This week we lost one of the true champions of Latino representation in Hollywood. Elizabeth Peña was without a doubt one of the most prolific Latina actresses in American film and television over the last 35 years, appearing in everything from big-budget blockbusters to modest Sundance sensations, with television credits ranging from Modern Family to L.A. Law and starring in the 1980s sitcom I Married Dora. Beginning her career at the tender age of twenty, the New Jersey-born Cuban-American was also a founding member of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) and even dabbled in television directing before her untimely passing on October 14, 2014 at the age of 55.
The daughter of an artistically-inclined family of Cuban émigrés, Peña studied at New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts alongside the likes of Ving Rhames and Esai Morales before getting her break in director Leon Ichaso’s 1979 feature El Super, where she played the daughter of Cuban exiles trying to make a life for themselves in Spanish Harlem. With over 100 credits to her name, it’s impossible to adequately summarize the life and work of Ms. Peña in the context of this article, but we take a look back at some of the highlights of a truly admirable career cut tragically short.
Director: Leon Ichaso
Peña’s second collaboration with director Leon Ichaso – who later went on to direct El Cantante – also happened to feature Rubén Blades in the starring role as Rudy Veloz: the small time Spanish Harlem crooner intent on “crossing over” into the mainstream American market. While the star of this low-budget was undoubtedly Rubén Blades – who showed some real skill as an actor – Peña shines as the faithful girlfriend left high and dry as soon as Veloz gets a taste of fame.
Director: Luis Valdez
This is where most of us first encountered Elizabeth Peña, and it was undoubtedly the role that helped skyrocket her young career. As Rosie Morales, Peña gave a stirring performance as the girlfriend of Ritchie Valens’ troubled half-brother, Bob, played her ex-classmate Esai Morales. With both actors showcasing serious chops in every scene, Rosie and Bob’s volatile relationship gave genuine emotional depth to this classic biopic.
Director: Adrian Lyne
Far from being pidgeon-holed into the Latino social-realist vein of La Bamba, Peña kicked off the nineties with this hallucinatory psychological thriller. Cast as a New York postal worked named Jez, Peña’s turn in the supporting role allowed Tim Robbins’ to shine as Jacob: a Vietnam vet plagued by terrifying hallucinations. While the film was a bit of a dud at the time, it later went on to gain cult status and ultimately influenced the Silent Hill series of films and video games later on in the decade.
Director: John Sayles
This South Texas murder-mystery is widely considered to be indie auteur John Sayles’ masterpiece. Playing the Mexican-American lover of a pre-romantic comedy era Matthew McConaughey, Peña spent a lot of time researching the daily life and cultural nuances of the local hispanic community. In a 1996 interview promoting the film, she acknowledged to the Dallas Morning News that despite being lumped together in one monolithic category, U.S. Latino groups are often vastly different from one another.
Director: Brett Ratner
After a decade acting in television and picking up supporting roles in films like *batteries not included and Free Willy 2, Peña was cast as LAPD bomb-expert Tania Johnson alongside the eminent comic-action duo of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. She may not have had the starring role, but with a box office total of over $250 million, Rush Hour was definitely the most far-reaching film of Peña’s long career.
Director: Maria Ripoll
Peña’s turn as the puritanical high school chemistry teacher in this modest family drama won her an ALMA award for Outstanding Supporting Actress back in 2001. While the film’s plot was perhaps a bit predictable, stellar performances from Peña and her on-screen sisters Jacqueline Obradors and Tamara Mello gave a touch warmth and sincerity to this Latinized adaptation of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman.
How the García Girls Spent Their Summer
Director: Georgina Riedel
She played a variety of roles, but Peña seemed to thrive in small, family dramas, and this multigenerational story of sexual awakening was pitch-perfect for the 46 year-old actress. After touring the festival circuit including Sundance, Rotterdam, and San Sebastián, How The García Girls Spent Their Summer brought Peña some serious indie cred to complement her earlier studio work.
Nothing Like the Holidays
Director: Alfredo De Villa
Alongside an all-star Latino cast including Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, and Luis Guzmán, Peña shined as the weary matriarch and would-be grandmother who announces she’s leaving her husband after 35 years of marriage. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s sure got heart.