience of building community with youth,” Portillo says. “You can use these tools of theater to create and initiate dialogue, build bridges, begin to understand and embrace our differences as well as our similarities, and have some serious fun along the way.”

For years, Portillo and her college students mentored groups at Fremont Academy of Engineering and Design in the city of Pomona, leading exercises, discussions and then collaborating with the youth in developing a work of theatre.

Even through the pandemic, Portillo continued her program virtually at several schools, creating small, recorded pieces.

Garey High School in Pomona welcomed Theatre with Young Audiences after the pandemic lockdowns, and while the principles of drama took some getting used to, English teacher Norma Ramos says students ultimately embraced this new way of using their bodies and voices.

Interest in the program boomed this past fall, as some 70 Garey students joined Portillo and her college apprentices.

Even Ramos felt inspired to step out of her comfort zone.

“Without Rose and her program,” she says, “I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to ask to teach a new drama elective here. The program didn’t just reach students, it reached me too.”

‘This is our story’

Theatre with Young Audiences culminates in an original play at the end of the school year that Portillo pens or edits using experiences participants have shared during group conversations.

The collaborative effort gives respect to all voices, Portillo says, “and no story is shared publicly without permission.”

Andres “Fluffy” Aguilar recalls Portillo using such a method years ago when he participated in the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS) as a high school student. “Rose would create something based on our own lives, our own stories,” he says. “She’d show how we’re all interconnected. That was powerful.”

Among her many skills, Aguilar adds, Portillo is masterful at modernizing classic works of art so marginalized voices are front and center.

“First-generation, low-income students don’t tend to talk about ourselves,” Aguilar says, “so when we do have the opportunity to, it is uncomfortable, but also gives us empowerment— ‘This is our story. This is what we’ve lived through, and this is how we use our perspective as we go through academia.’”

Once students see their personal connections to older texts, Portillo says, “the world grows larger, and youth see that their voice is just as important.”

Portillo too revealed much about her journey in those group settings.

“Rose’s willingness to share her professional life with students helps students view acting as a possible career choice for themselves,” Ramos says. “They see her acting, see her on TV and say, ‘If she can do it, I can too.’”

Portillo crafted one final play for Theatre with Young Audiences, a modern spin on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Last month, scores of Garey parents, friends and faculty, as well as Pomona College staff, students and former Theatre with Young Audiences participants, packed Allen Theatre to watch Portillo’s final cast and crew channel its collective energy to put on Out from Under, a look at how Romeo and Juliet’s parents failed them and how they could have played a more positive role in their lives.

Romeo and Juliet didn’t have to die, Portillo says. In Out from Under, protagonists Jewel and Roam-About do not.

“Young people have been a huge part of my life for a long time—much longer than I anticipated—and with great joy,” Portillo says. “There’s a part of me that knows I’m going to miss it, but as a friend has said, ‘There’s always a group of young people to work with.’”

Sparking dialogue

Portillo recalls her father taking her to see plays when she was a preteen.

While the two didn’t have the best relationship at the time, Portillo says they regularly discussed the complexities of certain characters, opening a line of communication between them.

“Part of his philosophy,” she adds, “was that the arts elevated you as a human being. When he started taking me to the theater, he had no idea what he was engendering.”

Portillo’s influence through Theatre with Young Audiences transcended disciplines.

Most of the college participants majored in something other than theatre, she says, but saw the course as an opportunity to explore the arts “and the power theater has to create communication, community and change.”

No matter their field of study, Portillo encouraged her students to see themselves as artists—conduits for a greater good.

“The stage offers an opportunity to contemplate different perspectives and experiences without being put on the spot,” she says. “We can watch a story play out and then talk about it. Our world also grows when we see ourselves and our community on stage.”

“Once you know you matter,” she adds, “you know others matters; you’re willing to listen more deeply because you’ve been heard.”

Aguilar, now the Draper Center’s assistant director of educational outreach, says Portillo “is the reason why I pursued the theatre part of my [college] career, because I’ve always used theatre as a tool for change and empowerment.”

Ahead of her final play, Portillo said few things brought her greater joy than watching soft-spoken teenagers use the performing arts to conquer their fears of speaking up, of taking up physical space, of changing the trajectory of their lives.

“Rose’s impact has been life-changing for so many people, and it’s not about theatre,” Aguilar says. “It’s about people finding their voice and finding who they want to be and how they can be that person in real life.”

“That’s her legacy—supporting students who may have felt they didn’t have a voice before, and now they’re living life proud of who they are.”