ALMA award winner and remarkable talent, Elizabeth Peña, opened doors for many Latino actors and actresses. The list of actresses for whom Peña paved the way is extensive. That list includes Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, Rosario Dawson, Eva Longoria, Roselyn Sanchez, Eva Mendes, and Sophia Vegara – many who are reduced to Hollywood’s sexy actresses and heroines. The sexy Latina originated with Peña who, in spite of her natural beauty, portrayed the intelligent, outspoken, and confident woman.
Peña lived a prolific life that ended too soon. After a brief illness at age 55, she died of natural causes on the evening of October 14th.
In expressed condolences, Latina actress Eva Longoria summated Peña’s footprint in the film and television industry as pivotal for the Latino community. What many of her fans can attest to is that through her body of work, she has touched people beyond race, age, and creed.
The trailblazing actress was transformative in every role earned, albeit having never assumed the lead. Elizabeth Peña thrived alongside Tony Plana and Nicholas Gonzales in Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd., portraying the sensible, responsible older sibling in a family of boxers. She was the invaluable bomb squad expert in Rush Hour, imperturbable therapist in Transamerica, and well-intentioned yet sultry seductress in The Incredibles.
Longoria says she was the Latina Actress. Elizabeth Peña was indeed the Latina groundbreaker being the fourth to join the Director’s Guild of America. She was an amorphous role model playing Salvadoran, Mexican, Columbian and Puerto Rican characters. However, in a 1996 interview with the Dallas Morning News, she acknowledged the differences among Latinos who, despite their nationalities, are categorized as a singular group. But she portrayed each charmingly, vibrantly, bubbly, funnily and with humanity.
Peña opposed playing Latin stereotypes. She claimed to have turned down plenty of “Miss Cuchifrito” role types. In her career, she would never compromise or succumb to desires for the stereotypes. Even though she worked to support her family and Latin roles were and scarce, she made dignity a priority.
As colleague and friend, Esai Morales remember, she did successfully sell herself but was careful to never sell herself short. He compared Peña to late actress, Lupe Ontiveros, both pursuing female characters that commanded dignity and respect.
Instead Peña held her own with the best of them including Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss, and Nick Nolte. She earned respect from many of her colleagues. For a job requiring a person to efficient, effective, punctual, and consistent for 16 hour or more everyday and with a camera shove in his or her face entire time is not easy to do. She not only did it but was successful at it for decades.
The stunning, hardworking actress had a spirit of encouragement for anyone with a dream. “Every choice you make will change your future. Choose wisely,” wrote Peña to a fan to whom she granted a signature on a headshot.
In continuing to open doors, Elizabeth Peña was one of the founding members of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA). A recent report provided by the University of Southern California found that a quarter of the moviegoing public is comprised of Hispanics, yet Latino characters account for less than 5 percent of all speaking roles in the past 6 years of theatrically released feature films. HOLA, an arts service and advocacy organization, is dedicated to expanding Hispanic presence in entertainment and media. The organization works to cultivate, educate and recognize emerging artists.
Mario-Francisco Robles reported the loss of his aunt, which was later corroborated by the actress’s manager, Gina Rugolo. In a post to Latino Review, Robles offered how she made everything she did look fun and easy when it was not always the case. He remarked kindly about his “Ñaña’s” drive and unmatched force and determination. “She never considered an alternative. Her singular focus was breathtaking, and awe-inspiring,” he wrote.
Those closest to the star share her nephew’s sentiment regarding Peña’s “sharp sense of humor,” “endless hunger for life,” and “never ending pursuit of happiness.” Pedro Pascal described her as sublime. Martha Plimpton tweeted how incredible an actress she was.
As a trailblazer “in a category of her own” for young aspiring actors and actresses, Elizabeth Peña’s extensive resume of 100 projects began in 1979 at the age of 20. The Cuban-American New Jersey native graduated from New York’s High School of the Performing Arts.
In her 35-year career, Peña earned 4 ALMA awards and an Independent Spirit Award. Her magnetic performances may have earned far more hearts than awards but no one can deny her raw talent. She delivered both consistently and outstandingly. Editor-in-chief Matt Zoller of RogerEbert.com suspects that is the reason news of her passing hits hard.
Elizabeth Peña’s friends and colleagues took to Twitter to express their shock and grief over the loss of the prolific talent and to pay her tribute. John Leguizamo, Zoe Saldana and Wilson Cruz were just a few. Orlando Jones says he was a longtime fan. Esai Morales recalls feeling “inexplicably heavy-hearted” on the day she passed having learned of the news the next day. She is described by Morales as a “truly gifted soul” with a “wicked sense of humor” who was always a pleasure to be around.
Peña recently finished production on first season of Matador for the El Rey network. She has another untitled project in post-production due out later this year. She is also known for her roles in Jacob’s ladder, La Bamba, Tortilla Soup and Contagious. Many are slighted by the remarkable life of Elizabeth Peña who opened doors for many in the Latin community.
By Charice Long