Lourdes Portillo, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, died at her San Francisco home on April 20. She was 80 years old.

In her 40 years as a filmmaker, Portillo produced and directed 18 films, many of them focusing on the Latino, Mexican, and Chicano/a experiences, as well as on social justice issues.

Born on November 11, 1943, in Chihuahua, Mexico, Portillo immigrated with her parents and four siblings to Los Angeles. By 1970, she decided to make San Francisco her new home.

In a 2023 Deadline interview, Portillo talked about the influence of San Francisco on her life and how it impacted her work. “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.”

Lourdes Portillo, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, died at her San Francisco home on April 20. She was 80 years old. Photo: Antonio Scarlata

After joining the cultural renaissance in the Mission and in the city, Portillo landed a job as a first-camera assistant while part of a collective called Cine Manifest. In 1978, she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute.

With funds from the American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Award, Portillo produced her first film in 1979 called “After the Earthquake” or “Despues del Terremoto.” It was a short film based on the life of a Nicaraguan refugee living in San Francisco.

As Portillo continued down the pathway as an activist filmmaker, this led to the 1986 Academy Award and Emmy Award nominated documentary “Las Madres – The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” The film focused on the daily protests by the mothers of political prisoners who suddenly disappeared during the military dictatorship between 1976-1883. She co-created the film with filmmaker Susana Blaustein Muñoz.

Other notable Portillo films are “La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead” (1988), “Columbus on Trial” (1992), “The Devil Never Sleeps” (1994), “Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena” (1999), “Señorita Extraviada” (2001), “My McQueen” (2004), “Al Más Allá” (2008), and “State of Grace” (2020).

“Senorita Extraviada/Missing Young Woman,” a documentary about the disappearance of young women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, earned Portillo a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Before her death, Portillo was working on a film called “Looking At Ourselves,” which won a grant from the Sundance Institute.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, fellow filmmaker Soco Aguilar said: “She was a trailblazer — even up to the last minute. She was very strong — she was a warrior — and she was completely at peace and happy about all that she had done in her life.”

Portillo is survived by her three sons, Carlos, Karim and Antonio Scarlata; four siblings and five grandchildren.

¡Lourdes Portillo, Presente!