Esther Portillo

"The people I work with fled civil war in their countries. I tell them, if you can survive that, you can fight for your rights as a tenant." —Esther Portillo, 2003

The investigator from the LAPD’s RAMPART Division flashed his badge, showed his gun and asked the tenants who was behind the protest against the condition of their housing. After being taken on a tour of the apartments, the officer became convinced that he should be investigating the millionaire slumlord who owned the building. The organizer who turned that officer around was 25-year-old Esther Portillo.

By that time, Esther had already single-handedly organized tenants in seventeen buildings in Los Angeles, trained leaders and helped them found tenant unions in three different communities “She’s a marvel to keep it all together and mentor people along the way,” a co-worker says.

Uninhabitable housing, code enforcement and displacement are challenges Esther confronts every day of her six-day, sometimes seven-day week. Chanting, “Evict the rats, not the people,” Esther and the tenants she trained saved hundreds of units of affordable housing from gentrification or demolition and prodded the district into setting up a relocation division to ensure that tenants are not forcibly evicted and receive the relocation benefits to which they’re entitled.

Encouraging low-income tenants whose children were ingesting dangerous levels of lead to fight for environmental justice, Esther obtained her own license to test for lead, initiated a lead-poisoning lawsuit against a slumlord and got the LA Housing Authority and City Council to redirect city efforts toward detection and prevention, not just treatment.

“She’s really good at getting tenants to tell their stories,” says the Legal Aid Society’s Tai Glen. “It’s made a huge difference in our ability to bring lawsuits.” Realizing that many tenants were illiterate and could not keep the diaries needed to document their living conditions, Esther arranged for them to get tape recorders to record the evidence. She helped tenants complete the paperwork necessary to file complaints and shepherded them through court hearings.

The eldest daughter of Salvadoran migrants, Esther was born in Pico Union, a gateway to LA for thousands of Central Americans, many of whom, like her parents, fled civil war in their homelands. Growing up where where 70 per cent of the residents were foreign-born and nearly half live in one-bedroom apartments, housing as many as eleven people, inspired Esther’s work.

After high school, she went on to college at Cal Poly Pomona, where, elected to student government, she waged a successful fight to ban the sale of sweatshop products on campus and championed increased support to help low-income students threatened with dismissal for poor academic performance complete their education. A student of Saul Landau’s, she worked as Assistant Producer on his film, “Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos.”

After graduation, Esther joined the Coalition for Economic Survival and began working closely with the Inner City Law Center, advocates who understood the need not only to represent vulnerable tenants in court but also to give them the tools to change housing policy.

A year ago, Esther left Los Angeles for the barrios of San Bernardino, where she went to work at Libreria del Pueblo. Her new legal clinic, the first in the county to organize as well as represent tenants, already has more work than it can handle. “People here are not accustomed to protest their conditions or attend city council meetings,” she says, “but with time I hope that San Bernardino becomes a haven for new organizers and activists who will enrich the daily lives of the poor, and vice versa.” At 26, Esther is just getting started.

Esther Portillo Photo by Dorothea von Haeften