Estela Portillo Trambley, teacher and feminist author of books, poems, essays, and plays, was born on January 16, 1926, in El Paso, Texas. She was the oldest child of Francisco Portillo and Delphina (Fierro) Portillo. Her father was a mechanic, and her mother was a piano teacher, but Estela spent a considerable amount of her childhood with her grandparents, Julian and Luz Fierro, who were listed in a neighboring household on the 1930 census. Her grandfather was the proprietor of a store in the barrio. She maintained a positive attitude regarding the poverty that she witnessed as a child and later stated that “la pobreza nunca derriba el espiritu” (poverty never defeats the spirit). Growing up, Estela Portillo had a love for literature and was an avid reader. During her formative years, her diverse reading materials included English and American classics, poetry, and philosophy. She attended El Paso High School.
At age seventeen, Estela Portillo married Robert Trambley, an Anglo salesman; they had six children. While raising a family and working, she took courses at Texas Western College (now University of Texas at El Paso) and received a B.A. in English in 1956. She eventually obtained a master’s degree in English literature in 1977. From the late 1950s into the 1960s she taught in El Paso public schools, including the teaching of English at El Paso Technical High School, where she served as chair of the English department for six years. In 1972 she went into the field of mass communications and had a talk show on radio station KIZZ in El Paso. The program was politically-oriented. She then hosted a television show about arts and culture on KROD–TV in El Paso.
In the late 1960s Estela Portillo Trambley began her writing in the wake of the tragic death of her sixth child. Her one-year-old son Robert Keith Trambley passed away due to an adrenal gland infection. Her ensuing pain and numbness eventually compelled her to write, and she later recalled, “And I remember saying to myself in the months that passed, ‘I must take hold of what I have learned and apply it to what I know. I must write.’” She initially wrote a book of poetry, Impression of a Chicana. About that time she also became involved in founding the first bilingual theater—Los Pobres Bilingual Theater—in El Paso. In the early 1970s Trambley taught drama at El Paso Community College and was also a homebound teacher for the El Paso Public Schools. Her first play, The Day of the Swallows (1971), a modern tragedy that involves Chicana feminism and lesbianism, was highly successful and critically-acclaimed. Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975), a novella and collection of short stories, won the Premio Quinto Sol Award in 1975 and was the first such literary prize awarded to a woman. Sor Juana and Other Plays (1983) also earned national acclaim. Her play Blacklight earned second place at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Hispanic Playwrighting Competition in 1985.
Scholars have heralded Trambley as a pioneer writer in the field of Chicana feminism, and her works portray strong women characters that question their traditional and subordinate roles in society. From a Chicana perspective, her writings also reflect major issues of gender roles, sexuality, indigenous culture, and immigration—a main theme displayed in her novel Trini (1986). In the early 1980s Trambley was a director and actress in the local community theater at El Paso. She also wrote pieces on Hispanic history and culture for National Public Radio. Her plays had been staged at such universities as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Riverside. In 1995 she held the Presidential Chair in Creative Writing at the University of California, Davis. She died in El Paso on December 29, 1998.