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Carla Portillo, First Salvadoran-born Actress on American Primetime Television

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Carla Portillo Salvadoran Actress
Photo: Sean Kenney

In 1983, Council For Positive Images and Meta/4 Productions’ founder, Terry Carter (the first Black news reporter and co-star of the original Battlestar Galactica television series), casts Carla Portillo at age 15 in the lead role as Liz for a dramatic television miniseries K*I*D*S. The acting role allowed her to sign with the now-defunct, but then top Hollywood children’s talent agency, Kelman/ Arletta and Associates. In 1985, K*I*D*S wins an Emmy Award for Best Series for Children and Youth.

Born in San Salvador, El Salvador in 1967, Carla immigrates to join her parents in Los Angeles in 1972. Raised in Hollywood, Carla attends the local public schools and quickly learns English. At Le Conte Middle School, she is a student in Mr. Robert Crumb’s drama class. Also, a well-known acting class for Hollywood scouts looking for young talent. When Terry Carter's production company held auditions at Le Conte, Carla didn't think much would come of it. She had always been overlooked at tryouts for bigger or lead roles in school plays. Undeterred, she auditioned for Terry Carter and lands the lead role in K*I*D*S.

Hollywood actors' trailer
Photo by Roxanne Quezada Chartouni

With countless auditions under her belt, Carla is rarely hired. Her “look” is unconventional for television. Her beloved agent, Toni Kelman who years before represented four of the six Brady Bunch kids, confirms this by sending Carla to auditions for any ethnic or non-ethnic roles alike.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, Carla lands a few speaking roles on primetime television. She plays Emita on Trapper John, M.D.–Strange Bedfellows (1986), a witness on Hunter–Playing God (1987), and Chata on her last acting role in 1988 on the TV series Police Story–Burn Out with leading actress, Lindsay Wagner. Carla also works on other television dramas like The Judge–a dramatized court show, and a daytime soap opera in a guest role. And for many years, visitors to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles watched an introductory video in which Carla played a student.

Her parents, however, lacked enthusiasm for the whole acting experience, even if it helped the family financially. They worried about Carla going astray or associating with the wrong Hollywood crowd. Their vision for her is to attend college, and keep a strong sense of family. Other concerns of theirs included the stereotypical roles available to her — the gang member’s girlfriend, or a troubled, suicidal, sometimes pregnant teenager.

Carla Portillo-Whitby talking with crew
Crew members and Carla Portillo on set during the filming of the NBC television series POLICE STORY, 1988 (Photo: Roxanne Quezada Chartouni)

Playing Liz was a role of a lifetime for Carla — not only because she was a regular American teenager one day, and the next a television actress — the role itself was ahead of its time. Broadcast on KCET, Los Angeles in 1984, K*I*D*S is created to teach and show diverse ethnicities in a positive light and focus on creating role models for school children. While Carla’s “look” deemed unconventional for Hollywood in the 1980s, she represented the growing, diverse Latinx population, highly underrepresented in film and television during that time—an issue that remains relevant today.

Photo by Steve Grayson

Carla did not seek another talent agent after she grew out of the children’s agency. She graduated from Fairfax High School in 1985 and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications - Radio, Television & Film. She made a career in creative services working her way up to Creative Director, successfully adding nearly 100 titles to her credit under Warner Bros., Rhino, Paramount and other studios for various Home Entertainment and digital marketing projects.

All that said, Carla is not the first Salvadoran to walk away from a Hollywood career, Maribel Arrieta in the mid-1950s walked away from a Hollywood contract — but Carla is the first Salvadoran-born actress on American primetime television.

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