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Rose Portillo celebrates DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

in Episode 11: Face The Darkness

Rose Portillo is a true artist. She’s an actress with a list of television and film credits going back to the sitcom Chico and the Man from the 1970s, but it’s her work on stage that is the most stunning. She created the role of Della in the World Premiere production of ZOOT SUIT here in Los Angeles in 1978, and went on to Broadway playing the role. In the recent revival, she came back in the role of Henry’s mother Dolores. Rose is also a graphic artist, a maker of mosaics, and an arts educator, but it’s her legendary parties honoring the Dia de los Muertos that I wanted to talk with her about.

Sadly, Rose won’t be hosting a party this year, but she is in the process of creating a public altar that will be on display at The Avenue Fifty Studio in Highland Park later this month. Will you follow Rose’s lead this Fall and take time to remember and honor your connection to family-- the saints and the bastards, too? It can be as simple as taking a trip though a photo album, and it can be as elaborate as your imagination will allow. But however you choose to remember those who’ve gone before, I wish you a joyful and healing process.

The extraordinary artist Rose Portillo talks with Keythe about the transformational power of art, and how that connects to her epic parties that celebrate the Day of the Dead. Listen here

Bio: Rose is a 40 yr Veterana of theater, film and television. Her career began with a lead role in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit creating the role of Della (original L.A. production, Broadway, and film), and more recently appeared in its LA revival as Mama Reyna. Other highlights in a long career include starring in the award winning film …and the earth did not swallow him based on the ground-breaking novel by Tomás Rivera; performing in the San Francisco Symphony’s production Peer Gynt, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; performing at Disney Hall with the LA Philharmonic in the 2-character play Mother Goose, and performing the lead role in Cherrie Moraga’s The Mathematics of Love at Brava Theater in San Fransisco. Her voice-over work includes narrating the award-winning documentary Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle by Phillip Rodriguez. She is currently gaining notoriety for her role in a Subaru commercial and her voice will appear role in an upcoming Disney feature animation.

As Associate Director of LA’s acclaimed theater company About…Productions (1992-2016), Rose partnered with Theresa Chavez on more than 9 critically acclaimed theater productions as co-author/co-director and actor. Other collaborators included Alejandro Escovedo, Luis Perez of Los Lobos, and many other well-known artists.

A respected master teaching artist, Rose also founded About…Production’s Young Theaterworks, creating programs which target youth in Continuation/Options schools and which have been featured in the LA TIMES and on NPR. In addition, she has developed program content for Shakespeare Center LA’s Will Power to Youth and Veterans in the Arts programs, and the California Institute of the Artsʼ Community Arts Partnership (CAP) at Plaza de la Raza, and LACER - all received the Nation’s Coming Up Taller Award.

At the invitation of Pomona College (2007-present), Rose designed, and continues to teach and direct ‘Theater with Young Audiences’ in which college students engage with middle and high school students from the city of Pomona to create original work and witness the power of theater to transform. She has also created devised work with youth through Pomona College’s P.A.Y.S. program and Pitzer College’s Native Youth to College program.

She has been a California Arts Council Artist-in-Residence recipient, Writer-in-Residence at the William Inge Center for the Arts and was the first Artist-in-Residence (with Theresa Chavez) at the University of California, Merced.

She is currently Master Artist for LA’s new Outside In Theatre where she will work with multi-generaltional members of Highland Park to build a new theater piece reflecting their community, their home.

Pictures from Rose's house below and above

Dia de Los Muertos - Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members.

The holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.

Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.

The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living.

Calavera means “skull.” But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. (look these up)

Todos somos calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our manmade trappings, we are all the same.

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough.

Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun.

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